Thousand-degree coal-fired ovens — supposedly the only ones of their kind in the U.S. — are a unique kitchen feature at The Grind, a new gourmet burger spot/watering hole at 40th Street and Camelback.
But you know what would really set this place apart from the pack?
3961 East Camelback Road
602-95-GRIND (47463), www.thegrindaz.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday
Charred chicken wings:$9
Sweet and spicy burger: $10
Sweet potato fritters: $5
Bread pudding: $6
These days, upscale burgers are literally everywhere. Late last year, I wrote a column about how fancy steakhouses are getting in on the racket, and at that time, I thought the market couldn't possibly be any more saturated with beefy juices. But more hamburger joints have opened since then, and more are in the works across town.
Competition is fierce. The choices are overwhelming, even a little exhausting. If you're thinking of specializing in burgers, prepare for a lot of groaning, eyeball-rolling, and scrutiny.
Still, I mustered up some genuine excitement for The Grind because it's an indie business in a great location, headed by a chef whose former restaurant I really enjoyed: Matt McLinn, of the late Methode Bistro in Scottsdale.
And truly, from my experience, the best cure for burger fatigue happens to be an excellent burger.
That's what I had the first time I visited this place. I ordered the sweet and spicy burger, topped with a mouthwatering combination of candied jalapeños and fried ratatouille, pungent roasted garlic aioli, and a heap of fresh watercress.
My friend got the peppercorn crust burger, embellished with charred onions, roasted garlic, watercress, and crispy matchstick fries. Both beauties were perfectly medium-rare and just dripping with flavorful juices. We were so impressed that we wanted to lick our plates. They're really on to something here.
The folks behind the restaurant transformed the old Soma space into a very stylish hangout, complete with snug booths, sexy lighting, and a long, gleaming bar that, in just a little over a month, has already become a favorite of Arcadia night owls. There isn't much to say about the modest beer selection, although they serve a slew of classic cocktails, as well as local Sonoran root beer on tap.
And once the kitchen gets a handle on things, I can see The Grind becoming as big a destination as Delux in its heyday.
Clearly, they're not there yet. Last week, I tried the peppercorn crust burger again, and it was closer to medium-well — a serious disappointment. Likewise, the pressed chicken sandwich, reminiscent of a Cuban sandwich with Virginia ham, Swiss cheese, and charred onions, was dry. It could've used a more generous smear of whole-grain mustard aioli to give it some flavor. Also odd was the fact that the sandwich wasn't pressed but rather served in a standard (though very tasty) bun.
There were a couple more head-scratchers. The "entrée of the day" on the chalkboard was barramundi with olive tapenade and fried peppers. When it landed on the table, I was surprised to see it in sandwich form, which was not explained up front. While the fish had an unpleasant smell, the flavor was fine. What didn't appeal to me was the strong green olive taste dominating the dish.
On the flip side, a "crisp" pork sandwich lacked salt, not to mention crispiness. As a simple pulled pork sandwich, it wasn't bad — I just think this was a problem with the menu description.
I had no complaints about the delicious steakhouse BLT burger, which teamed a succulent grilled patty with housemade bacon, a slice of ripe tomato, iceberg lettuce, charred onions, and savory housemade steak sauce. Even the token vegetarian-friendly item, a grilled portobello burger, had a meaty sort of appeal, with fried zucchini, a fat, earthy 'shroom, and garlic aioli for flavor, and watercress and ricotta salata for cool contrast.
Props are owed to McLinn for mixing up the menu as he goes along. Duck-fat fries sounded great, but they were woefully undercooked, greasy potato slabs in a tiny casserole dish. On my last visit, I was happy to see them replaced by scalloped potatoes, oozing with melted cheddar and Swiss.
Herbed homestyle potatoes were more along the lines of what I was hungry for — fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside, and simple. I also enjoyed creamy blobs of mashed sweet potato served as fritters, which resembled mini-croquettes.
The Grind's mixed greens salad was decent, topped with roasted tomato and blobs of baked ricotta salata, but a more interesting starter was a plate of succulent, mesquite-grilled chicken wings — I loved the distinctively tangy dipping sauce, and ignored the useless microgreens and fried onion slivers that came on the side. A small wheel of rosemary roasted cheese, paired with fresh strawberry relish, enabled me to eat an embarrassing amount of cheese in a very short amount of time.
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Burgers and booze didn't leave much room for sweets, but the chocolate bread pudding with bourbon crème Anglaise was worth a final rally — bits of molten chocolate were the reward for my endurance.
How the malted hazelnut chocolate torte made it on to the same menu, I'll never understand, because it didn't even taste like chocolate. Two bites, and I was done. Meanwhile, warm miniature doughnuts drizzled with salted butterscotch were clever, cute, and gone in a minute.
There was a lot to like about The Grind. Now if only I could have that same thrilling burger experience as my first, I would be one happy (and, eventually, fat) camper.
Try, try again.