Not everything Phil Romano touches turns to gold. We Oui slipped off the landscape on a trail of French kitsch greased with red lipstick. Lobster Ranch got caught in a chowder undertow. Eatzi's nearly succumbed to a vicious bite by the Big Apple.
But gold isn't what's important. What's important is that Romano keeps on touching, which means he keeps the rest of us amused, if sometimes hungry.
His latest venture is a no-frills stab at no-nonsense ground beef in a white paper bag. Well, maybe there are a couple of frills. For a $100 donation to Romano's Hunger Busters campaign to feed the homeless (to be featured on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather on Thanksgiving eve or day), you can scrawl your name on the wall with a blue permanent marker. There's another frill: Who's Who Burgers offers Kobe beef burgers in quarter- and half-pound loads. Kobe beef is the meat harvested from Wagyu cattle, a Japanese beef strain famous for its exquisite marbling, delectable richness and high cost.
What Who's Who doesn't offer is explicit instructions on how best to order this precision-raised beef produced in East Texas. On one of our visits, a few diners in our crew who suffer from rare beef phobia ordered their Who burgers medium or medium well. The results were good, but unimpressive, especially when considering the modest price premium. But when those same burgers were ordered rare or medium rare the difference in flavor was astounding. The meat retained the fleshy firmness of the flamed-gray patties while unleashing a torrent of sublime richness--a richness frittered away by the heat necessary to cook the pink from the patty.
If you choose to dine at Who's Who, fear no pink, especially when you go Kobe. But burgers (the USDA versions are good as well) are not the only offerings at this tiny little beef joint. There are also hot dogs (meaty, but without distinction), turkey cranberry burgers and veggie portobello burgers (astoundingly delicious things with meaty fungi and mustard seed).
Yet virtually all of Who's Who Burgers' offerings suffer from the same affliction: flaccidity. Unlike the setup at Romano's Fuddruckers, where diners can freshly dress their burgers with crisp lettuce, firm tomato slices and supple onion hoops, burgers at Who's Who flirt shamelessly with the flabby. Ingredients, compressed and incubated in a thick foil wrapper, become a despondent mass of mush, the sole survivor being those all-important patties.
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Of course, as Romano points out, the cramped confines of his Highland Park Village space prohibit the kind of self-service "bells and whistles" found at Fuddruckers. But there must be some viable alternative. Semitransparent paper wrappers, for example, and simple service baskets for those who choose to enjoy their burgers on the premises.
And those premises are indeed peculiar. Orders are taken at the front counter flanked by a trough holding soft drinks couched in crushed ice and are scrawled in marker on a white paper bag. Orders are assembled in those same bags. And there is no mechanism to announce when the order is ready, so you may not know your burger is done until it's been fermented into extra laxity.
Not that dining in is an overwhelming joy. The split-level dining area is washed in white and drab blue, a kind of nautical burger joint floating on asphalt among a flotilla of Mercedes and Beemers. The top level embraces the rest rooms and a rather disturbing sculpture: a huge cow standing upright, its bright pink udders protruding forward like a Gatling gun. This is a disturbing presence when you're gnawing on a patty as pink as the array of teats staring you down, a kind of discomfort those Chick-fil-A billboards can only hope to generate.
Romano says his sole motivation for creating Who's Who was the dearth of good hamburger joints in Highland Park. Highland Park lacks a good pawnshop, too. Perhaps we should keep our eyes peeled for a Who Hocks What. He stresses that the point of differentiation in his joint is Kobe beef. He points out 40 percent of his sales come from the pricey grind, which might be because he charges less for the stuff than virtually anyone else in town. "That's my shtick," he says of the boutique beef. The quirky moniker, of course, is another shtick altogether. "It's kind of tongue in cheek with Highland Park, you know, the who's who. They can put their name on the wall. It's their place. That's who's eatin' the hamburger." Say what?