BGB: Utica Square’s New Gourmet Burger Joint

By on September 26, 2014

Along 66 the hamburger stands.” So wrote Steinbeck. Tulsa’s a burger town, and always has been, since that hot July day in 1891 when a guy named Oscar Weber Bilby slapped a beef patty on top of a grill that he himself had forged, and thus invented the hamburger. Now when the Joads and suchlike stopped at those crude Route 66 stands, they were looking for cheapness and convenience rather than gourmet flair, but at some point in the years since then, those old mom and pop burger joints developed their long flat Tulsa-style burgers into a work of art. Tulsa has far far more of those traditional burger places than even a much larger town has a right to expect. Claud’s, Weber’s, Ron’s, Hank’s, and of course Brownies, the names are legendary.

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You’ll notice that all the best burger places are named after the chef. Anyone can cook a burger, but to cook a great burger a true artist is required.  “When I was young, when other guys were buying ‘Playboy’, I was buying ‘Gourmet’ magazine,” Ron Baber once told a reporter. Working nonstop, order after order, Ron used to put each burger through about ten steps, pounding the meat, seasoning it, coating it with lard, etc. So it’s not surprising that a lot of Tulsa’s top chefs have become fascinated by the challenge. They too have thrown their hat in the ring and competed to create the perfect burger. These fancy gourmet burgers are usually thicker and have a blend of beef for better flavor. Strangely, none of the traditional burger joint chefs — the ones who have the expertise and training to do it right — ever tried to create a fine-dining gourmet burger. Until now.

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I’ve been to BGB three times in the past week or so. It’s just that good. BGB means Brownies Gourmet Burgers.  The name says it all. Brownies, a fabled old burger stand on Harvard, the best of the best. We’ll visit that original Brownies a bit later, so save room for their old-school double cheeseburger and justly renowned homemade root beer and home-baked coconut pie! (You can also get the pie and root beer at BGB.) By the way, Brownies is one of the only places not to be named after the original chef and owner. It’s named after the guy who invented the root beer, who was famous back in 1956 when the place was founded, and sold his beer and name to the new owner.

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It was around 5 PM on a Sunday, the sort of shining pleasant summer evening that is all too rare in these parts, and thus treasured all the more. Utica Square was more or less deserted, except for a patch just south of the Walgreen’s, where a bunch of outdoor tables was packed with happy eaters. That’s BGB. Step inside, and it’s more tranquil. Not a surprise, the decor is more or less unchanged from the days when it was a temple to the art of sushi, Sushi Alley. A few gewgaws and knickknacks are scattered among the white oak beams, and change the mood from Japanese to American casual, a mood which is perfectly symbolized by the waiters’ attire, a T-shirt on which a jacket and tie is printed. They’re friendly, they know all about the menu, and they’ll help you order. They also ask how you want your meat done. If you order it totally well done, you’ll get a shriveled old burger. So ask their advice first. I risked the dangers in all the health warnings and got mine extra rare. Big, juicy, and criss-crossed with sear marks from the gas char-grill, it was a thing of beauty.

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I didn’t fully appreciate the BGB concept on those first visits. I focused on the meat. And ohhhh the meat was good! Unlike the original Brownies, and all the traditional places in town, the meat wasn’t pure chuck, it was a special proprietary blend of brisket, short ribs and chuck. There’s a lot of fat in that brisket, and it’s that fat, which melts and blends into the meat, that makes a better burger. But it takes a lot of skill to cook a burger and coax it to that level of deliciousness. The guy behind the grill is named James — he never offered a last name — and he’s been cooking burgers for fifteen years. He’s the kind of chef that made old-school Tulsa burgers so great. “How can I get a burger good as that again?” I asked him. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” he said.

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BGB is proud of its toppings, and it should be. They have created 14 different combinations, and each one of these combines with the meat to yield a unique taste profile. It’s like 14 totally different burgers. Almost all the ingredients is made in-house, even the ketchup and pickles. The vegetables, judging from the vibrant fresh taste, are local. (The buns, I believe, are currently made by Farrell Family Bread, and they are quite good, soft and yielding, though the top is a huge dome and I often remove it and eat it as a dinner roll. But they might start to source the buns elsewhere, or make them themselves.) So let’s get a look at those burgers!

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I let the others order what they liked, but made sure to snag the Drunken Shroom ($10) for myself. The burger is topped with mushrooms braised in Chianti, Fontina cheese, house-made pickles, and fresh spinach. The wine-soaked mushroom sauce soaked into the patty. You’d think that would distract from the meaty goodness, but instead it changed it and made it better. Like beef bourguignon on a bun. The crunchy spinach and mild cheese added to the rich flavor. Yes, this is what BGB is all about. Combining great meat and designer toppings into a complete burger experience that combines and transcends the two.

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Cathe asked me what to order and I convinced her to have the Ambrosia ($9) because I knew she’d give me a big portion of it. It turned out to be so good that my portion was smaller than I expected. Here the burger was served on a big fluffy flatbread, like naan from India. Alongside, an arugula salad with olive oil and Feta cheese, and juicy flavor-packed cherry tomatoes. Roll it up and eat it all together and I was hit with a memory of late night, a Turkish kebab house in New York, and the kind of ground meat Adana kebabs that you get wrapped in pita with salad. It had the same seasoned flavor and of course the salad and fabulous tomatoes were a lot better than the late-night New York kebab joints I frequent. Another winner.

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I think it was Valerie who got the Old Fogey ($9), proving you don’t have to be old, or a fogey, to order it. It’s basically a burger topped with a mountain of homemade pimento cheese. The orangey color looks frightful, but the taste you’ll find delightful. Again, the rich flavor blends with the meat to create a new lovely taste experience.

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David got the Jumpin Jalapeno. The pickled pepper slices were sauteed in tequila, and came with pickled onions, arugula, chipotle mayo, cilantro, and Monterey Jack cheese. David is polite, he offered me some, but I was just too full. I wish I had tried it. It sounds like a wonderful flavor combination. By the way, before I forget, BGB also has a special deal where you pay $11 and they whip you up a special burger, which changes daily. But you’re not allowed to know what it is until it arrives at your table!!! None of us dared order that.

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Betty got the Early Bird and I didn’t even bother to try it. I know it was wonderful. How could one of these delicious patties topped with a fried egg and bacon not be wonderful? And I mustn’t forget the fries.

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These I tried, I and I ate far more than I should, because they were truly wonderful. Mixed in with the fries were homemade ranch dressing, onions, gooey cheddar cheese and big chunks of bacon. I would have eaten the whole plate but I knew our eating evening was not complete.

I knew I couldn’t write about BGB unless I made a pilgrimage to the source, the original Brownies. So we headed for our cars and proceeded east. One step inside Brownies and it was apparent that it was all an old-school burger joint should be. It was the noise that hit me first: the sound of happy families. Kids laughing and shouting, parents trying to shush the kids but too happy themselves to really care. Then the perfect ’50s decor. Shocking pink stools at a long counter set off the lime-green Naugahyde banquettes by the windows. Brown tiled floors, a harried waitress, and there were those happy families packed around the window-side tables.

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This is the burger that made those families happy. It’s a double cheeseburger ($4), and it’s what old-school burgers are all about. It was the exact opposite of the gourmet burgers at BGB. I ate most of it despite being stuffed already. The thin patty, mustard pickles and incredibly soft bun all melted in the mouth to create the perfect fast-food experience. A fellow could come to crave those burgers.

We got to talking with the waitress. It’s been packed all night, she said, coming in waves so just when I think I’m catching a break, a new wave comes. When we came in she thought she was getting another huge order and she was so happy when we ordered just one burger. But we did order a slice of coconut pie and a glass of homemade root beer, because these are both available at BGB.

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The root beer was sensational. If you’ve never had homemade root beer and all you know of root beer is bottles and cans, run and get you a glass. You’ll be amazed. And even better was the coconut pie.

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Wow! One of the best I’ve ever had. I think I’ve had better in the tiny town of York, Nebraska, but it put most Tulsa pies to shame.

I loved Brownie’s. I loved BGB. They are as different as two places can be. Still, there’s a resemblance. It’s like father and son. I’d love to do some fancy writing about that concept but all that comes to mind is this valuable advice: visit them both!

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BGB
1730 Utica Square (between Stonehorse and Walgreen’s)
747-7935
open daily from 11 AM to 8 PM, open later Thursday through Saturday

Brownies
2130 S Harvard
744-0320
open daily from 7 AM to 8 PM

 

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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