Food & Drink

These Lebanese chefs might make metro Detroit’s best burger

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Ask any burger aficionado who makes Dearborn's best burger and the most common answer you'll get is Miller's. The Michigan Avenue dive bar is an institution and deserving of its place in local burger lore, but there's a case to be made that a neighbor has finally dethroned it. Not just in Dearborn, but all of metro Detroit. Go about a quarter mile east on Michigan Avenue just past Outer Drive and you'll find the Butcher's Grille & Market in a cluster of strip malls on the road's south side.

Here is where Lebanese chef Samer Saad and chef Jawdat Hashem are grilling burgers that are arguably Detroit's best. What's that you say? A Middle Eastern restaurant can't make Detroit's best burgers? Well, it's not as strange as it sounds when you consider that the Albanian-owned Motor City Sports Bar in Hamtramck packs what's one of the city's top three patties.

And regardless of that, Saad is a master with meat, as is evidenced in not only his burgers, but Butcher's Grille's shawarma egg rolls, raw meat menu, kebabs, whole chickens, and everything else that lands on his open flame, wood-burning grill. Most importantly, he understands the value of working with the freshest beef possible. His father started the Saad Wholesale Meats and Halal Distribution Co. in Eastern Market in 1975, so fresh meat is trucked out to Butcher's Grille, where it's ground and cut each morning.

The only thing he adds to the patties is salt — they're otherwise carried by the freshness and open flame. Less is more when it comes to the city's best burgers.

I tried the Butcher's Burger, and the only issue I encountered was that the lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon, onion ring, mayo, and sriracha hid the patty's taste. When meat is of this quality, it doesn't need to be dressed up, and I cleared the burger of its fixings after a few bites. The less jazzy Brioche Burger seems like a better route, and is a few bucks cheaper.

While the burgers are worth the trip, the Lebanese portion of the menu is an equally delicious route.

Avid carnivores will want to explore the raw meat menu. In Lebanon, raw meat like kibbeh is as popular as burgers are here, and Saad is one of the best sources for it, frakeh, kafta, kafta seekhan, and malsi. Though they are essentially variations of the same thing — minced or ground raw meat packed heavy with cumin, bulgur, olive oil, and ground parsley, onions, and other spices — frakeh is Butcher's Grille's best seller. It arrives hand-rolled into a form vaguely resembling a sausage and is cohesive enough to pick up and eat with your hands.

(Saad explains that frakeh roughly translates into "grip" because Lebanese mothers preparing kibbeh grab a handful of kibbeh leftover in the big mixing bowl during preparation and hand it to their kids. So if a Lebanese mom hands you raw meat while she's in the kitchen, or your meat is served by the handful, then it's frakeh. If you're served a large platter of raw meat, then it's kibbeh.)

If your preference is for Lebanese meat that's cooked, then the six skewers are a good place to look. As with the raw meat, there's a clear cumin presence in several of the moist, smoky, charred skewers that's perfect when jumbled with rice and sprigs of parsley from the tabbouleh.

The standouts are the makanek and sujok — both Lebanese breakfast sausages, though they're eaten all day here. Sujok is slightly sour and full of cumin, while makanek's dominating flavor is some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, or clove, though Saad swears he buys the spice blend from a spice maker in town and has no idea what's in it.

The kebabs are flavorful, and Butcher's Grille asks how you want your beef kebab cooked — unlike most local Lebanese restaurants — which means you get rare nuggets of beef that almost taste like heavily seasoned steak.

It should be noted that Saad and Hashem's expertise isn't limited to cow. The whole grilled bird takes 45 minutes to prepare but is worth the wait. It arrives cragged with charred skin that clings to moist, smoky, salty meat spiced with a heavy dose of oregano, garlic, lemon, and more. It's a huge portion — enough for four people, and if you get the combo then two sides and a drink are included for $19.99, which is a fine price. (No pig here — it's halal.)

Butcher's Grille offers similar package deals with the skewers, and prepares American sides — like steak fries and onion rings — or Lebanese sides. The fattoush salad is worth a mention for its uses a fruity dressing that tastes almost like a raspberry vinaigrette. The tomato kibbeh is different than that of other Lebanese restaurants in that it's a little chunkier instead of fine, which I liked but other diners didn't. And the hummus, tabbouleh, and other Lebanese standards are all up to snuff.

The restaurant's interior is super clean, and Butcher's Grille isn't too unlike most fast casual spots in its vibe. Food arrives on wood chopping blocks or plastic carryout containers, and Saad is the kind of owner who is hands-on, checks on how you're doing, and remembers you when you return. There's no booze, but that's OK because the almond mocha milkshake is better than any bottle of suds. Otherwise Butcher's Grille offers the usual pops.

The Michigan Avenue location opened in April 2016, and Miller's isn't the only nearby burger peddler. Brome, Famous, and Ford's Garage are all just a short drive away, but Butcher's stands apart, likely because it's run by a butcher who is the son of a butcher and seems to live for this stuff. He and Hashem say they're opening a second location in Flint and have investors who want to help them grow. That's good news, though we're mom-and-pop purists, and we hope Butcher's doesn't get so big that the quality is diluted (ahem, Shake Shack).

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