St. Louis' Year of the Hamburger is drawing to a close. Arguing about hamburgers may be like arguing about pizza or barbecue. I've finally come to the conclusion that if it tastes good, there's no one way to do it "right". It's much about individual preference, thick versus thin, beef versus pork. Taste, whether you mean flavor or choices, aside, there's no reason why a thick hamburger (or pizza crust) is innately superior to a thin one or a tomato-based sauce less correct than a vinegar-based one.
So a hamburger must stand on its own. This is why critics are at best ambivalent at "Best of" lists. We're happy enough to say something is good or even great, but choosing The Best is difficult. (The other side of the ambivalence is a chance to give kudos to some deserving but relatively unknown dish or restaurant.)
All this is a roundabout lead into Five Star Burgers, Steve Gontram's new spot in Clayton. It's a far cry from Harvest, the bastion of Modern American Farmouse cuisine that Gontram opened, owned and shepherded until a couple of years ago. And it's actually part of a small chain begun in Taos by Steve's dad Bob.
Don't go thinking McDonald's. If I had to choose something similar, it would be Shake Shack, but with the addition of sit-down service. Located on Clayton's west side, it draws lunchers from the tie-and-suspenders crowd, but manages to be kid-friendly as well. Every time I've visited, there were kids, from toddlers to middle-schoolers and even the wee ones were well-behaved and quiet. And that may be due to the speed of food arriving. Even in the evening, burgers arrived before salads were finished.
And the burgers? All-natural, hormone-free Angus beef, say the Gontrams. There are also bison, turkey, lamb and vegetable burgers, plus a portabella-wich, for those avoiding beef. Of the three I tried, the basic 5 Star burger was the least successful. The order for medium rare brought meat that was only pink in a few spots, the burger patty looked almost painfully pre-formed and the flavor was deeply unremarkable. They're served with ketchup on the side; mustard must be requested.
Interestingly, that burger was the only major misstep. The Gateway burger wore cheddar, and lots of crumbled bacon plus four very good onion rings, unfortunately not sold separately (hint, hint) and a side of a sweet barbecue sauce. This one was perfectly cooked, juicy and beautifully bovine in its flavor. And a lamb burger was so good I almost gasped, with tapenade, the black olive spread, and some tzatziki on it, extremely moist and happily messy to eat.
Speaking of messy, this is a good place for me to point out that the buns are brioche. Traditionally brioche dough is a little sweet, and buns made of it seem, to me, to be antithetical to burgerdom. No noticeable sweetness in these guys, though, and they're sturdy enough to stand up to just about anything a two-fisted burger eater can do to them. French fries are arrive hot, in a paper-lined mini-fryer basket with seasoning a little peppery, which is what sets them apart. Sweet potato fries come with what looks like mayonnaise, but is described as maple cream, a fine complement to them. Both are available as half-orders, too.
The restaurants' New Mexican roots are shown in the crispy green chiles, available during happy hour and as a topping for the burgers. These are Hatch chiles (a city in New Mexico), seeded and roasted, then coated in a light cornmeal batter. Deee-lightful, especially with a cold beverage, and I suspect they could be had as a side. Not frantically hot, just a little tingle.
Wine, of course, and plenty of draft beer, plus tasty fountain sodas from an outfit called Maine Root, plus shakes, floats and mini-ice cream cones with ice cream from Serendipity in Webster Groves. But beware: what Serendipity calls salted caramel is actually butterscotch. They're NOT the same thing. It's annoying to expect one flavor and get another one.
Mostly zippy service, although there are occasional episodes of neck-craning to find assistance, this on busy evenings. No reservations - this is, Gontram or not, a burger place, after all.
Five Star Burgers
8125 Maryland Ave., Clayton
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor