While the marketing mavens at McDonald's have been busy developing a creepy new mascot named Happy for their Happy Meals, elsewhere the burger has been getting a more substantive makeover. Everywhere you look, restaurants are one-upping each other with bigger, more environmentally friendly, or just plain outrageous variations on the classic American sandwich.
And Americans are eating it up. Locally, waiting times of a half hour to an hour are not unusual at The Cowfish and Zinburger, two brash upstarts that have taken the burger in directions that Ronald McDonald never dreamed of.
Burgers and sushi - it's hard to imagine two more unlikely menu companions. This being America, though, naturally some restaurant was bound to bring them together. And in a way, I suppose it makes a sort of crazy sense to combine an iconic American food with one that may well be the most popular newcomer to our national culinary repertoire in the past 50 years.
Crazy or not, the formula has proved a winning one for The Cowfish, whose original Charlotte restaurant was so popular that a second location opened in Raleigh in April of last year. Over a year later, waits of 30 minutes to an hour for a table are still common. (Word to the wise: The Cowfish doesn't take reservations, but according to manager Chris DeCamp, you can download an iPhone app that lets you get on the waiting list when you're in the North Hills area).
The extensive menu reads like the minutes of a brainstorming session where no idea was too wild and no name too witty. Among the listings (I stopped counting at 100), you'll find everything from The Screamin' Korean chicken sandwich to a peanut-butter-jelly-banana milkshake homage to Elvis called the All Shook Up.
Burgers and sushi are the backbone of the menu, though, and account for the bulk of the offering. Both are better than you might expect from a place whose colorful cartoon artwork takes its cue from the likes of Mad Magazine and Burger King.
Burgers, made with a half pound of naturally raised beef, are offered in more than a dozen variations ranging from The Green Monster (flash-fried jalapeños, pepper Jack cheese and avocado slices) to the Reuben Kulakofsky (beef burger topped with pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on marbled rye). You can also create your own burger, choosing from a list of just about every topping you can imagine, from fried capers to grilled asparagus to black truffle cheese. And if beef isn't your thing, you can get those toppings on a house-made veggie or turkey burger.
In a restaurant whose schtick includes sushi rolls with names like Birkenstocky Shiitake Maki and Dr. Octopaccio's Magic Bus Ride, the generous portion and clean, fresh taste of traditional nigiri sushi and sashimi come as a pleasant surprise.
But let's face it: If you've come to The Cowfish, you're probably looking to explore new territory. In that case, you'll want to check out the section labeled "Burgushi," which the menu informs you is "a unique fusion of burgers and sushi!" You're instructed to "open your mind and your taste buds" as you experience, say, The Deliverance Roll ("Southern style bar-B-Qshi" with pulled pork, caramelized onion, wrapped in soy paper and potato strings, then flash-fried and topped with bacon coleslaw and chives). If you're really feeling reckless, try The Nature Boy's WOOOOO-shi BuffalOOOOO-shi Roll, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tribute to professional wrestler and Charlotte favorite son Ric Flair.
But don't say I didn't warn you.
The first Triangle location of a small New Jersey-based chain, Zinburger opened in December in the outdoor section of The Streets at Southpoint mall. As the restaurant's name suggests, the concept is a mashup of a burger joint and a wine bar. And if you're a beer-and-burger guy who's thinking "who in the world would want to drink wine with their burger?" then you clearly haven't walked up to the hostess at Zinburger and been told there's a half hour wait for a table. Maybe longer, if you want to sit on the sheltered patio, but she'll be happy to text you when your table is ready.
Burgers make up half of the streamlined menu, with the other half distributed under the headings of Salads, Sides, Shakes & Floats, and Pies. There's no Appetizer section as such, though an a la carte selection from the Sides category - double truffle fries, or zucchini fries with grated parmesan and Ranch dressing - will do in a pinch.
Burgers, made with certified Angus beef that's ground daily and accurately grilled to order, are good enough that the Plain & Simple burger ("lettuce, tomato and mayo - that's it") does the trick for me. Anyone looking for something fancier will find temptations such as the Zinburger (manchego cheese, Zinfandel-braised onions and mayo) and the Breakfast Burger (Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon, American cheese, mayo and a fried egg). Those seeking an alternative to red meat have plenty of options, too, from turkey sloppy Joe to ahi tuna sandwich to a veggie burger with smoked mozzarella, avocado and pea shoots.
For an extra five bucks, you can substitute "American-style Kobe" beef for the certified Angus that's the default on burgers. If you have ever had the rare pleasure of enjoying true Japanese Kobe beef, you'll recognize this burger option as nothing more than a novelty. And you'll save your money.
A wall-spanning mural of black-and-white Holsteins in a grassy field overlooks sleek modern chairs at butcher block tables in a dining room that's as uncluttered as the menu. Combined with hardwood floors and exposed ceilings, though, it makes for a noisy setting that might help to explain the popularity of the patio.
Zinburger's varied wine selection (if the restaurant's name had you worried it would be overloaded with zinfandels, you can rest easy) is reasonably priced, with 18 by-the-glass options starting at $5. On Wednesdays, half price wines by the bottle add to the attraction.
And if you're still not convinced about the whole burgers-and-wine thing, not to worry. The bar offers a locally-focused selection of 17 beers on tap.