Red-blooded beef for red-blooded Americans
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
There is no food more American than the almighty hamburger. It’s beefy and juicy, it lacks pretension and, when it’s grilled just right, it tastes a little like freedom. Despite its simple and inherent perfection, there's also no lack of folks who invariably come along and try to improve it. Maybe it's the meddling (if well-meaning) American in them.
Independence Grill, with its über-patriotic décor (Norman Rockwell prints, enlarged documents bearing the founding fathers' signatures et al), makes such an attempt. Where Assets Grille once stood on Montgomery just west of Louisiana, Independence pours domestic and imported booze and flips burgers made from a Japanese breed of cow reared in the good old U. S. of A. It's called American Kobe, or Wagyu beef, and it finds its way into all of Independence’s burgers and hot dogs; "not for its snob appeal," explains the restaurant’s website, but because it's “absolutely the best beef on the planet.” Fair enough. But I'll argue that grinding it and cooking it burger-style renders the finer points of Wagyu—namely, its delicate marbling—moot.
Ideological debates aside, the burgers are damn good. When cooked to proper doneness—I’d recommend medium or less—these filler-free hamburgers are moist and huge in beefy flavor. (Sliders are a different story. The mini patties are thin, and when they hit the grill they quickly cook to a dry and chewy well-done. Stick with the big boys.) Entrée-sized burgers can be topped in every manner imaginable and rarely disappoint. The Italian treatment comes loaded with mozzarella, garlic-infused olive oil and basil. But with such flavorful burgers, there’s really no need to pile on the toppings.
Independence offers far more than burgers, and several beefless dishes shine brightly. On the appetizer menu, “pork wings” are phenomenal. Tender pork shanks become a pure carnal delight when doused in a fiery chile sauce. Served with a side of ranch dressing to help cool the burn, they make traditional chicken wings seem boring. Seriously, go eat them right now. A grilled portobello cap stuffed with pesto, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes is straightforward and tasty. It's also one of the few vegetarian choices here.
There are other highlights on the menu. Independence's take on a French dip is generous in size and flavor. Unadorned except for a rich au jus dipping sauce, ask for a side of horseradish to dab on this pile of thinly sliced prime rib. There's chicken-fried steak—too peppery for my taste but otherwise fantastic: Creamy country gravy and a crunchy coating give way to fork-tender cube steak. Orders of "drunken" beer-battered fish and chicken fillets are overwhelmingly filling. Though the thick breading can become doughy near its center, the outside is crisp with no trace of greasiness.
Portions are sized for the modest appetite of a famine-stricken elephant. And still there is more: Entrées come with one or two sides. If budgeting room in your stomach is an issue, skip the passable sautéed mushrooms for crisp, evenly seasoned sweet potato fries or savory, perfectly fried onion rings.
Service is friendly but somewhat slow. I waited for plates to be cleared and often lost track of my servers. But when they reappeared they were nice.
I can't agree with Independence’s views on ground Wagyu or watered-down politics—the restaurant hosted last week's “tea party” in Albuquerque. But we clearly both appreciate an excellent burger, and in the end, there's no difference that can't be settled over a few of those. The beer helps, too.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The Alibi recommends:
• Pork wings
• Prime rib dip
• Chicken-fried steak
• Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while shoving a burger down your gullet. Extra points for remembering which hand goes where.
Independence Grill, 6910H Montgomery NE, 837-BURGER (2874), abqburger.com. Hours: Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Price range: $8.95 (petite Indy cheeseburger) to $23.95 (wood-fired prime rib). Ambience: Sean Hannity’s favorite hangout. Credit cards, booze, large parties.