Located in a quiet area of Somerville between Harvard Square, Inman Square, Porter Square and Washington Square and right next to Dali, Kirkland Tap and Trotter is the slightly more casual second restaurant by chef-owner Tony Maws, whose Craigie On Main is one of the landmark restaurants of greater Boston, with a landmark burger to boot. Naturally, I wondered how the more approachable Kirkland burger ($15) would stack up. According to early interviews, the burger here will be a changing thing, so by the time you read this it may be different from what I tried. The potato accompaniment has already changed between my first and second visits.
It's a comfortable space with a butcher shop vibe. The room to the left boasts an open kitchen with an adjustable-height grill viewable from the dining area. A few seats at the bar allow even closer observation of the nightly spectacle. Chef Maws was patroling the kitchen on my second visit. There's a darker, cozier room to the right.
Just like at the mother ship, the bun is housemade and heavily seeded, though poppy here instead of sesame. At first glance it looks like a little too much bun for the patty, but the density is perfect, collapsing easily with every bite and light without ever reminding of the dreaded whitebread lurking 'neath a few faux brioche domes elsewhere. It's buttered and grilled, adding another level of moisture and flavor to what is a many layered affair. The bun also lends a pleasant taste of its own without getting in the way, and that's the way I like it.
Both times the doneness was medium rare as ordered. Both times the salting was as vigorous as you can get without overdoing it. Both times the juices flowed steadily, without having to squeeze the bun down to accomplish it. And both times the all-around beef experience was very good, though a little different from each other. I'm guessing the blend varies with what's on hand that day.
On the first try, it was funky, full throttle beef at first bite: strong in a serious burger way, not even hinting at the vealy, meatloafy flavor and texture you sometimes get at Craigie. The exterior got a decent crust from the grill and the texture was exquisite, feeling chopped rather than ground through an extrusion device, yet still bringing smoothness galore. It was obvious that this patty was handled with loving care, both in the forming and the cooking. Grass fed beef never had so much flavor.
Visit 2 had nice flavor too, but more subtle, and the veal and meatloaf characteristics made an appearance. This time the surface didn't get the same char, and the blend was much, much finer and very gentle. I prefer the first rendition, but the second one was still superb.
Toppings here are myriad and unique, starting with a cheese you don't often see on burgers: "emmanthaler," as it's spelled on the menu. White, thin and only faintly sharp, it got more of a gentle draping over the patty than a melt, but that's okay. Thinness and merely midrange potency limited its effect to simply nudging the beef flavor along rather than grandstanding, and that's more than okay. This burger is about layers of flavor, with none standing out as much as the beef, even on one of its meatloafy nights.
Onion strings—something I'd never expect from Maws—offer some crispness without getting too crazy into the toppings. Call it stingy if you want, but I find the restraint admirable. There's a reason I chose Kirkland over, say, Boston Burger Company.
Kimchee Russian dressing rested obediently on Bibb lettuce, adding another textural element and again nudging flavor along without trying to occupy a napkin better saved for dripping meat juices. On the first visit that condiment had some serious acidity; by visit 2 it was more creamy.
The accoutrements have less theatrics here than at Craigie, but the quality is just as high: a pile of solid housemade pickles and a stainless steel cup of mace ketchup sit on the plate.
Bacon isn't part of this burger and isn't even mentioned on the menu as an option, so trotter be damned. But that's just as well, because this burger isn't exactly lacking in the areas of saltiness, meatiness, richness or overall flavor.
The Fries (and Such)
Fries: On the first visit the fries were fried potato slices of about a half inch each, capturing the contrast between crunchy shell and moist, velvety interior in Craigie-like fashion, just in a different shape. These were aggressively salted and garnished with a handful of finely cut chive. By visit 2 just a week and a half later, the fries were fries, still crisp on the outside but a little less generous, a little less seasoned and a lot less interesting.
It's hard to comment on service in general having had the same server twice on two visits, but Sofia was the perfect navigator.
A you've probably noticed by my mentions in every section so far, comparisons with Craigie on Main are inevitable, whether for burger versus burger, overall versus overall or value versus value. I'll try to weigh in on all three.
The Craigie burger is a masterpiece, but sometimes there's too much bread for the beef and too much everything for anyone with a normal appetite to have a whole one and still engage the rest of the menu (it's perfect for sharing as an app though). The Kirkland burger is smaller and more manageable; you could have it as a snack and still move on to bigger and better things (it's too small to share as an app though).
If only there were better things. At Craigie the burger is excellent but there are many more excellent (and more excellent) dishes on the menu. At Kirkland the burger is also excellent—and for me the best of the half dozen things I tried. (Lamb ribs were too fatty and too one dimensional in flavor; pork belly was closer to a block of ham in flavor and firmness. Wings were a pesto experiment gone awry. Sausage was a success.)
As has been noted often in other reviews, the price point at Kirkland is only a tick below Craigie. I say the overall quality beyond the burger is multiple ticks below Craigie, so for value as well as quality, you're better off just going to Craigie.
But if it's just the burger you're focused on, the one at Kirkland more than holds its own against its older sibling. It's as well conceived as Craigie in an easier-to-handle size with more of a burger feel and a more relaxed (albeit louder) atmosphere.
The Bottom Line
The beef level varies but the intense juiciness, seasoning and complete package of layered flavor make the Kirkland Tap and Trotter burger one of my favorites in greater Boston. No reservation required, no fighting for a bar seat just to have it and no worrying about whether they'll still be available when you get there. Just get there and enjoy.
Other Opinion/ Info
Boston Burger Blog review of the Kirkland burger
Yelp reviews of Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Urbanspoon reviews of Kirkland Tap & Trotter
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