Slammin' shakes and sides compliment the inconsistent burgers at this West Philly spot.
Somewhere in Orlando, Fla., the line for Splash Mountain was blushing. Back here in Philly, the queue of hungry people poured out of the double doors of Bobby’s Burger Palace, a millipede of rowdy undergrads, prim secretaries, bespectacled Laureates, off-duty cops, West Philadelphians (born and raised) and Bridge-goers missing their movies.
Inside, where the walls wear condiment-colored suspenders (French’s yellow, Heinz red, Bull’s-eye brown, A-1 maroon), the line snaked around turnstiles and through lanes. Back and forth. Back and forth. A fake-out line, a term my brother coined as a kid for the sneaky queues at Disney World. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty ...
Corporate says the average wait from entering to eating is five to eight minutes. In my case, they were only about 40 minutes off the mark.
The rest of the Rockwell Group-designed space is stained relish-green, with long communal tables and a serpentine counter set beneath a matching light box, exposed ductwork and glowing cippollini-shaped baubles. All 71 seats were taken.
This is the magnetic appeal of Bobby’s Burger Palace, the (supposedly)-quick-serve West Philly operation inspired by chef and TV personality Bobby Flay’s boyhood summers at the Jersey Shore. The first location outside the New York region landed on the ground floor of University City’s fly Radian compound in April, an immediate hit with carnivores and fans of the Food Network chef. Eyes eagerly scanned the crowd. A woman bumped into me. Is that a Sharpie in her pocket?
But the charismatic Flay does not make the burgers here. In fact, if he saw what was being passed off as burgers the night I dined, the grill guru would blind himself with the nearest pair of tongs.
I could like the Napa Valley Burger, with Vermont goat cheese and Meyer-lemon honey mustard, had it not been built as carelessly as Depression-era tenement housing. There was more cheese than there was beef—the creamy mound half off the edge of the sandwich like a muffin-top on too-tight jeans—and the mustard was undetectable. The Buffalo Style Burger was just as messy, slimed by the cooks with not-hot hot sauce and not-tangy blue-cheese dressing. It was a Rorschach test of black and white and orange, a 5-year-old Flyers fan’s fingerpaint disaster. Both burgers came garnished with wet, wilted watercress you wouldn’t feed a homeless rabbit.
Composed of an 80/20 blend of Midwest-grown Angus steer, the patties were the inexplicable silver lining, cooked according to a four-step method. Season. Sear. Flip. Steam. A sign in the kitchen reads, “Bobby says melt the cheese completely,” so for burgers topped with sliced Cheddar or American, the method goes: Season. Sear. Flip. Steam. Cheese. Steam. That first visit, both burgers came cooked correctly to an even medium pink. On a follow-up lunch, the L.A. Burger, cheddar-veiled and avocado-topped, was much more photogenic (and took just 10 minutes), but the temperature through the half-inch-thick patty varied bite by bite, well-done in one spot, medium-rare another. At least the watercress was fresh.
While the Palace’s burgers lack consistency, the rest of the menu performs well. Hot, crisp and salty, the huge onion rings could orbit Saturn. Meanwhile, the fries are the Jack and Karen to the burgers’ Will and Grace, supporting cast outshining stars with stalactite edges that catch on blobs of chipotle mayo. The BBP crew fashions fries from sweet potatoes, too; they look like orange Crayolas arranged upright in their squat square tins. A sidecar of honey horseradish sauce rolls with, and condiment caddies pepper the counter’s Joan Holloway curves, old-school squeeze bottles pumping new-school squirts like chipotle ketchup and jalapeño jam.
And the shakes! Eleven ounces of Edy’s for every 16-ounce shake creates creamy, cement-thick foundations for flavors that follow (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry) and rebel against (mango, blueberry-pomegranate, cola) ice-cream parlor etiquette. I loved the nutty, exotic pistachio and the chocolate—dark, not too sweet and best malted. There’s Simply Lemonade and Jersey-bred Boylans soda, too, if you’re feeling like a prudent bore, but I’ll stick with the caramel-swirled vanilla shake spiked with a slug of smoky Jim Beam.
Just expect to be carded. You must be this tall to ride.
For more on Philly food, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
3925 Walnut St.
Cuisine: Burgers & Fries.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11am-10pm, Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm.
Atmosphere: Fun, colorful and crowded as a carnival.
Dinner with Luke Palladino