With all due respect to the breaded tenderloin, burgers are getting a lot of attention right now. And this meat-patty crush has nothing to do with size or the fripperies of melted cheese and mayo. In the land of exalted greasy spoons and seasoned backyard grills, the virtue of a burger has everything to do with the quality, the flavor, and (at a time when dishes wear their farm-raised/locally sourced origins like designer labels) the provenance of the meat itself. Hence: the love fest that occurred when downtown’s quick-casual Punch Burger opened its doors in October.
For the first few weeks, the 2,200-square-foot spot had the standing-room-only look of a tent revival, with lines sometimes snaking all the way to the back dining room. The menu spans a chalkboard wall, floor to ceiling, and includes a Blue (bleu cheese, grilled onions, and mayo), a Good Morning (bacon, fried egg, and cream cheese), and an Aloha (ham, grilled pineapple, Swiss cheese, and a sweet teriyaki glaze that mixes with the juices that roll down your wrist when you chomp down). Though Punch offers ground turkey and a portobello steak as options, the burger creations center around a 1/3-pound patty—a modest portion by gourmet-burger standards—consciously sourced from Fischer Farms in Jasper, which raises grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free cattle. The resulting flavor is both dense and pure, layered with a robust umami and a sweet gaminess that melts your face on first bite. Imagine the lovechild of a Bru Burger that went slumming at Workingman’s Friend.
If you stand back and take it all in, you can see the crisp corners of a flagship location—perhaps an infant Steak 'n Shake.
In its first two months, I ate at Punch Burger a half-dozen times, which is about the average for anyone who works downtown and tries not to read too many articles on the dangers of high cholesterol. I was stuck on the Texan for a while, the sweetness of the grilled onions and barbecue sauce providing the perfect foil for the Angus’s dark beef taste. The Thai ranks among the finest of the city's peanut-butter burgers, with a thick smear settling into the crevices of the ground meat, joined by the subtle kick of sweet chili sauce and the snap of Asian slaw. The Southern Sunrise pairs a fried egg with guacamole and the chili-paste huff of Sriracha. The burgers do what they are supposed to, for the most part.
But maybe what keeps us coming back to Punch Burger, to wait in that line and order a defiantly a la carte $8 burger (the only available sides—Asian slaw, sweet-potato tots, and waffle fries—cost a couple extra bucks), is the streamlined simplicity of the experience. Punch Burger’s owners, Travis Sealls and Devon Everhart—who also run downtown’s brightly packaged assembly-line lunch spot Pita Pit—kept their concept so basic that it’s tempting to draw comparisons to SNL’s old cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger skit. You walk up to the counter and order a burger, a side, and a drink. That’s it. The young cashier gives you a number, and your selection is delivered to your table by somebody dressed in a Punch Burger–red T-shirt and baseball cap bearing the company logo. They have thought this through. Even the quickly reusable paper-lined metal basket that serves as dishware here seems to be part of some very resourceful business plan.
The same could be said of Punch Burger’s intentionally stark decor, from the sparsely adorned ketchup-colored walls to the white molded-plastic chairs that have a certain George Jetson aesthetic. If you stand back and take it all in, you see the crisp corners of a flagship location—perhaps an infant Steak ’n Shake. Move a few tables out of the way, and you could play racquetball in this dining room—the only problem being that you might knock over somebody’s local craft beer, of which Punch has a revolving selection.
The kitchen staff—on full display in the stainless-steel prep area—has a few kinks to work out. Burger temps vary wildly from pink-on-the-inside to overcooked, even among diners in the same sitting. And the ordering system has some kind of hiccup that plays Abbott and Costello tricks on the servers and customers. “Oh, did you want your Aloha to go? Be right back. Oh, you wanted tots with that? Be right back.” Sometimes the experience is a bit more impersonal and institutional than we are used to these days.
Sometimes, that’s exactly how we like it.
137 E. Ohio St., 426-5280, punchburger.com
Hours Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a. m.–10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue.