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Burger Friday: Restoring the fabled diner tradition at Revival

The burger: For chef Thomas Boemer, a native Minnesotan who grew up in North Carolina, tradition is everything.

“We’re kind of losing touch with great American food,” he said. “We’re losing that lure of traditional cooking.”

That sense of a fading heritage is the impetus behind Revival, the Southern-fried restaurant that he and business partner Nick Rancone launched in late March in the 43rd-and-Nicollet space that was once the original home of their Corner Table.

“This is the food that I grew up eating,” said Boemer. “I can’t find it anywhere, which is why it’s important that we revitalize it. When you look at our black-eyed peas, or our mac-and-cheese, we’re not giving them some kind of clever twist. We’re giving them a true incarnation of what they’re supposed to be.”

For his phenomenal, category-shredding burger, Boemer wholly embraces that same philosophy. No dolled-up, pub-style burger for him. Instead, he celebrates the diner burger of old, recognizable for its thin, griddled patty (two, actually, but more on that in a moment) one that’s taken to a caramelized – and even occasionally crunchy -- exterior and packs a wallop of unbridled beefy flavor.

The Revival burger's beef, a decadent and ultra-fatty blend of house-ground short rib and grass-fed brisket, gets a brief press on the flattop, and you’d think that a thin-ish patty would wilt under all that heat. Not here. The meat's built-in, naturally occurring fat allows the patty to cook evenly, and slowly, yielding a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Hamburger, meet cotton candy. Cue swooning.

Two of those thin-ish patties stacked on top of one another give this burger an impressive heft. But it’s more than just looks. Don’t believe me? You do the math: Each patty has two sizzling sides that come to life on that hot flattop, and four sides of flavorful char are better than two, right? Absolutely.

Boemer shows admirable restraint when it comes to the add-ons (You want excess? Order the sweet tea, which would pass sugar-content muster in any sweltering Carolina cafe). The cheese, and plenty of it, is strictly American, a nice and salty specimen. By the time the burger reaches the table, that bright orange goodness has oozily transformed from slice into a kind of semi-sauce.

The bread-and-butter pickles could not be improved upon, contributing much-needed crunch along with a clean vinegar zing to cut through the beef’s considerable richness (the hint of clove is a happy bonus).

Then there’s the bun. It’s perfection. Boemer has it baked to his specifications at St. Agnes Baking Co. At first glance, it might appear a bit undersized, but take a few bites and you’ll immediately understand Boemer’s thinking: he really nails the beef-to-bread ratio, allowing the bun to perform its structural engineering without letting it overwhelm the burger’s other elements. It gets a light toast on the grill, just to warm it up, and a generous swipe of mayo.

That’s it, and the whole shebang truly wants for nothing. (Well, except for a few slabs of the kitchen’s impressive house-cured bacon, which nudged the burger so far over the top that it was dangling, head-first, down the other side). Lettuce? Tomato? They’re not missed.

What can I say? Barely a month in business, and Revival is cranking out one of the Twin Cities’ great burgers. It knocked this burger hound flat. Literally. After consuming little more than half of one before my appetite cried “uncle,” I wanted nothing more than to take a nap. I’m not the first one, apparently.

“It’s kind of a productivity-ender for the day,” said Boemer with a laugh. “We have to be careful, because, since we make them all day, we want to eat them all day. But if you do that, it’s hard to recover for the dinner service.”

Price: $13.

Fries: None. Instead, a monster pile of cork-shaped hush puppies. It’s quite the substitution, as Boemer knows exactly what he’s doing, with deeply browned and delicately crunchy outsides that yield to piping hot, wonderfully fluffy (and occasionally cornmeal-crunchy) insides. To call them hugely addicting would be an understatement.

Eat your greens: I can’t recall the last time that I was so immediately infatuated by a tossed salad. But that’s what happened at Revival, a total like-a-lot-at-first-taste moment. Correction: First smell moment, thanks to a fragrant buttermilk dressing, its tanginess wafting up from the plate and smacking me in the nose.

“It’s that smell of buttermilk,” said Boemer. “To me, it’s one of the quintessential scents of the Southern kitchen. With all the cases and cases of buttermilk that we’re using here, it makes us feel like we’re doing something right.”

And how. That dressing – it’s a clean, light twist on a basic ranch – appears as if it’s brushed, liberally, across leaves of tender, ultra-fresh Bibb lettuce. Stems of watercress – subtly spicy, not that smack-you-across-your-taste buds peppery watercress – are tossed in for good measure, along with thinly sliced radishes. Soft cubes of freshly baked corn bread stand in for croutons. Sure, I wanted to indulge in the pork rinds, and the chicken livers, and the fried green tomatoes. The fried chicken, definitely. But I’m so glad that I chose dietary restraint and went for this vibrant, palate-cleansing, brush-with-springtime salad. I can’t imagine visiting the restaurant and not ordering it.

Banana cream wow: What are the three words that everyone longs to hear? After “I love you,” it’s a pretty safe bet that “banana cream pie” rates a close second. For me, anyway.

And for Boemer. “It’s one of my all-time favorite pies, I absolutely love it,” he said.

He and I are clearly not alone. Since the restaurant opened in late March, the dessert menu has featured three classic Southern pies: Chess pie, a pecan/sorghum pie (which wisely subs out one-note corn syrup for tangier sorghum) and banana cream pie; not surprisingly, banana cream outsells the others. “By a three-to-one margin, if not more," said Boemer. “They just fly out of here.”

No wonder. The Revival version – prepared by baker Tess (kitchen nickname: “Testify”) Bouska, a Corner Table vet – is nothing short of spectacular. Bouska honors all the time-tested elements of this Southern classic, but applies her professional know-how into each step. Every big-old slice is a testament to simplicity. The foundation is a sturdy, not-too-sweet graham cracker crust. That’s topped with a voluptuous vanilla-kissed pastry cream. Plenty of fresh bananas follow, and then the crowning touch: a cloud of Chantilly cream, fortified with mascarpone to give it body and heft. It is, in a word, beyond.

Address book: 4257 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-4516. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. No reservations.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Twin Cities restaurants supporting Nepal earthquake victims

As we reported in this week's Counter Intelligence, members of the generous Twin Cities restaurant community is stepping up to support victims of earthquake-ravaged Nepal. As a reminder, here are three ways for diners to get involved:

From May 1 to May 8, co-owners Rashmi Bhattachan and Sarala Kattel of Gorkha Palace in northeast Minneapolis (pictured, above, in a Star Tribune file photo) are donating 20 percent of their gross sales to earthquake victims, through the nonprofit Association of Nepalis in Minnesota.

Himalayan Restaurant co-owners Naveen Shrestha and Pravin Shrestha will donate 100 percent of their south Minneapolis restaurant’s proceeds to earthquake relief efforts from May 5 to May 7.

And Namaste Cafe in Uptown Minneapolis is leading an effort to raise $30,000 for earthquake-ravaged Nepal. Go here to donate.