By Frank Sabatini Jr.
There are three spots within 15 yards where you can indulge in the fiercely eclectic food from Burnside if you don’t take it home or to wherever you’re headed.
The smartly designed eatery offers a mix of indoor-outdoor seating on rustic wooden tables looking out to the commercial pulse of Normal Heights. Although if you conjure up an appetite while imbibing at Sycamore Den a couple addresses east, or the Ould Sod one door west, a Burnside employee will walk over your food on a metal cookie sheet.
Sycamore Den owner Nick Zanoni opened Burnside earlier this year to fill the culinary void of his retro cocktail lounge, which he launched previously as a tribute to his father. Food orders placed at the bar go directly into the eatery’s computer system. Ould Sod customers, however, must trot over to Burnside to make their selections. In either case, the chow is delivered directly to your bar stool.
The menu was conceived in part by Ronnie Sees, a Filipino chef experienced in Vietnamese cooking as well. We were dying to try his lumpia, a recipe of his grandmother’s that is filled with shrimp, ground beef and veggies. But they had sold out.
We instead delved into an array of globally inspired dishes that mingle familiar ingredients in titillating, unexpected ways.
Nowhere else, for example, will you encounter white cheddar hiding inside falafel. Available as an appetizer, the cheese shows up within the fried chickpea balls as tiny warm spots, adding a modicum of richness where you don’t usually find it. Served four to an order, and with a cup of tomato-y hummus to boot, the tzatziki sauce underneath the falafel was delightfully cool and creamy.
French fries take on a whole different personality when they’re topped with the primary ingredients of a banh mi sandwich. But it worked for us as we forked through pork belly, cabbage, green peppers, cilantro and hoisin sauce to get to the thin, crispy spuds.
When Burnside first opened, I recall seeing about 10 sandwiches listed on its menu. The selection has since been pared down to about five, which includes a tempting burger with Fontina and American cheeses, fresh greens and Thousand Island dressing.
Skipping over the pork belly banh mi as well as a deluxe grilled cheese on buttered white bread that includes a cup of soup du jour, we chose the Cubano and the “fried hen” sandwich.
The surprise accompaniment with the Cubano was mojo sauce, a rare find in a city that sorely lacks Cuban kitchens. The bitter-spicy sauce is made traditionally from orange juice, limes, garlic, herbs and black pepper. Without the mojo, we realized, this popular pressed sandwich layered with pork, pickles and Swiss cheese isn’t really complete.
The chicken sandwich featured a battered, fried breast that started out Southern-style until meshing with carrot slaw, leafy greens, house ranch and a pretzel bun. Then it became trendy, but satisfying nonetheless.
Beef brisket tacos (sold in pairs) are also on the menu with their busy constructs of tender meat that tasted like Sunday roast beef, plus manchego cheese, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and roasted jalapeno cream sauce. My companion loved them. I was indifferent to the barrage of flavors.
Burnside offers a few daily specials that tap into its draft and nitro beer lineup. On Tuesdays, for example, you can land a burger, Tater Tots and a glass of beer for $10, or a grilled cheese instead of the burger on Wednesdays. The suds listed on the board when we visited included Monkey Paw 24 Carrot Ale, Blood Orange Wit, and Mother Earth Bookoo IPA.
Whatever you eat and drink, the offerings are designed to steer your palate off the beaten track while breaking some hackneyed culinary rules along the way.