Keep it Simple at Monkey Burger in Tucson

[Photographs: Rita Connelly]

Monkey Burger

5350 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson AZ 85711 (map); 520-514-9797; monkeyburgerrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: Good beef gets bogged down with too many toppings
Want Fries With That? The fries aren't bad, but go for the housemade potato chips
Price: Kitchen Sink, $9; True Blue, $8.75; Bare Bones, $8
Note: Monkey Burger gives a 10 percent discount for those in the military, a nod to the many customers from the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base

Monkey Burger has legions of fans, and perusing the menu one can see why people flock to this midtown spot. Here you'll find a plethora of burger choices with numerous toppings in interesting combinations, served up with friendly service in a convivial, casual atmosphere.

Unfortunately, those combinations don't always work. But first, the good: the burgers get off on the right foot with the beef. The 1/3-pound patties are hand-formed daily from 80/20, grass-fed Angus beef and seasoned with a secret signature blend (the kitchen wouldn't even offer a clue). All three burgers I ordered were charbroiled past the requested medium, but they were still juicy and moist with a nice loose texture and that wonderful flavor that can only be achieved from time under a flame. Indeed, some the edges have a fine, almost lacy crispiness.

The buns were also a highlight. Specially made by local bakery Bakehouse Bread Company, they were light and buttery and were toasted to a golden brown with crusty edges.

But then came the toppings. Granted, with a name like Kitchen Sink ($9) you'd expect a mass of toppings, and in that regard the Kitchen Sink doesn't scrimp. French fries, bacon, American cheese, pickle spears, sun-dried tomatoes, and shredded lettuce were piled high. But the only items that retained their true flavor were the bacon and pickle spears—overly so in the case of the pickles, which were cut too large to eat comfortably in the burger. The cheese and small shreds of sun-dried tomatoes got totally lost, the lettuce wilted, and the otherwise tasty bun fell apart. If I had built the burger I would've used more cheese, thicker tomato slices, and thinner pickle slices, and I would've put the shredded lettuce at the top of the burger instead of the bottom to prevent it from getting soggy.

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The True Blue ($8.75) didn't fare much better. The toppings included blue cheese, grilled tomatoes, caramelized onions, and romaine lettuce. While grilled tomatoes are a great idea in theory, the grilling turned them watery. And like the American cheese on the Kitchen Sink, the blue cheese was almost indiscernible.

My opinion of Monkey Burger turned around when I tried the basic Bare Bones burger ($8), only topping it with cheddar. Once I bit into it I understood why people raved about Monkey Burger. You could really taste the beefiness, the seasonings, and that lovely char flavor. I'd recommend going this route instead of ordering a burger piled with toppings.

All burgers come with the housemade chips, but for a small fee ($1 to $1.75) you can substitute one of the other sides: french fries, sweet potato fries, fried pickles, house salad, or corn on the cob. Out of the french fries, the fried pickles, the sweet potato fries, and the house chips, my favorite was the chips. They had a true potato flavor and were nicely crispy. The regular fries were merely okay; they would've benefitted from a little more time in the fryer. The waffle-cut sweet potato fries might've been better had they been hotter. The fried pickles, like its mates, were just so-so, even with the Russian-style dressing on the side.

No doubt part of the attraction at Monkey Burger is the convivial atmosphere and friendly service.The casual setting of counter service, exposed ceilings, and quirky, colorful artwork add to the mix. Everyone will feel welcome whether you're with a large group of friends or on a cozy lunch date.

Would I return? Maybe, but I'd stick with the Bare Bones Burger so I could enjoy the best of the beef.

About the author: Rita Connelly lives, eats, and writes in Tucson, Arizona. In her travels, she has been known to bring home home souvenirs that are usually food related from Canadian maple syrup to the famous Danish pastry known as kringle to handmade pizza. Read about her exploits on her Facebook page, The Well-Fed Foodie.

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