Gentle Ben's Brewing Co.
865 E. University Boulevard, Tucson, AZ 85719 (map); 520-624-4177; gentlebens.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: Unique burgers seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, chipotle chiles, and more are good for the neighborhood
Want Fries With That? Fries come with the burger, but they're nothing special
Price: The Diane, $8.95; The Western, $8.95
Gentle Ben's has long been a part of the University of Arizona experience. From its beginnings as a student hangout to its current incarnation as a brew house, Ben's has always been a go-to kind of place—a place you could take your parents or meet friends after a hard day of studying. Even though their burgers don't quite measure up to the final four placement in the Arizona Daily Star's city-wide burger contest last fall, I can see why their burgers are some of the most popular items with the college crowd.
Gentle Ben's hand-pattied, 6.5-ounce burgers are made from a blend of Choice or Prime Angus chuck and brisket that's ground in-house, with a fat content of 20 to 22 percent. Before being ground, the beef sits overnight in a chipotle marinade of Worcestershire sauce, chipotle chiles, water, salt, and pepper; after it's ground, the marinade gets mixed into the beef. The burgers get a final dose of kosher salt and coarse pepper right before being cooked on a flat top to "medium rare or to your liking." All burgers come with shredded lettuce and tomato slices and are served on toasted ciabatta buns.
Even though I ordered my burgers medium they came out closer to well done. Thankfully, the extra time on the flat top didn't detract from the moderate juiciness. The beefy flavor came through, accompanied by a hint of smoky chipotle and piquant Worcestershire. These burgers might not appeal to purists who like their patties unadulterated and purely beefy, but they have other things going for them: they're savory, tangy, and moist. I wish they had a better sear, though.
The Diane ($8.95), touted on the menu as "the legendary Tucson burger," is topped with a mix of thickly sliced mushrooms and thinly sliced onions slow cooked in red wine, beef stock, garlic, and parsley, and blanketed in a layer of gooey, melted Swiss cheese. The onion's sweetness, intensified by the slow cooking, complements the savory mushrooms well. Overall, the meltingly tender mushroom/onion mix nicely balances the meaty patty and gives a pop of garlic now and then, making for a burger that's as tasty as it is messy. (And if you're looking for a beer to go with it, I recommend Ben's India Pale Ale—hoppy, clean and crisp.)
But the Western ($8.95) is more to my liking. It's topped with several sliced of crispy bacon, generously portioned cheddar, tangy housemade barbecue sauce, and, the best part, fried onions. Superbly crunchy and mildly sweet and salty, the fried onion bits make this burger stand out. They're like the onions you might find on green bean casserole but crunchier and more flavorful.
The ciabatta buns are softer and airier than you'd expect from something called ciabatta. Nevertheless, they held up to all the ingredients in both burgers.
All burgers come with a choice of cottage cheese or french fries, or you can upgrade to beer-battered fries for an extra 75¢. I can't say the fries or the onion rings were anything special—they're from an outside source—but the servings were generous. (As for why they offer the unconventional side of cottage cheese, according to the kitchen manager, there's no real reason. Or maybe the reason got lost in time. If I had to guess, I'd say it's a throwback to the old-fashioned diet plate that was popular way back when Ben's opened.)
Gentle Ben's is not a destination burger joint, but for a casual, reasonably priced meal in the area you can't beat it. I would've expected it to rank lower in the Arizona Daily Star's Burger Madness contest—I didn't find it nearly as good as the runner up winner, Fini's Landing—but maybe its placement was due to the numerous Ben's fans and not a true reflection of a burger lover's preference.
Ben's has a sister restaurant, Barrio Brewery, where all the beers are brewed. The menus are similar but Barrio is in the site of a former warehouse so the atmosphere is a little more rustic.
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.