I recently took on a new case to settle once and for all a most serious charge: that Triangle Char & Bar has "the most overrated burgers in town."
That assertion was made by a friend who is, by all accounts, an accomplished eater of gourmet cheeseburgers, and it was just one of the widely varying responses I got as I polled witnesses. Some loved the burgers, some didn't, and others could take them or leave them but went to Triangle anyway because their friends did.
No matter what you think of the burgers, there's no doubt that Triangle is doing something right. Their original West Ashley location got off to a limping start back in 2006 as a sort of a steak and pasta house, but a menu shift to focus on grass-fed burgers and local foods spurred a remarkable revival. The restaurant's open-air bar has become a West Ashley favorite for brunch, and a second Mt. Pleasant location, which opened last summer on Ben Sawyer Boulevard, has quickly become one of the hottest weekend destinations east of the Cooper. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, throngs of young patrons jam the patio that wraps around two sides of the building, and more line up on the sidewalk waiting for a seat.
They're drawn in part by a generous list of craft beers (updated daily on a big chalkboard) as well as a menu that's playfully ambitious. For appetizers, there's a selection of egg rolls ($8.50 each) with clever fillings like shrimp and grits or pulled pork with collards and mustard-based barbecue sauce. A bowl of popcorn ($4) tossed with sea salt, white truffle oil, and fine wisps of parmesan cheese makes for a pleasing, earthy, and biting bar snack that disappears fast. Small golden-brown cubes of fried cheese grits ($6.50) are served in a wax paper-lined wire basket, and the first bite is blazingly hot from both the heat of the gooey grits and the liberal dose of diced jalapeño tucked inside. Crisp outside and creamy inside, once they cool a little, they become an addictive treat, though they really do deserve a better sauce than the ignoble cup of ranch dressing that comes alongside.
Burgers are the main event, but there are plenty of other entrée options. Ten varieties of tacos range from the expected — mahi mahi and salsa verde ($9.50) and shrimp with corn relish ($9) — to the exotic — fried gator with buffalo sauce ($10) and pulled pork with slaw and cheddar ($9). A half dozen salads and plates like seared tuna over quinoa ($14) and sweet potato gnocchi with grilled chicken ($12) offer some lighter options. On weekends, an array of omelets, Benedicts, and pancakes join the lineup on the brunch menu.
One recent special was a grilled chicken sandwich topped, in an unusual twist, with fontina cheese and sliced plums, though the plum flavor faded almost imperceptibly away, leaving a good but unremarkable chicken sandwich. The accompanying au gratin potatoes, however, were a hit. A big cube carved from a pan of thin-sliced potatoes layered with a delicious blend of white cheeses, it's a special that deserves to make its way into the regular rotation.
But let's get to the meat of the matter: What about those burgers?
I think the reason opinions differ so widely on Triangle's offerings is that, even in this era of gourmet burger ubiquity, it's a bit out of the ordinary. Lots of places now grind their own hamburger meat from a blend of high-quality cuts. Triangle, however, makes theirs from grass-fed beef from local farmers — the West Ashley location using beef from Darlington's Hill Creek Farms and Mt. Pleasant using Sweet Leaf Beef from Kingstree's McCutchen Farms.
This isn't just some "eat local" marketing gimmick. Local grass-fed beef is very different. The grain-fed diet of conventional beef results in a higher marbling of fat and a uniform but mild taste, and it's vacuum-sealed in moisture-impermeable bags and allowed to age in its own juices. Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, has a more intense flavor, and it's much lower in total fat — as much as one-third less. It's also dry aged, with the carcass hanging for several weeks in a refrigerated, humidity-controlled environment where moisture evaporates from the meat, concentrating the flavors and tenderizing the muscle fibers.
The end result to the burger is huge. With wet-aged beef, all the liquid that's trapped in the burger cooks right out when it hits the grill. A grass-fed, dry-aged beef patty doesn't shrink nearly as much, which is why the burgers at Triangle come out as uniformly round as a hockey puck. The texture is chewier, too, thanks to the lower moisture and fat.
That difference in texture may help explain some of the mixed reaction to Triangle's burgers. Triangle's menu recommends patrons not order the meat any more done than medium, and that's excellent advice for avoiding an overly chewy burger. In fact, Travis McCutchen of Sweet Leaf Beef suggests that customers cook his grass-fed beef to one degree lower doneness than they normally do conventional beef. There's also a definite strong, grassy flavor to the beef, which some diners unaccustomed to grass-fed beef can find off-putting.
But I think the key factor is in the overall burger experience. With the leaner meat, you don't get that big dripping explosion of fat-rich beef flavor when you first bite into a Triangle burger — a hedonistic, highly saturated thrill that seems much of the appeal of gourmet, house-ground burgers in this era of heightened food phobias.
For me, though, the grass-fed burger works. Even cooked rare, there's a pleasing firmness to the meat, while the grill's flames impart an appealing beefy char. The bun is not too thick (the downfall of many gourmet burgers) but still sturdy enough to soak up the juices and not fall to mush. The accompanying french fries are excellent, too, a deep-golden brown with a crisp exterior and nice body inside, and, like all really good fresh-cut fries, they hold up nicely even as they cool. And a Triangle burger doesn't leave me waddling and bloated and ready for an all-afternoon nap.
This doesn't mean you can't load up a gut bomb if you want to. The Wilbur ($11) is a lardcore take on a bacon cheeseburger, with two immense slabs of pork belly atop a blanket of melted cheddar. The Hot Sh** ($11) is a flagrant double-dog dare that tops its patty with chorizo, a fried egg, and jalapeño, while the Nap ($10.50), with its patty and slices of bacon sandwiched between two grilled cheese sandwiches, is sheer stunt food. But why not stick with the simple Plain Jane ($9.50), which comes with lettuce, tomato, sliced red onions, and a melted slice of cheddar (though you could choose Swiss, white American, or pepper jack).
These burgers, tacos, and rolls are served in an industrial-chic atmosphere with lots of wood and corrugated metal, graffiti art on the walls, and six big garage-style doors that get rolled up when the weather is nice. The music can be loud and raucous, and the crowd can, too, especially at nights and on the weekends. But really, what does one expect when chomping down on a massive Hot Sh** burger — white tablecloths?
Almost as controversial as the burgers is the homegrown chandelier. Two dozen electrical cords are plugged into outlets in the ceiling, their cords — orange, yellow, white, and black — hanging downward like octopus arms and looping back up to silver eyelets, single bulbs in a socket suspended from the end of each. I felt it was inventive and sort of cool; my wife thought it looked like something out of the living room in A Christmas Story and wondered how it passed inspection.
But back to the case at hand. From using local grass-fed beef to loading up fried cheese grits with enough jalapeños to clear your sinuses, Triangle is taking risks, and it certainly won't play well with everyone. Topping burgers with pork belly and stuffing egg rolls with shrimp and grits may smack of local trendiness, but they do have a sense of humor about it. "All ice made in-house from fresh local ingredients," the menu declares.
Most overrated burger in town? Not in my book. As I sit here writing this, I am seized by an urge to race right out and order another Plain Jane. And it's just 7:30 in the morning.
That's all the evidence I need. Verdict: Damn good burger. Case closed.