This whole burger trend has really gotten out of hand.
Whatever happened to a nice, juicy hamburger, big enough to hold with both hands, and cooked just the way you like it? That's a simple, sublime experience that really shouldn't be messed with.
But no, somebody had to go and tweak a classic. I appreciate attempts at creativity if the results are impressive, but if it only leads to mediocrity, well, why bother? Give me old-fashioned any day.
That's how I feel about Stax Burger Bistro, a stylish new spot on Scottsdale Road that promises so much more than it delivers.
The place looks nice enough, with handsome weathered flagstone walls, glossy white and brown banquettes, glowing orange panels and a flat-screen TV behind the bar, an outdoor patio, and lots of mod white chairs throughout. It's Arizona retro meets plastic-fantastic futurism, and pretty comfy to boot.
As for the crowd, it's mostly trendy twentysomethings huddles of beefy dudes in T's and flip-flops at some tables, groups of long-haired, tank top-clad girls at others. The visible gender divide in the dining room screams Scottsdale pick-up scene, and as a watering hole for the young and single, Stax is doing just fine.
But it's not destination dining unless you're on your way home from Axis-Radius and you need some grub to soak up all those cocktails you've been sipping on the dance floor.
The shtick at Stax is mini-burgers smaller than full-sized, but heftier than a slider. There are seven different patties, including beef, buffalo, and even ostrich, plus a variety of cheeses and toppings, from jalapeño aioli to spicy corn relish. You can put together custom burgers, or pick from nine unique "Stax Style" combinations. They run about five bucks apiece, and depending on how hungry you are and how many side dishes you get, you could eat two or three.
Well, I tried all of them (some more than once), and in general, I was less than thrilled.
My biggest beef with the burgers at Stax is the size. Sure, they're cute, and somewhat novel, but patties this small don't lend themselves to precise cooking. I took it as a bad sign when, on multiple visits, I was never asked how I wanted my burger cooked.
I went ahead and told them medium-rare anyway, just to see what turned up. In some instances, it was a lot closer to medium-well, and in a couple of others, it was flat-out rare. For example, my friend's Stax Style beef burger was nicely prepared but had lackluster toppings (cheddar, lettuce, caramelized onions, and bland sautéed mushrooms), while my lamb burger, flavorfully embellished (peach-mango-mint chutney, lettuce, provolone, chives, and pickled shallots), was raw inside.
Seriously, I would like this place so much better if I could get a regular-sized burger, properly cooked something juicy and substantial. Some of the Stax Style concoctions were pretty good, including the zesty turkey burger with grilled pineapple, pico de gallo and guacamole, as well as the Moroccan lamb with feta, tomatoes, and tabbouleh. Then again, neither of those would satisfy my burger craving, if it came down to it. They're more like exotic sandwiches.
A couple of 'em I could completely do without. The salmon burger, with lemon, green onion, wasabi crème fraîche, and pear-apple salad, was inexplicably boring, with no wasabi kick whatsoever. And the veggie burger, made with quinoa and black beans, was inedible, a soft, pasty blob that no amount of garlic aioli could save.
Side dishes were even worse. How hard is it to screw up fried food? Who knows how, but they've figured it out at Stax. Onion rings were so hard and crunchy they flew apart into chunks when I bit into them, while the sweet potato fries were overcooked to the point that they tasted almost bitter. Amusingly, the tater tots were perfectly crisp and golden, but they still tasted like something straight out of the freezer section at Safeway.
The grocery store came to mind again when I ordered potato salad. Truly, the stuff that landed on the table was beyond lame, like the sludge you can order from the deli counter. Veggies with tzatziki turned out to be a half-assed platter of tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and baby carrots that looked like they came straight out of a bag, and the tzatziki was a weak, seemingly garlic-free yogurt sauce. As for the flavorless mac 'n' jack, well, I think I would've been happier if the waitress had brought me a bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
But I doubt my waitress would've cared. Or, should I say, waitresses there were two people waiting on my table during one visit, and still we had to endure unfilled drinks and undelivered dishes. Half the service, quadruple the attitude. I wish that the chipper young guy who ushered us to our table had waited on us instead.
Back to the food, specifically salads. The caprese salad was actually delicious soft, hand-pulled mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh greens tossed in tangy Chardonnay pear vinaigrette and if I ever had to eat at Stax again, I'd order that. The spring mix salad wasn't bad, either, with chunks of orange, grapefruit, tomato, and cucumber in a citrus-kissed dressing. I didn't like the "S.W. Corn Off the Cob," though too many chunks of cheddar and Monterey jack overwhelmed the corn, black beans, and avocado, and the avocado buttermilk dressing was bland.
I'd hoped that dessert would make up for dinner, but unfortunately, it left me feeling depressed. I was really looking forward to the strawberry shortcake. In my mind, shortcake should be soaked with sweet juices, but Stax's version was a giant dry biscuit sprinkled in powdered sugar, with a few meager berries tucked inside. Butterscotch crème brûlée was disappointing as well they got the caramelized sugar part right, but the crème was verging on soupy. The too-sweet butterscotch flavor made the whole dish taste cheap.
I've gotta say that the warm brownie sundae, topped with vanilla ice cream and peanuts, was pretty darn good. But it was really simple, the kind of thing you could make at home.
Too bad Stax hasn't figured that out about burgers.
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