5997 Penn Circle South (Centre Ave.), East Liberty. 412-362-BEEF
Hours: Mon.-Thu. noon-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. noon-1 a.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Liquor: Full bar
What's in a name? In the case of East Liberty's newest restaurant, not vowels. But BRGR's succinct title communicates a clear meaning. This is a restaurant that celebrates -- and in many cases, imaginatively re-creates -- America's signature contribution to global cuisine.
And what's in the burgers? A custom blend of Angus chuck, sirloin, New York strip and ribeye. But what's almost as impressive is what isn't in them. By resisting the urge -- practically a cultural imperative -- to serve burgers of a gut-busting half-pound or more, BRGR shows admirable restraint. Instead, it keeps its patties to a manageable, if not exactly slender, 6 ounces.
The burgers' moderate size allows a variety of gourmet toppings to play a starring role in each, while leaving at least a little room alongside to sample BRGR's excellent fried sides (French fries, onion rings, pickles), or milkshakes (traditional or spiked). Or all of the above, should you not be planning another meal anytime soon.
Part of the charming simplicity of BRGR is that we've just told you nearly the entire menu. BRGR is a restaurant with a highly focused concept, and it doesn't waste time or energy on extraneous, eager-to-please options that depart from it. You'll find no tired, by-the-book nachos, crab cakes or spinach-artichoke dip to compete with the kitchen's singular emphasis on burgers.
Which isn't to say that BRGR is a one-trick pony. Chili and hot dogs, venerable companions to the classic diner lineup, are available. A couple of salad options, with recipes riffing on the BLT and classic Greek salad, give your arteries at least a running start.
But most importantly, BRGR offers a full dozen sandwiches, half of them beef burgers with various toppings. The other half explores surf (salmon and shrimp), turf (Kobe) and sky (turkey), plus Italy (meatball) and the Middle East (lentil/falafel).
We started with a straight-up cheeseburger. Ours came from the kids' menu, but we're happy to report that this was no overcooked slider: The kids' menu is basically lower-priced selections from the grown-up menu, complete with 6-ounce burgers and quarter-pound Smith's local hot dogs. Its cheeseburger was plain enough for picky little palates while satisfying enough for discerning parents, with a bun big enough to hold the meat, soft enough to absorb some juices and hearty enough to dispel any thoughts of spongy white bread. The patty was beefy and tender, not too tightly packed and -- even cooked well done for a small child -- not grilled beyond edibility. All that said, this was not an extraordinary hamburger. Not only did it not rise to the pinnacle of local burgers, it also didn't surpass the burgers at some more workaday purveyors.
Where BRGR does approach greatness is with some of its "handcrafted" concept burgers, which basically take the Primanti Brothers idea of packing the entire meal between two slices of bread to a whole new, upscale level, complete with gourmet ingredients and witty monikers. Despite -- or perhaps due to -- such affectations as truffle Cheez Whiz on the "Filth"-adelphia cheesesteak burger, these burgers remain true to classic flavor combinations, such as pastrami and Swiss, mushrooms and onions, or salmon with cucumber-tomato relish, bacon and caper aioli. The indulgence chiefly comes from rich additions (such as brie on the Shroomz burger) rather than can-you-top-this culinary stunts.
Angelique tackled a Button Buster, improbably topped with shreds of luscious braised short rib, white cheddar, béarnaise aioli and an onion ring. The burger itself was so finely ground that it had a velvety texture, making it an appropriately luxurious base for the richly flavored toppings.
Jason was less impressed by the That's Amore, featuring a pork-and-beef meatball patty, fried mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce between slices of garlic toast. A good meatball is more than what its name implies: Not only does it add herb and spice to the meat, but it should also add a little tenderness, traditionally in the form of a panade of bread soaked in dairy, which prevents the meat from binding up during cooking. That's Amore lacked all of these refinements, offering instead a rather tough, under-flavored puck of ground pork and beef. Including the mozzarella sticks on the sandwich was a clever but ultimately too-heavy touch. But the thick-sliced, crispy garlic toast, flecked with herbs, was absolutely brilliant -- if eaten before the marinara soaked its structural stability.
A dining companion's shrimp po' boy was controversial. She found the breaded and fried shrimp patty bland and the pimiento-cheese dressing too much like mayonnaise. But we thought that the texture of the shrimp was delightfully tender, and the flavor subtle but classically sweet, balanced by peppery arugula and astringent tomato.
And did we mention the fries? Thin-cut, crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside, and tossed with a dash of herbs and grated parmesan, these fries needed no ketchup to keep us reaching back for more.
Even though we were stuffed, we left feeling hungry for more. BRGR's narrow focus does not mean limited options; it would take more than a couple visits to really sample all its intriguing updates on the classic diner meal of a burger, fries and a shake.