Back in the 1980s, when I wrote my first restaurant review for a daily newspaper in Flagstaff, Ariz., finding worthy restaurants to review was nothing like our current dining scene in San Antonio.
Burgers and steaks were the general fare along with pizza parlors that didn’t range far from the basics — sausage and pepperoni. We had massive hotel Sunday brunches, all the rage at the time, and various mom-and-pop places that could turn out good ethnic meals.
For more complex fare, we’d head to Sedona, a scenic 30-minute drive away. Restaurants in this now-raging tourist mecca stretched their culinary wings not so much to gratify Flagstaff diners but to lure in well-heeled snowbirds, down for the winter to soak up the beautiful scenery and climate.
The real high-rollers would fly into the tiny local airport at the top of a red-rock mesa from cities as far-flung as New York and Chicago. They would stay a few days for sight-seeing, seeking out “gourmet” meals. (This was pre-harmonic-convergence Sedona, before the crystal wearers came to town and the word “Sedona” turned into a hot branding term used to sell anything from socks to SUVs.)
I thought about these, my younger days, as I sat with at a table with a couple of dozen other dedicated foodies Saturday morning at chef/owner Jesse Perez’s Arcade Midtown Kitchen. Some were staff writers, others freelancers, bloggers, magazine owners as well as the indefatigable social media foodies taking the city by storm. Many of them were in their 20s and 30s and they are in a new world where chefs take on the fame of rock stars and diners had better know their stuff when it comes to profiling the complex flavors in a dish.
These folks ably deconstructed the dishes and weren’t shy about mentioning their personal likes and dislikes. They also seemed able to put those aside to make a reasonable and serious judgment of dishes on their own merits.
Perez had invited us in to sample brunch as he looks toward adding Saturday brunch in the near future. Sunday brunch is already a standby at the restaurant that opened earlier this year.
We shared dishes ranging from the traditional eggs Benedict with a couple of custom touches to Happy Daddy, a petite beef filet rubbed with chile along with potato hash and chorizo coins for a spicy take on huevos rancheros. (The dish got its name as a particular favorite on Father’s Day.)
The Arcade burger, which is rapidly becoming one of the city’s favorites, was also brought out, inspiring as much comment as did Perez’s take on Chicken and Waffles (boned chicken, pounded out ‘Milanesa’ style and then breaded) or the luscious, multilayered red velvet cake.
Burgers are beloved. That was true long before I began my food-writing career.
While we don’t want burgers for every meal, we’re still excited to find one that is exceptional and inspires questions ranging from what is the meat used in the grind, fat-to-lean ratio, and of course, what’s in the ‘secret sauce.’
But our demands have changed over the years. Secret sauce better have some pretty good secrets in there – and in Perez’s burger, the only secret he would divulge was the dash of blood orange vinegar. His sauce also has a bite – Sriracha? He wouldn’t tell.
In the old days, I don’t recall that we discussed the provenance of the beef, or what cuts were used in the grind other than the occasional reference to a “sirloin burger” on a menu. Perez uses ground chuck and brisket, a combination that I’ve found to be one of the tastiest – and he uses a lean-to-fat ratio of about 70-to-30. Generous on the flavor, but not greasy.
The cheese is American – and I’d guess that is a nod to the country’s tradition, but a good natural cheese such as cheddar would make me happier. But the browned “soft” onions, as the menu describes them, seem to melt right into the beef and they just about cancel out the sticky cheese.
So, as things change, things remain the same. That cliché does apply to our appetite for burgers — as well as for Saturday and Sunday brunches, for finding food with the best flavor and always looking for an element of discovery. And, may it always be so.
Arcade Midtown Kitchen
303 Pearl Pkwy.