There was a time when the "gourmet" burger wasn’t really a thing in the Twin Cities. Up until 2006, burgers were basic corner bar fare.
That year, the Bulldog Northeast introduced burgers featuring ultra-premium ingredients, house-ground meat, and a chef’s attention to technique – each one cooked in a cast-iron skillet. The early favorite became the "Junk Burger," with roasted garlic aioli, Fischer Farms bacon, tomato, onion, Bibb lettuce, and sautéed mushrooms.
The tiny kitchen struggled to keep up with demand – but after a change in leadership and focus, they leaned into their strengths, and became a burger destination.
"Burgers can be anything – with the exception of putting something inedible on them – there's such a multitude of options for this one canvas," said Bulldog Northeast's executive chef and soon-to-be-owner Kevin Kraus.
"We're buying this bar."
After 11 years of grinding and flipping at least an estimated 50,000 patties at the restaurant, Kraus purchased the business from original owners Chris and Amy Rowland. The Bulldog Northeast will close on October 5, and reopen the following week as the Stray Dog.
The Rowlands are off to new adventures, and since working at the Bulldog is the only job Kraus has held for 11 years, he couldn't fathom moving on. He called his brother and said, "We're buying this bar." (Kraus eventually purchased the business on his own.) The Stray Dog name further distances itself from the other three local Bulldogs (not owned by the Rowlands) in downtown Minneapolis, Uptown, and Lowertown over in St. Paul. Kraus wanted to send a clear message: he's his own dog.
Kraus said he'll look back at his time at the Bulldog and pull together the most-successful ideas and keep those for the Stray Dog. A couple of those successes that will return include all-day breakfast, and a Polpettone, an over-the-top open-faced meatloaf sandwich. Also, he said, anyone that's been 86'd over the years gets a second chance.
"After all, I might need the business," he joked.
From fine dining to burgers for the people
When the Bulldog Northeast originally opened, local celebrity chef Landon Schoenefeld (Haute Dish, Nighthawks) was at the helm. Then, as now, he had very specific ideas about treating standard American cookery like fine-dining fare. The burgers were cut, cured, and hand-ground in house, and cooked in a cast iron skillet. The tomatoes and lettuce were cut and hand-pulled to order.
Eventually, it became untenable for the restaurant to both keep up with the kind of volume they wanted to do and maintain the fine-dining standard as applied to bar food. So the Bulldog evolved into a something-for-everyone burger destination. Kraus estimated the restaurant grosses around three times as much as fine-dining estabishments.
Kraus still gets to paint that burger canvas with a much more colorful brush than, say, what Heavy Table has coined the "Au Cheval Like Burger" – ubiquitous variations on the double-patty smash burger with American cheese on a white bun. Kraus called it boring, and refused to have one on his menu.
"I'm standing my ground," he said. The closest thing they have at the Bulldog is the "American Burger," which is more like a giant Whopper.
Stray Dog will still be all about the burgers
What Kraus calls getting his creative yayas out, has turned into a game for diners at the table: "Do I dare order it?" He's put quince paste, funky Morbier cheese, or duck bacon on burgers. They've made buns out of cornbread, or put cherries in the buns. But they also upgraded the classics, like an old-fashioned bacon cheeseburger with Fischer Farms bacon and Wisconsin's Nordic Creamery cheese.
When the Stray Dog arrives, it'll still boast a dozen burgers, plus build-your-own options. You can still get that Junk Burger, though some of the fancy techniques have been stripped away – no more cast-iron skillet.
Bulldog Northeast burgers have not enjoyed the acclaim of the Parlour Burger, and Kraus is just fine with that. The expense of making those sorts of "it" burgers (often with copious butter in high-end meat like Wagyu, or served on brioche buns) he said, makes them injudicious for a restaurant attracting an amalgam of stadium-goers, suburban dwellers who flood into the city for the weekend, and joggers and bikers zipping by for a bite.
The most successful idea will stay the same: the burger is never perfect – better, bigger, beefier stratospheres are always worth reaching for. Kraus even still occasionally eats a burger himself, though cops to liking dogs better.