First Taste

First Taste: A Popular Restaurant Chef Opens a Downtown Burger Joint

A burger, chicken sandwich, and potatoes two ways channel 20th century Americana.
A burger, chicken sandwich, and potatoes two ways channel 20th century Americana. Chris Malloy
Last week, The Churchill gained a new tenant: Commander Hamburger — a patty-slinging, chicken-frying, elevated fast-food counter overseen by Bernie Kantak. Known for his role as executive chef at The Gladly and Citizen Public House, Kantak’s move into the open-air complex gives it some added culinary muscle. Even if he has devised a short, tight menu lasered in on simple American classics.

A burger. A chicken sandwich. And adjacent options: soft serve, his locally famous chopped salad, fries, and tater tots.

A stripped-down cheeseburger with onions, a pickle, and pale lettuce feels like a stark pivot from the amaro meatloaf, tomato vinegar, and barrel-aged cocktails at his other restaurants. Why go burger?

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Burgers emerge from one of The Churchills many shipping containers.
Chris Malloy
“Burgers are delicious,” Kantak says. “Honestly, we kind of felt that [The Churchill] was missing burgers and fries.”

Walking up to Commander Hamburger, it is important to know the target. Within the burger universe, Kantak situates his between fast food — though Commander Hamburger is loaded with quick, greasy nostalgic vibes — and establishments that use steak-like portions of beef and elevated fixings.

“It’s kind of In-N-Out meets really great bun and great product,” he says.

(Note: the implication here is that “In-N-Out” has a lackluster bun and ingredients that need upgrading. This is as true as the air you’re breathing. Don’t let anyone from the West Coast swindle you otherwise.)

The buns are the best and most salient feature of this burger. Floating and puffy, doming a pretzel-brown with the gloss of a newly waxed sportscar, they crack and crinkle in their foil sleeve. Noble Bread bakes them. They are a lighter take on brioche, diffuse but sultry with a touch of honey in the dough. They are airy with some chew and funnel your focus to the thin beef patty in the middle.

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Profile of a hyped new Phoenix burger, served on retro blue check paper.
Chris Malloy
Kantak uses a blend of Angus chuck and brisket. The patty has good flavor but could be thicker. You can counter this problem by doubling up and ordering two patties. Toppings might transport you back to some '90s neighborhood cookout: looping onion, crisp iceberg lettuce, ridged bread-and-butter pickles.

At this early stage in Commander Hamburger, the chicken sandwich has a half-step on the burger. Kantak brines chicken overnight in a flavored buttermilk mixture, letting a nicely crisp chicken emerge from the fryer. Pickles accent this sandwich beautifully. They bring tang and texture, sure, but also tiny spice notes. A gloriously mysterious special sauce is the kicker that this sandwich needs, though it would be a bit better if the chicken was bigger, expanding the ratio of bird-to-bun.

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Potatoes as fries and tater tots.
Chris Malloy
Beyond the two prime bunned selections, Kantak serves a few fast-food-leaning items.

His soft serve is blended from Danzeisen Dairy milk, making Commander Hamburger, according to Kantak, the first eatery beyond the major sporting arenas to offer this lauded dairy’s milk as soft serve. In the future, Kantak plans to roll out “shakes, floats, and stuff like that.” He also stocks a range of classic sodas, like Big Red and Cactus Cooler.

Fries are piping hot and meaty. Tater tots are shatteringly crisp and soft. Both lean salty, so grab a drink from Sauvage, The Brill Line, or So Far So Good if it's open.

Down the road, Kantak also has plans to do dinners with Sauvage’s Chris Lingua, whose intimate shop a few yards away stocks some of the most interesting and individualistic wines in the metro area. “He has always wanted to do bar food with the wine that he loves,” Kantak says. Burgers and groovy wines? Yes, please.

Commander Hamburger.
901 North First Street; 602-675-2202.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy