The Art District downtown is a multifaceted ever changing thing. Moving neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street, people are always fighting over where it begins and ends, which warehouses are cool and which ones ain’t. It’s as nebulous as it is magical. Restaurants, galleries, lofts, and theaters are popping up all over the urban landscape in the most unlikely of places. And burgers. Did I mention that? Gourmet burgers are popping up too.
Little Bear is a gourmet Belgian bar that takes their pub food seriously. Created by the same awesome family that built Oinkster, one can only guess that is an homage to Belgian beer and their Belgian style French fries (I just made that up. Those fries are worth building a restaurant around regardless.) Nestled on Industrial St. between Mateo and Mill, the place is unmistakably inviting with its bright red door, which acts almost as if it’s taunting (the delicious) Church and State across the street with its flare. I was almost surprised there wasn’t a sign on the side of the building that read “Yo Church and State, do you serve burgers? I didn’t think so.” (Church and State does not serve burgers. Why? I don’t know. It’s disappointing. They should, but I digress. Back on topic.)
Inside the doors the place is spacious and modern, while remaining warm and inviting. Maps of Belgium line the walls and giant nets hang from the ceiling in aesthetically pleasing formations. It’s got the feel of a hip bar in Chicago or Minneapolis. As advertised, there is an incredibly long beer list as well as some creative cocktails and pretty much anything else your heart desires.
The menu is full of gourmet things that are supremely bad for you and very tempting. (I’m looking at you grilled cheese list. I’ll come back for you another day.) In terms of burgers, they’ve got three: The Little Bear burger, the Classic burger, and the Veggie burger. I’m proud to announce I ate all three (not at the same time. I’m not that impressive). The Little Bear burger is an exercise in showing off. Fresh ground beef, truffle aioli, stilton cheese, mushrooms, arugula, crispy onions aka thinly sliced onion rings, and cherry gastrique on a brioche bun. Or in other words how many fancy ingredients can you fit on a bun without going overboard?
The question was did it pay off? Yes and no. The truffle aioli overpowered any hint of stilton on the burger, which isn’t good. A good Stilton should be able to overpower anything be it man or beast or aioli. But the sweetness of the onions held their own against the earthy truffle flavor and the result was a damn fine burger. The cherry gastrique was completely lost on me until I read the menu later online. I had no idea that was on there, which means it should probably be taken off. It’s like when the dealership tries to talk you into putting fancy nitrogen air in your tires. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If you don’t notice, there’s no point.
The surprise of the night was the Classic burger. Whenever a “classic” burger is on a menu, I’ve always assumed it’s for the fussy eaters who want something that they recognize. It usually means American cheese, ketchup, iceberg lettuce, a slice of onion, a slice of tomato, and at best no effort from the chef (at worst disdain and probably some spit). At Little Bear it means the Oinkster burger which is a whole other story. Yes, it contains the usual suspects but the ingredients are fresh and the proportions are perfect: ground beef, heirloom tomatoes, raw onion, dill pickle, Thousand Island dressing, Bibb lettuce, and a brioche bun, and by God it beats the fancy pants burger by a mile. Blasphemy, I know. How is it possible that the Classic burger with its thousand island dressing could possibly beat out something covered in truffle aioli? I couldn’t tell you. Both are delicious, but for reasons only known to the chef, the Classic cannot be improved upon.
Footnote: You need to try again with your veggie burger. It is a hot, sloppy mess. It tastes like bean chili on a bun. I know you just put it on there to appease the vegans (because honestly who wouldn’t choose a grilled cheese?) but you can do better. I know you can. Take out that old drawing board and have a do over. Call me when you do. Love, Molly.
Classic and Farro Burger Photos by Adam Carver.