The Drexel eatery gets a gold star for strong presentation.
Before last week, I’d never actually eaten a veggie burger and thought to myself, “You know what, I might actually order this again.” It’s not that there aren’t some great vegetable patties out there; it’s just that I’d never found one that even came close to what a juicy mountain of ground beef accomplishes.
And while this one, at the appealing new Spencer ETA Burger up by Drexel, still won’t be replacing beef burgers in my eating life, the way it’s prepped makes it an absolutely solid option not just for vegetarians, but also for carnivores who want to dabble in slightly healthier dining once in a while. Much of this success is a result of the philosophy espoused at Spencer ETA Burger: That the toppings make the burger. So while the patty itself was perfectly fine, the accompanying accoutrements were what lifted it above the mass of ashen examples elsewhere around town.
I ordered mine as a Greek burger. The Vesuvius of sweet roasted bell peppers, the tangle of spinach capped with tomato and grilled eggplant, the funky black olive tapenade and tangy feta, the onion-chickpea-cucumber slaw, the roasted garlic aioli—all of it lent the veg patty an excitement it’s rarely lavished with.
The homemade toppings here take center stage, not just over the meatless burgers but over the beef as well. The meat is fine, mind you—plenty juicy and seasoned with a deft hand—but the toppings tend to be so generously applied, and occasionally so baroque in their constituent combination of components, they simply steal the proverbial show.
The Tomahto Daddy is a good example. Check out the dense pleasures of the herbed and panko-fried tomato slice, the creaminess of the melting American cheese, and the caper-flecked riff on a Big Mac’s special sauce. Even the Southwest Gobbler turkey burger worked well: The lean meat remained remarkably juicy—not always the case with ground poultry—and was helped along by an excellent, almost roasty tomato buffalo sauce and a lusty, chipotle-kissed, blue-cheese/red-onion dressing. These were joined by bell peppers, black beans, corn, pepper jack and crispy strips of tortilla.
It’s all drunk-food par excellence, fatty and carby enough to absorb all kinds of booze, but far more flavorful and better assembled than that classification typically implies. It makes sense that this is the brainchild of the team behind Sabrina’s; in fact, a number of the preparations here seem to share a good bit of DNA with those beloved brunch spots dotting the city. (There’s one across the way from Spencer, also in Ross Commons, and it’s doing well, especially now that the students are back.)
There are occasionally missteps. Dr. I’s Burger, a sort-of nighttime equivalent of Sabrina’s breakfast burrito with huevos rancheros sauce, guacamole, and lime sour cream, never quite makes it past the too-starchy application of beans I found on mine. And the Ultimate Spencer Burger, lavished with sweet poached apples, raspberry-red-onion-herb ketchup and cheddar, needs real pork bacon, not the dry strips of turkey bacon being used right now.
But these are quibbles, and the overriding philosophy that seems to be guiding Spencer ETA Burger is one of joyous gluttony. Roll up your sleeves, tuck into a burger or two, and enjoy the ride. Tear into a couple of fried cheddar-jalapeno polenta sticks, their crusts generous and crisp, the centers nicely reliant on the actual flavor of corn, and a kick at the end of it all prepping you for the next one. Or a tangle of sweet potato fries, the perfume of cinnamon somehow perfect this time of year.
For a long time, Philly’s meat-loving orientation has undoubtedly fueled an explosion of remarkable burger patties; give me Pub & Kitchen’s Churchill burger any day and I’ll be a happy guy indeed. Spencer ETA Burger, though, has convinced me that the topping-centric school of thought deserves to be explored more extensively.
227 N. 34th St. (in Ross Commons) 215.222.1022. spenceretaburger.com
Hours: Thurs., 5pm–midnight; Fri., 5pm–1am; Sat., 11am–1am; Sun., 11am–10pm.
Price Range: $3–$22.
Atmosphere: Open, cheery and perfect for the food.
Food: Joyously messy and tasty.
Service: Friendly and smart.
Dinner with Luke Palladino