The Underdog Meats & Beers – Always, and I mean always, support the Underdog!

After my slightly critical story about Annie’s Burger Shack here in Nottingham (click here for that story) , I figured I’d also write a positive story about burgers. Who knows, it might give Annie some ideas…

A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to go to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with Mrs Urban Wildman, who had to go there for work. I can write a lot about Sao Paulo but will probably do so in a different post. Let me just say for now that it is huge, an eye-opener and has got some of the best food on the planet!

We were staying in the Pinheiros district of the city, famous for its bohemian character, with Vila Madalena as the culmination in urban cool. think tight trousers, craft beer, beards and loads of tattoos. Now, I like beer, have a beard and tattoos but have never felt more outclassed in all of them as in Sao Paulo!
In the area, around the corner from the hotel, we were recommended to go to a burger place. Initially we were skeptical, I mean burgers, really? But we decided to go anyway and OMG, what a place!

underdogThe place was called the Underdog Meat and Beers (address R. João Moura, 541 – Pinheiros, São Paulo – SP, 05412-001, Brazil) and the story was that the owner spent a couple of years down in Argentina, mastering the art of the “Asado”, the South American way of barbecue.

Traditionally an asado consists of an open fire with huge cuts of meat around it on sticks or poles. How far or close to the fire the meat is, determines the cooking and to stop the meat from drying out, you baste it with its own juices as you catch them dripping down. asadoYou cut pieces of these huge chunks of meat as they are cooked and dip them in chimichurri sauce, a sauce of chopped parsley, dried oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, onion, and paprika with olive oil. Nowadays, you can also create an asado a la parilla, whereby you create the fire, let it die down into embers and place a grill over the top for grilling the meats.

The Underdog is probably the smallest restaurant I have ever visited, it is tiny! Looking in, there is a bar dividing the space in two halves lengthways, from which the drinks are served. This is also where the only indoor seats are, there are about 6 bar stools for punters and you can just about squeeze past behind them to find the toilets in the back. Behind the bar is also the asado, where the magic happens. They don’t do anything fancy here, but what they do is very, very good. The beer is very nice, with a lot of US IPA’s (Shipyard Brewery’s Monkeyfist was very good) and because it is Sao Paulo, you sit outside, in tables in the street. They have about 5-6 high tables right outside the restaurant where you can sit on bar stools or, if you wait until after the business next door closes, you can find one of the 9 or so tables in the little patio there.

The guys that work there are really cool, speak amazing English and will often just come up to your table for a chat. It feels more like a youth or friend’s party than a restaurant and you are made to feel very welcome. Don’t pretend to be too polite, the guys will introduce themselves (not in the US way but just as somebody at a party or so) and if you need something, you just call them over and place your order.

underdog-2The menu is small, divided into starters, burgers and mains. Don’t expect any vegetables or vegetarian options here, it does what it says on the door: meat. By far the best starter we found was the “Choripan”; a hotdog with a barbecue-ed chorizo and chimichurri. This was recommended to us by the guys as one of the best-sellers and after we had it once, we ordered it every time we went. The sausage was juicy, smoky and spicy, the chimichurri added a nice note of freshness to it and the bread served to keep your fingers relatively clean whilst soaking up all these great juices.
The burgers are a pure beef affair, grilled to medium-rare perfection (remember to tell them if you want it done more well-done but I wouldn’t know why) and the options menu then allows you to choose your accompaniments, be it cheddar or blue cheese, jalapenos, onions, mushrooms, sour cream or bacon. This allows you to create your perfect burger without taking away from the bbq perfection of the high-quality meat (Annie, take heed!).burger underdog
The meats are, again, great quality beef allowed to speak for themselves. They are all barbecue-ed and served with chimichurri sauce, surrounded by pieces of bread to keep (most of) the juices on the wooden board (shaped like a coffin-lid). We had the skirt steak, which was juicy and had a great bite, without being chewy.

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They do other cuts too, like fillet, shoulder or sirloin or even sausages and they all come the same way; just the meat with a little bread, no vegetables.

After the meat-fest (and copious amounts of Monkeyfist) we were very glad that it was only a short walk back to the hotel, we were stuffed! But, having been there a couple of times now, even if we were on the other side of a 28 million people metropolis like Sao Paulo, any detour would be worth it. I’m even wondering if flying out on Friday night, going there for dinner on Saturday and flying back to the UK on Sunday can somehow be justified.

The choripan, the burgers, the meats, the beer, the company, the atmosphere – it really was that good.

So, for all these burger places back here in the UK, take a trip, pay the Underdog a visit and see how your business can (and should) be run. Nothing too fancy, just a wood fire, great quality meat and some beers, what more does one need.

Annie’s Burger Shack – Annie are you OK?

I love Annie’s Burger Shack in Nottingham. In a city that has a few too many fast food outlets, chain restaurants and poorly executed formula establishments, it has always stood out as a beacon of independence.

Annielogo-largeAnnie came over to Nottingham from the United States back in 1994 and started her first Annie’s Burger Shack back in 2009 in a pub called the Navigation Inn, on Wilford Street, across the canal from the HMRC offices. She basically ran it as a sort of concession, using the kitchen at the pub to cook up some authentic US-style burgers, inspired by Rock ‘n Roll and her native country. We went there with some friends, not long after she had started. The pub itself was nothing to write home about, a standard Nottingham pub that was known for regularly having good live music. They had a great selection of beers, a lot of them Real Ales and hand-pulled from small breweries. Remember, this was at the beginning of the whole Real Ale revival and the selection was great. This came in very handy, as Annie was cooking burgers for about 50 people at a time on what must have been no more than a 4 burner stove, cranking them out as fast as she could, but still very slow.

We were there on a schoolnight, but it still took more than 45 minutes to get a table. At this point you’re getting a little annoyed (“this better be good”) whilst secretly hoping “this must be good, if they are this busy on a Thursday night” in equal measures, adding to the anticipation. We ordered from the large menu where you choose a burger based (vegetarian and vegan are catered for, exemplary) on the combinations that Annie had come up with (the “Lemmy” with JD-sauce or the “Fajita Burger” with jalapenos and guacamole for example), after which you choose your kind of chips and possibly a side of coleslaw. As I said, a good thing the beer was so good, because it took another hour to get our burgers to the table.

Luckily, we were proven right in our eager anticipation because the burgers were amazing, the best I’d had in Nottingham, possibly even the UK! They were juicy, the bun was not dry but not soggy either, the sauces and garnishes were spot on!

Burger 1In 2014, because of Annie’s success in the Navigation Inn and the fact that she couldn’t accommodate all these people, she was able to move to a property of her own; the amazing premises she still occupies on the corner of Broadway in the Lace market. Here, she was able to occupy a proper kitchen with a proper brigade to assist her and good waiting staff who struck the right balance between friendliness and professionalism (and tattoos, piercings and facial hair).

Most importantly, she was a Free House; she could still continue serving all these great Real Ales from a lot of small, independent breweries like before. The burgers were great and the place was a roaring success. She had succeeded in becoming a Nottingham icon.

I have been a couple of times since then (about once a year) in which time she has also opened up a bar downstairs. This area is a watering hole in its own rights, serving the same great quality beers as upstairs and it also functions as a waiting area for those who can’t get a table right away. Booking a table used to be tricky, whereby they take reservations for half of the restaurant and leave the other half available for passing trade, a system that generally works really well.

Unfortunately, in my visits over the years I have noticed that the place seems to have become almost complacent when it comes to the burgers; the menu still features the same quirky combinations and interesting recipes (the Reuben, a burger with sauerkraut, pastrami and rye bread for example), as well as regularly changing specials, but the food itself lacks the spark it had in the beginning. The burgers, as well as the buns, have become drier, meaning that the bun often breaks up in your hand as you are trying to eat it and end up holding the patty and garnish between your fingers, while your bun drops onto your plate in two halves. The garnishes are still OK, but nothing more, there is no zing to them. The prices are still good where 2 burgers and drinks will cost you less £30, but they don’t make up for diminished afterglow I experienced.

Luckily, the beer is still very good, but can’t make up for the anxiety I feel when I look at this place. Has Annie become a victim of her own success? Has she started to believe the hype a little too much? Or, even worse, is she gearing up to open another place with the same formula, becoming a chain restaurant?

Please Annie, tell me this is not the case and that I’m wrong, tell me that you haven’t lost the passion for cooking us great hamburgers here in Nottingham. I know these things might be seen as inevitable (why exactly?) but I miss the passion you and your crew showed. Waiting for almost 2 hours for a great burger is so much more preferable than being sat down, ordered and served within 20 minutes with a mediocre burger. Maybe your everyday customer will want speed (and maybe you’ll want most of them out the door quickly as well…) which will bring you turnover, but speed isn’t everything.At the speed you are turning out the burgers it is hard to get a second or even a third pint in. This isn’t authentic Rhode Island anymore, it is turning into a burger factory. Please tell me you are not thinking about expanding and opening other restaurants with the same formula, turning this Nottingham icon into yet another form of gourmet burger restaurant.

Annielogo-smallOh well, at least is always the beer…