Charlotte, NC: Burgers + Sushi = Unexpected Greatness at The Cowfish
4310 Sharon Road, Charlotte NC 28211 (Map); 704-365-1922; thecowfish.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A sushi and burger bar that does both exceptionally well... and even mixes the two with surprising success
Want Fries with That? The shoestrings are plentiful but may need an extra hit of salt
Price: The Taste Explosion, $14; Boursin Burger, $11
During a recent weekender to Charlotte, my hunt for a burger worth reviewing proved more difficult than anticipated. One promising place was closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Another packed it in every day at 3 p.m. Several joints were all about nostalgia for longtime locals, but seemed somewhat sketchy if the goal was an objectively awesome burger.
With barely 24 hours to spend in the city and a short window of not-otherwise-committed time to work with, my options were limited. One of the few restaurants to fit my tight schedule turned out to be The Cowfish. I went, figuring I'd at least be able to report on a goofy gimmick gone horribly wrong. Let's be honest: a self-proclaimed sushi-and-burger bar set on the fringes of an upscale mall could easily have disaster written all over it. Instead, I got one of the most memorable burger experiences I've had in a while, and left wondering how soon I could justify a return trip to The Queen City.
Now, my palate has never expanded to include sushi, so this was heading into uncharted waters. But The Cowfish felt exactly how I imagined all swanky sushi bars to be.
It was loud and dimly-lit and brightly-colored and way hipper than I am. Serious-looking chefs were hunched over exotic-looking ingredients and wielding sharp-looking knives. There were touch screens with video games built into the bartop. On the walls, giant bento boxes were filled with sake bottles and oversized plastic-prop prawns and TVs displaying aquarium screen savers (when it's not an NFL Sunday).
Between me and the glass case full of fluorescent-lighted raw fish were tiny bowls and plates I'm unaccustomed to dealing with, a pair of chopsticks, and a thick ten-page menu. Inside, amidst an entire page of sushi and a whole page of burgers, I found this:
I'm all for turning a genre on its ear, but doing sushified treatments of non-sushi food items seemed like it could come off as dangerously blasphemous to sushi fanatics...and downright weird to sushi teetotalers. But I decided to follow the menu's advice, "open my mind," and sample the closest thing I could find to true cheeseburger sushi: The Taste Explosion Roll ($14).
Admittedly, it was drop-dead gorgeous. Each of those twelve bite-size morsels features seasoned Angus, applewood bacon, and jalapeños, wrapped up in a roll of seaweed and sushi rice, then coated in tempura flakes, topped with a slice of marinated Roma tomato and shredded pepper jack cheese, and baked until golden brown. It's finished with a dab of cashew cilantro pesto and plated on an artful zigzag of spicy cream sauce. After fumbling about with the chopsticks for a few minutes, I dove in, fully expecting my virgin "sushi" experience to be about 97 kinds of nasty.
Yes, a completely unfair assumption. But The Taste Explosion Roll is not really a burger, and it's not really sushi, so I just assumed it would be...not really good. And I was really wrong. It was unlike anything I've ever had, but with just enough of that "essence of cheeseburger" to be strangely familiar.
I fully expected to eat one or maybe two pieces, tops—enough to get a baseline reading for journalistic purposes—and then move on. I polished off that entire plate with a smile on my face and a disbelieving shake of my head. Intricately-layered flavors hit all the expected "burger" notes, with the rice even standing in for the bun more admirably than I would have guessed. This may not be true sushi*, but I could definitely get fanatical about it.
* As for the true sushi, I asked a couple of gents sitting near me how it was, as they were methodically making their way through that portion of the menu. Turned out the pair of chefs made a 90-mile drive specifically for the sushi at The Cowfish, which they enthusiastically referred to as "the real deal." I can't speak authoritatively about octopus and eel, but that's enough of an endorsement for me.
But this sushi joint also gets talked about pretty widely as a contender for Best Burger in Charlotte honors. The menu lists almost twenty, with a build-your-own section of over fifty toppings, cheeses, and sauces. I went with the Boursin Burger ($11).
All of the burgers at The Cowfish are half-pound patties of Meyer Natural Angus, with the option to double the beef for an extra five bucks. The Boursin adds a liberal slathering of the namesake garlic/herb cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled onions. It's given an underpatty layer of lettuce and tomato, tucked into a toasted brioche bun, and served alongside your choice of sides.
Wow, my shoestring fries were absurdly plentiful. (Don't even want to think about an equivalent-sized pile of bacon coleslaw or fried pickles...) I didn't come close to finishing them off, though they were excellent. I should point out, however, that while the menu sold them as "house seasoned," I found the seasoning on mine to be extremely subtle to the point of nonexistent.
I requested a medium rare burger. For a kitchen that specializes in a category of food that's not cooked at all, The Cowfish clearly knows how to grill some beef. My burger showed an incredible rosy pink and was exceptionally juicy. The exterior didn't have much in the way of color, and when I tested a pinch of plain beef, I thought it could use a touch more salt and pepper. But when combined with the rich Boursin, earthy 'shrooms, and punchy onions, this burger as a whole packed a wallop of flavor.
While my Burgushi was actually called the Taste Explosion, it was the burger that blew up, the patty slip-sliding away in a gush of creamy cheese spread and heavily-lubricated veggies. But, hey, I won't nitpick over style points; this was a legitimately outstanding burger and made me curious as to some of the other crazy creations, with names like The Jalapeño Popper Show-Stopper, The Arnold Hamandegger, The Reuben Kulakofsky, and their peanut-butter-fried banana-and-bacon one-pound gutbomb called The Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love.
So yeah, Charlotte's best burger may indeed come from a sushi place. For sure, the best sushi I've ever had just happens to come from a burger joint. And I am now officially looking for reasons to go back to Charlotte to have them both again.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.