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The only reason I typically eat at the mall is because I turn into a low-blood-sugar bee-yotch after schlepping shopping bags for too long on an empty stomach. (Forced exposure to Muzak doesn't help, either.) Feed me a tuna sandwich from Wildflower Bakery and I'm ready to scour the sale racks.
But all of a sudden, Scottsdale Fashion Square is a dining destination.
Sure, there are a few sit-down places there, but I'm not even thinking of those. I'm talking sliders — cheap, tiny, drive-across-town-they're-that-scrumptious mini-burgers that can be purchased only at Modern Burger.
7014 E. Camelback Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Region: Central Scottsdale
It's a take-out window, basically, but also a spot-on indicator of today's big trend: Steakhouses attracting budget-conscious diners with special burger menus.
Everybody's doing it.
The steakhouse in question is ultra-chic Modern Steak, one of 2009's highest-profile new restaurants (not only because it's a Sam Fox restaurant, but because it's situated in the long-awaited Barney's wing at Fashion Square). Modern Burger is a cheerful counter just past its main dining room.
Other places are in on the burger action, too, although they're full-service: Bourbon Steak, J&G Steakhouse, and Don & Charlie's, and I hit up all of them over the course of a few calorie- and cholesterol-laden days of shameless hedonism.
So back to Modern Burger. Outstanding. Twin sliders were the only burger option when I stopped by for a quick lunch, but that was fine with me as soon as my order came up a few minutes later.
When I opened the lid of the compact cardboard box, I was struck by a buttery, meaty, mouthwatering aroma. Probably a bad move to tease myself that way, because I hadn't even found a seat yet and the few chairs next to the counter were already taken. I hustled over to grab one of the comfy seats in the middle of the mall.
Did I even chew those burgers? I have no idea; I ate those babies so fast. Between the succulent beef patties (nice and pink inside), the fragrant brioche buns, grilled onions, thousand island dressing, shredded iceberg, and that gooey, salty, processed American cheese that makes fast food so irresistible (my friend calls it "ghetto cheese," and if you've ever eaten at McDonald's, you know what I mean), I was too blissed-out to pace myself. A side order of thick-cut fries, served in a paper bag, made it a filling meal.
While Modern Burger was the epitome of simplicity, the burgers sold in the lounge at Fairmont Scottsdale's Bourbon Steak were over-the-top naughty.
The term "food porn" usually refers to drool-worthy photos of food, but to me, food porn is mentally replaying my first bite of a customized burger I concocted one night: a griddled sesame bun barely holding a dripping-down-my-hands beef patty, topped with silky bourbon caramelized onions, black truffle aioli, and a fried organic egg that burst in my mouth when I sank my teeth into it. Mmm.
There are a handful of signature burgers available, but it's so much more fun to consider the possibilities with the make-your-own option. Bored with beef? How about lamb, salmon, or falafel patties? Half a dozen kinds of cheese, just as many kinds of gourmet greens, and toppings like housemade pickles or harissa aioli keep it eclectic.
As if the burger weren't luscious enough, I sipped a creamy "adult milkshake" (fittingly, it was a bourbon malt with Jim Beam and salted caramel), while nibbling on hot, crispy duck fat fries. Served as a trio — herbed fries with spicy ketchup, truffle fries with truffle aioli, and paprika fries with barbecue sauce — they were just as exotic as the burger.
Another upscale spot, J&G Steakhouse at The Phoenician, does burgers in the lounge, but the setup is more streamlined. Instead of a decadent checklist, you only have to decide: burger or no burger?
The price includes a beer, and considering the noteworthy rundown of craft brews — Hitachino Nest White Ale, Avery IPA, Chimay Grand Reserve, and many more — it makes this swanky spot surprisingly accessible. And did I mention the incredible view? Whether you get the burger or splurge on a prime rib eye in the main dining room, you can still get a twinkling eyeful of the Valley.
There nothing fussy about the J&G burger, although it was clearly deluxe, from the glossy, golden bun to the thick, perfectly cooked beef. A swipe of tangy Russian dressing, melted cheese (I chose white cheddar), butter lettuce, tomato, housemade pickles, and a neat little stack of onion rings on top turned it into an edible sculpture, which I squished down into something I could fit into my mouth. A bowl of fries paired with it seemed like the high-end version of Mickey D's, and I mean that in a good way — they were skinny, crispy, salty, and hard to stop eating.
While I appreciated J&G's confidence in its singular burger vision, I was still happy to browse the goodies on Don & Charlie's Burger Bar menu, available only in the side lounge just off the entranceway of this old-school shrine to steaks, ribs, and America's greatest pastime. If you've never been here, you have to see it to believe it — there is baseball memorabilia in every direction.
After nibbling on the freebie plate of chopped liver that comes with every meal at Don & Charlie's, I sampled the onion-stuffed Old Fashion burger (slathered with special sauce that tasted a heck of a lot like Russian dressing), as well as the Bleu Royale burger, dripping with creamy blue cheese dressing and topped with skinny, crunchy onion strings. Both were well-crafted, tucked into sesame-sprinkled buns.
Really, these are burgers I could eat all the time. The price is right, there are 10 varieties, and in keeping with the baseball theme, the sturdy homemade fries served alongside them sort of reminded me of what you'd find at a small-town concession stand during the seventh-inning stretch — perfectly fried, hand-cut potatoes in all of their naked glory.
If this is what gets people in the door more than steaks do these days, more power to them.