Monday, February 16, 2009

A Burger and a Beer at Local 44

Amateur Night (def):

The purpose of Amateur Night is to provide a platform where amateur performers can showcase and develop their skills. The ultimate goal is to create a cadre of talented, well-trained and well-groomed performance professionals with an effective understanding of the entertainment industry.

– Photo and definition courtesy of the Apollo Theater, where aspiring artists have been putting it all out there just about every Wednesday night since 1934.

The definition of amateur night in the restaurant biz takes on a rather less auspicious tone. It generally focuses on dates such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, two of the busiest dining nights of the year, populated largely by inexperienced diners and people who don’t otherwise eat out with any frequency. True cynics might extend the definition to include any Friday and Saturday, when weekend warriors clamor for reservations and take over the tables at all the hottest spots in town. Applying the above parameters, dining out on the Friday night before Valentine’s Day (which fell on a Saturday this year) packed the distinct possibility of a double-whammy curse.

Everything I’d read about Local 44, the new University City venture (at the corner of 44th and Spruce) opened on the first of the year by Memphis Taproom owners Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, led me to expect it would be unaffected by the V-Day phenomena. Early reports at The Brew Lounge, Seen Through a Glass and Femme Fermental had all left me thirsting for a good vibe and some great beer.

The bar and tap list at Local 44. (Photo courtesy of The Brew Lounge.)

The place was jammed on Friday the 13th, with throngs of students filling both the bar and dining sides of room. As expected, Valentine’s Day and amateur night dining didn’t seem to pose a problem; rather, I expect that’s the usual Friday night scenario for a “local” based only a few short blocks from UPenn’s campus.

The problem was that it seemed to be amateur night in the kitchen.

If there’s one thing a bar’s kitchen should have dialed in before anything else, it’s a hamburger (or, one might argue, fries). What I was served at Local 44 should never have been put down in front of me. The white bread roll was too stale even for the two-day-old bin at a corner bakery. The burger, which I ordered medium-rare, was just barely warm, bordering on raw yet still somehow greasy, and so loosely packed that clumps of ground beef fell from the bun at almost every bite. A lettuce leaf, unripe tomato slice and wedge of raw onion did little to make up for what they adorned, with a properly melted slice of decent cheddar (a $1 upcharge) providing the only saving grace. Perhaps the fact that it’s called a “Meat Burger” on the menu should have warned me off. The fries, thankfully, had decent, fresh cut potato flavor, even if they were limp and over-salted.

Since the food at Local 44 is clearly taking a back seat to what’s on tap, it’s comforting to find that they’ve at least gotten their core mission right. Don’t go looking for the usual line-up of bottled brews, as Orval is the one and only beer offered in bottle. It’s the draft line-up that’s already made Local 44 a worthy destination for beer geeks, with about two dozen selections at very fair prices. And it’s perfectly drawn offerings such as Coniston Bluebird Bitter and North Coast Brewing Company’s “Old Rasputin” Russian Imperial Stout that’ll keep me coming back for more. Just not on a Friday night. And not, anytime soon at least, for another shot at their burger.

Local 44
4333 Spruce Street [map]
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 222-2337
Local 44 on Urbanspoon


philadining said...

Wow, bummer about the burger! I've only been in once, and didn't try much, but the food we got was much better. The Rueben Fritters were a clever idea, but more importantly,quite tasty, and well-executed. The Oyster (mushroom) Po Boy was another item that could have been more of an amusing menu item than something good to eat, but the flavorful breading coating the mushrooms made for a delicious sandwich, and a surprisingly decent evocation of an Oyster Po-Boy suitable for the vegan crowd. (and the roll was fresh!)

The fried chicken in my Chicken and French Toast was under-seasoned, but otherwise well-made. We had the benefit of dropping in very early in the evening on a Sunday, before they were too busy, and that might have made a difference. I've been meaning to head back and try the burger, and I'll probably still do so, and I'll let you know if I have any better luck than you did.

Most importantly, as you mention, the beer selection is really quite good. I quite liked my Coniston Bitter, recommended by Brendan as the perfect Sunday afternoon beer, and I'll have to agree. Good with food too, and right int he pocket for a good session brew as well, I could see myself at that bar kicking back a few of those... We also tried the Franziskaner Dunkel Weisse, which was quite nice, and the Voodoo Vator Double Bock, which was a bit lighter than we'd expected, but still very tasty.

Overall, I'm thrilled that there's a place in West Philly with a serious beer selection and a good vibe. I hope your food experience turns out to be an aberration, but even if it isn't, I'll be there for beer, for sure! Oh, and Rueben Fritters.

David McDuff said...

Hey PhilaD,

Thanks for the thorough comment, and for adding some counterpoint to my nasty burger experience.

Sometimes I feel bad about writing anything negative based on a single visit. But then I remind myself that this is my blog (and specifically "A Burger and a Beer" post, in this case), not a restaurant review for a major paper or magazine.

I'll definitely be headed back to explore more of the beer offerings. And if I'm hungry, I'll be sure to check out the rueben fritters and mushroom po'boy.

HungryChic said...

I get how 'meat-burger' sounds like it should be avoided, but in University City many would assume a 'burger' is one of soy product with minor meat-like appearance. Eek.

David McDuff said...

Long time no see, HC. The "meat burger" thing would make more sense if Local 44 was billing itself as a vegetarian restaurant; if that's the case, it's news to me. As for meatlessness being a University City phenomenon, I guess I don't spend enough time on campus these days....

philadining said...

West Philly definitely has a significant density of vegans (the Tofu Hoagie from Fu Wah at 47th and Baltimore is a neighborhood icon...) so it makes sense to offer some menu items for that crowd. Both Memphis Taproom and Local 44 have several veggie/vegan-friendly items on their relatively small menus, so, while neither is billing itself as a vegetarian restaurant, I suspect that crowd is a component of their customer base. The admittedly odd-sounding phrasing of "meat burger" might be, as HungyChic says, just to make sure drunk vegans don't accidentally order it...

Buyaborrowedsuit said...

Such a shame. If there's one thing that goes perfectly with a cold brew, it's a burger and any place that's going to focus on their beer selection AND offer pub grub better know how to put one together. Of course, this is another place that I'm hearing about with a fantastic beer selection...and I keep slumming around Newark hoping someone puts something new on tap. Some Sunday this spring, I'm going to embark on a pub crawl which hits all of the Philly beer hotspots; I'm sick of hearing about the places I should be going to!

David McDuff said...

You said drunk vegans.... Don't know why, but that just tickles my funny bone. In all seriousness, I fully understand and appreciate the inclusion of veggie items on any menu, as I'm a recovering vegetarian myself. That said, drunks or no drunks, I'm still not crazy about the "meat burger." I suppose it's no different than calling something a veggie burger -- both are vague and generic descriptins -- but it still seems a little knee-jerk.

David McDuff said...

Whenever you're ready, just let me know. A Sunday afternoon pub crawl is always a welcome venture.

Femme Fermental said...

I haven't been back since my first visit, but I have a feeling food won't be their strong suit.

I have many thoughts on beer geek culture and food. Many beer places just can't seem to produce good food. And some can't even put out solid staples.

I fear that the relationship between beer and food will never, ever, match the innate relationship between wine and food. But, I suppose wine does have a few hundred years lead.

David McDuff said...

Hey Gina,
I hope they do pull things together, as it's close enough to home that I'd definitely make it a more regular stop if I felt I could rely on the food. Luckily there are a few other beer-centric spots around town (Monk's and Standard Tap, for instance) that do a good job.

It's also neat to see places like Vetri and Osteria giving some pride of place to beer on their lists, though I think you're absolutely right in thinking that beer has some catching up to do.

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