The Last First Friday I Go To Race Street Cafe

Burger Breakdown

Race Street Cafe - Map It!
$10.50
Lettuce. That's it. Just lettuce.
French fries smothered with sauteed onions, fresh jalapeños and mixed cheese. Through some unholy arts, they've managed to make this not awesome.
4.5/10

Between the First Friday crowd of art school students, retirees who don't realize any semblance of culture in Philadelphia was beaten to death by Phillies fans, and the regular weekend New Jersey backwash, finding somewhere to eat in Old City can be a challenge. Fortunately on a Friday night, and especially a First Friday, all of the aforementioned peoples fall into the catchall of “tourist,” meaning they're looking for cheesesteaks or are the type to get suckered into Marmont by short-skirted barkers.

With most of south Old City awash in vodka and Red Bull, your best bet for food is heading north into the gallery district. Race Street Cafe has long been a favorite stop of mine on First Friday, since they always have a good draft list and the layout is extremely unfriendly for impromptu dance parties. They're also nicely situated between a number of galleries that long ago stopped giving out free wine, making the occasional shot pit stop at RSC necessary to keep me from driving my keys through the upteenth impressionist piece of the night. (ATTN Artists' House: We're all very impressed that went to PAFA, but no one wants to see paintings of sad people in chairs.)

The Burger: We were going to get the Race Street Burger, until we laid eyes on the enchanting Spanish Burger: a ground beef and chorizo patty topped with manchego cheese alongside fries coated with sauteed onions, fresh jalapeños and mixed cheese. (Laurence asked for his fries sans flavor.)

Spanish Burger at Race Street Cafe

Kyle: “We can only cook it medium-well.”

Immediately I realized I made a mistake, but there was little I could do. I tried to object, but Laurence had already committed, plus after a few TJ Tavern Ales at The Irish Pol (best happy hour in Philly, kids) everything I said kind of sounded like “Your face is stupid.” Resigned to my fate, I ordered another Oak Aged Yeti, determined that if my burger had to be dry, I certainly wouldn't be.

The problem with being this ridiculously intelligent is that you are so rarely wrong. I would have loved to be pleasantly surprised with how moist and juicy the Spanish burger was, but I wasn't. The beef flavor was almost completely cooked out of the burger, with the chewey and gristly texture being its only contribution, while the chorizo added some much-needed spice but was even more dry. The burger tasted like overcooked beef seasoned with chorizo spices, rather than the sexy interplay of succulent cow and pig I had envisioned. Medium-well meat at Race Street Cafe is just shy beef jerky, and the severity of the overcooking killed what could have been a great combination of flavors.

Worse yet was the kaiser roll. Was it cooked on the grill? Was it a week old? Was it made of foamcore? The bread was dry to the point of audibly crunching, but didn't have a single char mark to indicate that this was by design. It was like biting into stale Italian bread, which would have been only remotely acceptable if we were eating Italian bread.

The manchego was marginally better, with an emphasis on “marginal” and removal of “ly better.” A thick, unmelted square, it was both milky and tangy. One of the more mild cheeses you could put on a burger, the strong aftertaste is a good match to the flavor profile of beef and chorizo. Of course, flavor profiles are something you put on paper while burgers are something you put in your mouth, and in reality it didn't jive. Manchego is a dense cheese, and with the overly dry patty and crusty bread, it made chewing the sandwich laborious. The best part of the meal was being able to write “laborious” in an article. I love that word. It's like making out with yourself. Or at least making out with me.

Laborious.

Ultimately, the burger wasn't bad, but it was on the bad side of average. The delicious-sound combination of beef and pork should be a guaranteed success. As the saying goes, they reached for the moon and missed, ending up among the stars. But stars can be up to 40,000 degrees Kevlin, and that just ruins a good burger. Rating: 4/10.

Spanish Burger at Race Street Cafe

Laurence: Race Street Cafe feels like it's not quite sure if it's a dive bar or if it's a gastropub. I've always felt its ancestry is closer to the dive bar than it is to the gastropub. That's not to say I don't like the food at Race Street. It's fine food and while a great lunch spot, doesn't seem like it's much worth my time for dinner.

On the burger front, one look at the menu left us with a pretty easy choice. Eat a normal burger with nothing much on it, or eat the Spanish burger, which is ground with chorizo and topped with a night of intestinal distress in the form of manchengo cheese and fries covered in sauteed onions, jalapeños, and even more cheese. We didn't have to think twice about this.

It didn't bother me to learn that the lowest temperature the chef will cook the Spanish burger is medium-well due to the chorizo requiring a higher cooking temperature. I think Kyle cried when they said this but he kept saying he got beer in his eye, which is equally probable as he sometimes gazes at his beer too lovingly.

The Spanish burger is a spice-fest, know this going in. If you have a sensitive stomach you probably should stay away from it. Then again, if you have a sensitive stomach you probably shouldn't be eating a half pound of meat on high calorie bread. If you do have a sensitive stomach consider a transplant. I found a guy at 27th and Cecil B. Moore who can do one for only $17, cash only.

The chorizo enhances the meat with spices and an extra heat, but I'm not sure that the flavor couldn't have been nearly created without having to turn the burger into a culinary chimera. Adding the extra meat to the burger didn't do the texture any good for certain. It added a heavy chewy feel to each bite. Aside from helping to fulfill Kyle's dream of recreating Noah's arc in his stomach, I'd say adding the chorizo, if anything, hindered the flavor of the beef, which may have been intentional if it wasn't very good beef to begin with.

The onion, cheese and jalapeño-covered fries that accompany the meal are like a plate of french fry-based nachos. I recommend eating these only if you have no plans, aspirations, or hopes of having sex for the following 48 hours. Kyle and I thus enjoyed our plates of fries tremendously. Then we went to the comic book shop to load up on weekend reading material and played a few rounds of Magic: the Gathering.*

The meal isn't all heavy and liable to strip the lining from your stomach. There's also a piece of lettuce on top of it. You know, to balance the food pyramid.

The other ingredients are fine, but not worthy of much more comment. The roll was soft and seemed fresh. It was flavorful but not overly so. The lettuce was green and still crispy. I couldn't taste it though.

The Spanish burger is a good concept but so is cold fusion. We just don't have the technology to make it work yet, and trying too soon sometimes ends in disaster. In this case it just ended in a mediocre burger which I suppose is better than some sort of physics paradox that destroys the entire planet, but only mildly so. Rating: 5/10.

*This is totally true.

Verdict: 

Race Street Cafe is a fine place to get a drink if The Irish Pol is too crowded, and a fine place to eat if National Mechanics is too crowded. But it is not a fine place to get a burger.

4.5
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