And God Said "Let There Be Fries" at The Belgian Cafe
It was a bright summer day when we entered The Belgian Cafe, and suddenly it was dark and cool. It's a little like entering permanent winter to go to the bar at Belgian. Those averse to this can sit by the large windows in the dining room or outside under the awning, but I believe Kyle is a vampire and to ensure his continued health (and our continued quest) we sat at the dim bar for drinks and food. The Belgian Cafe can't quite be called a new establishment as it's been running strong since 2007, and it can't be called a venerable institution, but it's sister establishment, Monk's Cafe, is a venerable institution. Belgian takes much of what people have come to love about Monk's (wonderful, rich food; a magnificent beer collection; and burgers, lovely burgers) and transported it to a quiet street in Fairmount. As such, it's easier to get a table and harder to get into a drunken fight with wanksters who over-patronize much of Center City.
The burger: There's a section of the menu dedicated to them. All come with some sort of cheese and are served on a fresh fluffy egg bread.
Laurence: Few places feel quite as comfortable to me as The Belgian Cafe. It's just a great bar and one of the few restaurants in which waiting a few extra minutes doesn't seem interminable. Before we get to the burger at hand, we need to make a detour to discuss fries, or as they call them in bars that wish to exist in alternate countries, pommes frites. Belgian Cafe, as Monk's, is more well known for fries than for burgers. The burgers are pretty good, but the fries are epic. The fries are also extra, which as we've explained before is totally unacceptable and un-American, but as you may be able to tell from it's name, the cafe is not American and so gets a pass for this offense. The fries are thin cut, deep crispy brown and spiced by God himself. Really, I saw him cleaning the fryer one night.
I was like, “Yo, what's up big man.”
And he was like, “How's it hanging son.”
And I'm like, “So I've got a serious question for you.”
And he's like, “If it's what I'm thinking then I probably can't answer.”
So I'm like, “Nah, man, it's not like that. I'm just wondering what you put on those fries to make them so damn good.”
You know what he said? “Heaven. I put heaven on them. Also bourbon mayo.”
“Really,” I said. “Bourbon mayo. That's awesome.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Bourbon mayo. But mostly just heaven.”
So in short, go there and get some fries.
For a burger I chose the rather mundane Brugel, which is topped with fresh greens, bacon, sharp cheddar and house-made mayo. The meat was succulent and cooked to order. The bun was soft and slightly sweet. The bacon was lean and salty. The cheese was melted and savory.
A few months back I stopped in and had the Monk's burger which is topped with caramelized leeks and blue cheese. At the time I thought the quality of the meat, the bun and the inspired choice of leeks rather than onions made it a prime contender for the best burger. Then I started eating burgers for a living. It's sad, but you can't spit the apple back out. At least that's what the fry cook said to me. Rating: 7/10.
Kyle: Full disclosure: I live at The Belgian Cafe. Literally. I pay rent on the third bar stool from the right and sleep in the cellar. I went there on opening day, and it's a rare week that I don't stop by at least once. I've had every item on the dinner menu and about a third of their beer list. I know most of the staff by name and, more tellingly, they know me. I feel cool when co-owner Fergie Carey nods at me on the street. I'm there right now, typing this on my phone and drinking the apex of human culture. And my girlfriend said she'd break up with me if I gave them a bad review.
What I'm trying to say is that I am in no way biased toward The Belgian Cafe.
My selection for the evening (and personal favorite) was the Chimay burger, topped with Lancaster ham and Chimay cheese. The burger is a European portion, not a slider but on the smaller side of average. That said, when combined with the frites it is a filling meal, and if you don't think it's enough food you're probably fat.
Coarsely ground, the juicy beef was cooked perfectly with a nice pink throughout, and slight sweet flavor. This sweetness is matched by the pillowly bun, which is like a cross between a potato roll, a challah loaf and awesome breasts. Similarly, the Lancaster ham has a heavy honey glaze and is very succulent and sweet, and the Chimay cheese has a creamy, milky flavor similar to brie, but is more firm. Like awesome breasts.
Monk's Cafe wrote the book on frites in Philly, and the recipe here is exactly the same, with thin, freshly cut slivers of potato generously salted and served with an angel and devil on either side. The angel is the aforementioned bourbon mayo, a tightly guarded secret recipe that tastes like garlic and magic and Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. On the other side you have homemade ketchup, which tastes very much like real tomatoes in that it's tart, sour, vinegary and sort of unpleasant. Give me high-fructose corn syrup and red dye No. 5, thank you very much.
The burgers here are among my favorite in the city, and I will never turn down the chance to eat one. If pressed, I may say the Chimay burger, or the Monk's burger, is my favorite in the city. In any other city it likely would be the best, but if this quest has taught me anything, it's that the bar for excellence is extremely high. The Belgian Cafe does not make the best burger in the city, but if asked for a recommendation, it would still be one of my first. Rating: 7/10.
The burger isn't cooked by the big man but it's a solid burger and with the fries is a meal worth going out of your way for. Far out of your way for.