Last week I explained the new direction this review column is taking, including the fact that I’ll no longer be eating or writing about mystery meat. In this case, “mystery meat” is when the only information you’ve got is what kind (and maybe what part) of animal you’re eating. If you don’t know anything about how it lived or died, it’s mystery meat. There are many shades of mystery, and this simple-sounding mandate was tested numerous times during my first attempt to follow it. Five Star Burgers makes it clear that its beef comes from Harris Ranch (California). There’s also “all natural” turkey (Texas) and chicken (North Carolina), lamb (Colorado), and wild salmon and tuna. This menu was clearly created with thought, talent and a keen grasp of the burger equation. Freshly ground meat is served on grilled Fano Bakery brioche buns, flanked by condiments like green chile mayo and red pepper aioli, and topped with just the right amount of tomato, lettuce, pickle and onion. I started with a turkey burger that exploded in my mouth—easily a high-water mark for juiciness. The browned, freshly ground turkey patty had pork-like flavor, and the accompanying cranberry chutney it came with—one of four chutney options—took it even further. A total masterstroke.In fact, all the sandwiches I tried were great, including a housemade veggie patty that tasted like fancy hash browns. A lamb burger’s assertive flavor was harnessed beautifully by a garlicky tzatziki sauce. And if you like your green chile on the creamy side, you’ll inhale the chicken sandwich. The green chile cheeseburger was one curious exception. It fell short mostly because the cheese was a half-inch thick, and therefore completely unmelted. Knowing what I know about Five Star Burgers, this wasn’t by design. I chalk it up to operator error in the kitchen.Inconsistency was an issue for the front as well as the back of the house on my visits. The service was painfully slow at times: I once watched a line of parties waiting to be seated stretch into the parking lot, while there were several clean, empty tables inside. Of two Caesar salads ordered on different visits, only one had croutons and black pepper. Even with its changing face, though, the Caesar was always good—and good-sized. Same goes for the Shanghai chicken salad, a robust pile of microgreens enlivened with nuts, water chestnut slices, sprouts, crispy noodles and a spicy peanut sauce. The full-size salads practically come in boats here.Inconsistencies aside, the Five Star experience is well-conceived and could go far. The restaurant, which opened last year in Albuquerque, is a satellite to the Five Star Burgers mother ship in Taos, two years older. Another branch is scheduled to open in Denver next month.Late one night, still floating on my turkey burger afterglow, I asked my computer about Harris Ranch, the name behind Five Star’s beef. I learned that Harris Ranch is the largest cattle feedlot in California, though its website contends that feedlot beef has a lower carbon footprint than grass-raised. (I also stumbled upon a series of emails published by theSan Luis Obispo Tribune, in which Harris Ranch Chairman David Wood threatened to “rethink” a pledged $150,000 donation to Cal Poly if the university didn’t re-evaluate its plan to have Michael Pollan give a speech.)Non-mystery meat doesn’t hide its secrets—but even if you don’t like the truth, you’re better off knowing. Five Star may not get its supply from organic, grass-fed or small-scale operations. But the turkey, lamb and chicken are grown with no steroids, hormones or antibiotics. And the turkey and lamb are somewhat local, though all of the meats at Five Star fall into what I would call the “clean factory farmed” category. (In other words, they avoid the worst-offending additives and residues.) Other clues, like Five Star’s biodegradable to-go containers and a commitment to avoiding trans fats, affirms that the restaurant is trying to be ahead of the curve healthwise, for people and the planet. Hats off to Five Star Burgers for playing the transparency game. And, of course, hats off for making one of the most kick-ass burgers in town.
The Alibi Recommends:Turkey burger with cranberry chutneyShanghai chicken salad or Caesar saladLamb burgerGreen chile chicken sandwich
Gorgonzola cheese and applewood-smoked bacon beef up the Five Star Burger.