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A Simple Proposition

by B.A. Nilsson on December 27, 2012 · 4 comments

Local Burger, 16 Main St., Northampton, Mass., 413-586-5857, localnorthampton.com. Serving 11:30-10 Sun-Thu, 11:30 AM-3 AM Fri-Sat. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: local burgers

Entrée price range: $5 (portobello burger) to $10 (burger with pretty much everything)

Ambiance: trendy hole in the wall

Why have we nothing like this in the Capital Region? Is it, as I hope, only a matter of time, or are we so mired in our tradition of fear-based dining that, for a majority of residents, only the bland reassurance of a chain will do? The closest we come to this concept is Five Guys, and that’s not very close. But the local efflorescence of that chain proves that there’s a market for burgers here, and something structured like Northampton’s Local Burger could find a profitable niche.

Of course, the vibrancy of downtown Northampton is like nothing you’ll find in the cities here, with the marginal exception of Saratoga Springs. The concentration of five top-notch colleges is evident in Northampton’s student-friendly makeup, and the long line of customers I joined during a recent visit to Local Burger seemed to be predominantly student-aged.

But not exclusively. It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon. The Pioneer Valley Ballet was presenting The Nutcracker at the nearby Academy of Music. So the downtown was teeming with families as well, and small huddles of them filled any of the tables at the Local that weren’t student-occupied.

I probably wouldn’t be able to get a seat. I resigned myself to that as I waited to meet my friend John, for whom these were regular stomping grounds. “Care to split a beer?” he asked upon arrival, and led me to Pop’s, a nearby retailer of brews plain and fancy. He quickly chose a pint of excellent Scotch Ale from Greenfield-based The People’s Pint. Back at the Local, a table magically opened before our eyes and we strewed our stuff across it, the standard claimage ritual.

Local Burger opened in January 2009. It started six months before that when Jeff Igneri, then a Providence-based restaurateur, visited his Northampton-based girlfriend and decided he liked the city’s potential. He recruited his brothers, Chris and Steve, and you’ll often see his father, Joe, working the floor.

What they offer is handmade stuff cooked with meat from locally raised cattle, for which no apology is needed—which means you can get it cooked pink, as a burger should be. Other items also come from local sources whenever possible. And the prices are comparatively reasonable, with burgers ranging from $5.49 to $10.

The menu is aggressively simple, a single page of suggestions that give you the option of starting with six ounces of  Black Angus (Meyer Farm, $5.49), Chicoine Farm grass-fed ($6.49) or River Rock dry-aged ($7, weekends only) and adding the extras you like, from a variety of cheeses (.25 each; .75 for blue) to peppers and mushrooms and applewood-smoked bacon (.95). Or you can choose a “house favorite,” including the bacon-cheddar-barbecue sauce enhanced Westhampton burger ($6.89), a cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucy ($9), the Northampton (a veggie burger with tzatziki, $6) and my selection, the Local ($10), a 12-ounce patty with bacon, cheddar, onions, mushrooms and peppers.

John—the rebel, the iconoclast—chose a turkey burger ($5.49) and dressed it with appropriate produce. And we split an order of hand-cut, Hadley-potato fries ($2, although there’s also an intimidating $3.49 size as well). And while we’re looking at sides, there are sweet potato fries ($2.49/$4.49), beer-battered onion rings with chipotle ketchup ($4.79), fried pickles with ranch dressing ($4.29) and wings (one pound for $7). And if the burger paradigm isn’t working for you, a hot dog is $2.49.

It’s made to order and takes a reasonable amount of time, although I’m told it can get backed up a bit when busy. It seemed busy enough while we we there and I suffered no unpleasant wait. The food itself was a commendable example of the once-and-future era of burger-making, before McDonald’s began persuading us that beef flavoring was required by bland, badly raised beef. You can taste the difference, which takes this beyond the realm of merely feeling virtuous for dining this way.

So I repeat: Why don’t we have something like this in the Capital Region? The beef producers are all around us. And there are other such restaurants a bit beyond. Grazin’, in Hudson, features beef from Grazin’ Acres Angus, and the burgers start at $10, running to nearly $16 if you truly want to make it interesting. Which, not surprisingly, puts it in line with New York City-based Bareburger, which offers grass-fed beef (and other meat) burgers at several locations throughout three boroughs.

I remain hopeful. The area’s enlightened talk the local talk with increasing fervor. It remains for an enlightened entrepreneur to take it the rest of the way and give us good burgers of our own.

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