Rebuilding comfort food from scratch can go horrifyingly wrong. Why try to re-create the squishy joy of a store-bought burger bun that somehow works better than anything else? Is making your own ketchup really worth the effort? It’s like interrupting Don Draper in the middle of a pitch. Re-inventing can tank a bar burger and drive you straight to the arms of a Big Mac. Chef Alex Henderson at Small Brewpub, however, walks the line: Everything that comes with your burger, save the cheese and the beef, is made from scratch in-house.
Their efforts paid off, because it's the best burger in Oak Cliff right now. It maintains simplicity despite the risk. It’s good food, made from scratch while respecting its roots. Burgers are just meat sandwiches, after all.
“This is about as fussy as I’ll get with a burger," Henderson says. "I want comfort food. I don’t want you to heighten it to the point where I don’t want it anymore.”
Henderson, who took the reins at Small a few months ago, hand-forms the beef from A Bar and Ranch. Nearly everything that surrounds the sandwich is simple but executed with focus and a love of fast, good food. He dusts the patty with salt, pepper, onion and garlic powder. The patty goes on a cast iron plate that they bought off Amazon.
Onions soften down in a pan until sticky, and then they add beer – their own Cascara stout – that’s made about five steps away. They make the bacon into window panes of Niman Ranch pork belly that's cured and smoked. Aioli, one of the most annoyingly overused words on any menu, is made here with shallots, anchovies and fresh garlic. If you’re like me, you’ll want to grab somebody by the collar and demand the official recipe.
The buns are made by Maricsa Trejo, Small's pastry chef, and they’re like elvish magic: Light-edged but strong, sturdy and crisp. There’s the small shower of sesame seeds and the taste of a quick brush of butter. One bun to rule them all.
A bite in and I get a rush of mahogany steak juices. The patty is cooked medium rare, a symmetrical horizon of pink in the center. The juices let loose into the aioli. Gruyere is bubbly and melty. The caramelized onions are the color of coffee and maddeningly good. The fries are dunked in oil with rosemary dancing it in it. I'm dunking those into ketchup that’s a deep crimson deliciousness of reduced tomatoes, vinegar and spices cooked all the way down. Damn, it’s good.
Henderson shows respect for the current trend in burgers, re-creating the fast food burgers we all grew up eating.
“It’s what I grew up eating, you know what I mean?" he says. "I don’t want to go get a Big Mac. But I do want to eat a Big Mac, so it’s conflicting.”
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We all have our vices.
“My late night sad food burger is always In-N-Out,” Henderson says. “If I had a terrible night, I’m going to In-N-Out. I’m going to get a Neopolitan shake, I’m going to get cheese fries, and I’m going to sit in my own filth and eat that.”
But Small Brewpub’s burger is no guilty pleasure. It’s a burger that achieves a rare success: renovating a classic while making it better.
Small Brewpub, 333 W. Jefferson Blvd.