217 James St., Seattle WA 98104 (map); 206-724-0599; builtburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Those seeking a traditional burger should look elsewhere; these are experiments in mixing meats and ingredients in the name of emulation
Want Fries with That? Mos def. Hand-cut, well-salted, and mostly crisp, they're leagues better than the dense, mushy potato beignets. And the sweet potato fries are some of the best I've had anywhere
Prices: 6-ounce Superb Trio, $7.50; tasting plate of three 3-ounce mini-burgers, $11.95
BuiltBurger is not for the Josh Ozerskys of the world. And I'll admit, I'm kind of a "Josh Ozersky of the world." I believe the less you fuss with a burger, the fewer toppings and seasonings you pile onto (and into) the patty, the less your chances of screwing something up. There are always exceptions when attempted by masters of the medium, but my general rule is the further you get from ground beef and cheese on a bun, the closer the burger gets to jumping the shark.
Owner David Makuen clearly believes that straight-up ground beef is best served as an empty canvas upon which myriad ingredients—especially other meats—can be melded like colors on a palette to form something that's by turns art or sacrilege, depending on who you talk to. From his blink-and-you'll-miss-it operation in Pioneer Square, which began as a patty wholesaler, Makuen puts out food that, for better or worse, shuns the burger status quo.
Even the most basic and recognizable burger here, the Superb Trio, is a testament to that philosophy. Three different cuts of beef (a secret proprietary blend) contribute to the six-ounce patty, but BuiltBurger is not content to just salt-and-pepper the outside and leave it at that. Nay, a bite into the meat reveals a cornucopia of seasonings, including shallots, parsley, thyme, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Say what you will about the integrity of the beef being compromised here, but you can't call it bland. You can, however, call it overseasoned. It's tasty enough, but the seasonings take center stage instead of complimenting the beef. That's a cardinal sin in my book, but as long as you go in expecting a burger that tastes more like meatloaf, it's hard to hate on it.
One of the better ideas to come out of BuiltBurger is the option of sampling three of their burgers in miniature form, with patties shrunk from six ounces to three. While this does leave the patties less juicy than their larger iterations, it's a good way to sample a few of their wilder menu items without a full-sized commitment.
The Supreme Pastrami was my favorite of the three I sampled, although it was inundated with far too much sauerkraut (rectified by simply scraping some of it off). It really does taste like the Reuben it's trying to emulate. Beef, braised pastrami from Seattle's Market-House Meats, diced dill pickles, and a house-made blend of mustards comprise the patty, all in perfect balance with each other. The only real problem here (besides the easily-remedied glut of sauerkraut) was the bun. It's too substantial, too thick for the amount of meat, and the top half often slipped off the rest of the sandwich. You're also left with far too much of it at the end of the burger. Using something softer, and then briefly steaming it, would really make these mini-burgers shine.
Mexican chorizo, roasted poblano peppers, and cotija cheese meld with beef for the Magnificent Chorizo burger, which is finished by a generous scoop of refreshing cilantro lime slaw. I liked that I could taste the beef and pork as separate components and the mild spiciness laced throughout the meat.
The Thrill BBQ Pork jacks up the heat even more. Chipotles, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers get mixed with a blend of ground pork and pulled pork slow-roasted in barbecue sauce that, when topped with pickles and an Old Bay-spiced slaw, tastes like it came straight off your backyard Weber.
On the sides front, the potato and sweet potato fries were delightful. BuiltBurger attempts the very difficult task of serving crisp hand-cut fries, and very nearly pulls it off by double-frying them. The regular fries are salty and cut thin enough that most form the ideal fry architecture: crunchy outside, fluffy inside. True, they're perhaps a tad overcooked, but avoiding flaccid fries is a sacrifice I'm glad they're making. Most of the sweet potato fries get the same treatment, resulting in some of the best I've had anywhere, but some were cut too thickly to benefit from their cooking method, leaving them soft. Still, most were thinly sliced, which you don't see often enough with sweet potato fries.
Didn't much see the point of the potato "beignets." The crunchy golden brown shell hides an orb of bland mashed potato that was texturally off-putting, like biting into a deep-fried grub. They were salvaged by a tasty trio of dipping sauces: chipotle ketchup, sweet chili, and poblano cilantro. The sweet chili is a real winner, and went well with all three sides.
A legitimate question to ask would be, why not just eat the foods these burgers are trying to replicate instead of settling for a bizarre amalgam? There really is no good answer other than to reply...why not? Sure, it's a gimmick, and it's not for everyone (and indeed, I'm not champing at the bit to return anytime soon), but it's fun tasting the experiments of BuiltBurger's mad scientists. Er...chefs.