Six years ago, the Idaho Statesman’s restaurant reviewer wrote that he’d tasted “the best burger in the Valley.”
“By like a mile,” he drooled, his words and face melting like a slice of American cheese.
The high-end patty — a freshly ground fusion of beef brisket, pork belly and seasoning — exploded “through the roof on flavor and richness,” the review raved. “Going to this after eating any pre-formed, mass-produced patty served at most restaurants in the Treasure Valley is like turning on taste in high-def.”
The ecstasy was fleeting. Grind Modern Burger — a gastropub that opened in Meridian and moved to Boise — folded in 2016.
But that transcendent burger still quietly sizzles.
Flipping gourmet patties in a State Street parking lot, Ryan Hembree reminisces about perfecting his meat blend and cooking technique. He and fellow chef Eric White spent a month experimenting. When Grind eventually closed, “it definitely wasn’t because of the food,” he declares.
For upscale-burger aficionados, Hembree’s present location is an extra-juicy story. Along with White, he owns Distal Provisions, which serves food at Capitol Bar, a 21-and-older hangout at 6100 W. State St.
The same recipe
Most days, the chefs work in the cocktail lounge’s small kitchen, fulfilling bar orders ranging from grilled cheese sandwiches to ancho shrimp tacos.
But when warm weather blossoms in mid-June, the burgers are reborn — on an outdoor, flat-top griddle.
Two options — a Provisions Burger and a Green Chile Cheeseburger — are sold Fridays and Saturdays. They’re available from 3 p.m. until they’re gone, or as late as 9 p.m. Each costs $12 and comes with crinkle-cut fries. The fries are either house-seasoned or spicy-seasoned, and served with ketchup or Distal Provisions habanero ranch sauce.
Grind Modern Burger fans will remember these 1/3-pound meat masterpieces. “The patty we hand grind is the same recipe,” Hembree says.
Is this still “the best burger in the Valley,” as the Statesman’s critic shouted to the heavens in 2013?
“Absolutely,” Hembree says.
“I would take this piece of meat between two slices of bread against any burger on the West Coast.”
This assertion comes with the confidence of a man who won “Guy’s Grocery Games” on Food Network. The episode, called “Big Burger Battle,” aired in March 2016 — one month after Grind Modern Burger shuttered. Using ingredients such as salmon, beef, pork and veal, Hembree beat three other chefs.
Boiseans wandering into Capitol Bar don’t know about Hembree winning $18,000 in a Guy Fieri contest. Or that he grew up in Alaska before attending culinary school in Portland. Or that Hembree, 43, and White, 36, have cooked together for 18 years, on and off. (Hembree is the burger-obsessed one.)
But regulars know that if you wait too long to order, those hamburgers might sell out on Saturday night.
The Provisions Burger is Hembree’s interpretation of the classic In-N-Out style craved by so many Idahoans. Served on a brioche bun, it’s topped with crisp iceberg lettuce, fresh tomatoes, white onion, a thick slice of American cheese and house-made, Southern-style comeback sauce.
The Green Chile Cheeseburger is a similarly hedonistic journey. “It’s pretty simple,” Hembree says. Also on a brioche bun, the patty is layered with house aioli, grilled green chile pepper, white cheddar cheese and white onion.
When it comes to toppings, Hembree believes less is more.
“The burger game has become about toppings,” he says. “When I take a taste of a burger, the first thing I want to stand out is the patty.”
A nibble of his unleashes a wave of luscious flavor.
A massive, teeth-sinking chomp works, too.
“Would it be bad if I ordered another one?” asks D.J. Lyttle, 36, a friend of Hembree’s from Meridian. Wiping burger juice from his beard, Lyttle is devouring an extra-thick Provisions Burger on the Capitol Bar patio.
Do you always order a double, which costs another $3?
“Always,” Lyttle states coolly.
Eyes and mouth widening, Lyttle returns to his attack. After all, burgers will be on the menu only until Sept. 14.
Hembree and White blend patties hours before they’re cooked. First, fresh brisket or chuck gets a pass through a grinder, along with a secret ratio of pork belly. Then comes seasoning. (“That’s definitely a secret,” Hembree adds.) A second pass through the grinder fully incorporates the seasoning.
The result is a work of burger art. And butcher science.
“We’re doing some manual protein extraction in the grinding and pattying process,” Hembree explains, “and that protein extraction binds the burgers together. It also encapsulates fat and water, and that’s what causes burgers to be so juicy. When you grill them, you’ve extracted that fat and made an emulsion out of the fat. And when you cook it, the proteins coagulate around the fat, and it holds all those juices in there.”
“I’m getting geeky! I’m getting geeky!” Hembree exclaims happily.
The pork belly has a small role as a flavoring agent, he says. But its main job is on the griddle.
“Pork fat renders at a lower temperature than beef fat does,” Hembree says. “So when we put it on the grill, almost immediately, the pork fat becomes liquid and becomes that cooking medium — what the burgers are cooked in.”
“See that?” he says, pointing a stainless-steel spatula at fat frizzling on the griddle.
“... On the flip side of that, the pork fat is left on the burger. Pork fat melts closer to body temperature than beef. It coats and moves through your mouth and melts away easier on your tongue.”
A melt-in-your-mouth hamburger? Is that the goal?
“There you go!” Hembree says approvingly.
‘It hits your soul’
As Lyttle considers crushing a second cheeseburger, another longtime Boise friend, Chris Kaufman, 44, sips a beer knowingly. Kaufman estimates he’s eaten 50 of Hembree’s burgers, dating back to the Grind days and earlier.
“There are a lot of good burgers around town,” Kaufman says, “but this one is just super-tasty.”
Kaufman also gravitates to hamburgers at Highlands Hollow Brewhouse on Bogus Basin Road, he says.
“Theirs are different burgers. If you look at the patties here, they’re juicy. They’re oozing with goodness out of them. ... It really hits your soul. It makes you feel good.”
Positive vibes are what this burger is about. And they radiate in both directions.
With White out of town on a recent weekend, Hembree shut down the bar’s regular menu and offered only burgers.
The response was gratifying.
“We had people eat one and order a second one,” Hembree says. “ ‘Like, that’s the best burger I’ve ever had. I need to get a second one right now.’ ”