Behind the Burger: Burgatory, Pittsburgh
by Jim Berman CCI
Is the twelve-course degustation menu going by way of Baked Alaska and Tomatoes in Aspic? Perhaps, so. Perhaps the local movement will embed and hang tough; the way we ate 200 years’ ago is new again. Bold plates of quality ingredients is the rage. Only this time around, it is because we want to, not just because we have to; going back to our roots, as if we ever are able to abandon them, if you will. Roots, by definition, provide footing, vital life-giving juices and at the end of the day, a place to keep us connected to home.
Home for me has always been Pittsburgh. Little has changed about the landscape; the people are bedrock America; the skyline still makes my eyes grow wide to take it all in; the sports teams, win or lose, are always in good favor. The restaurant offerings keep pace with the national trends – you’ll find big-box formula chains that have big-buck nationwide advertising, where the Alfredo and Scampi taste the same, be it Biloxi or Baltimore. You will find tapas bars, sliders aplenty, Indian grills and budding operations that are still sprouting. Reassuringly, there are the mighty oaks that are feeding the off-line, AM-listening, walker-pounding Steelers fans that will, one day, go the way of the Baked Alaska. Stoic, steady and firmly seated in the 1970s. They are the places that have simply “always been there.” Then there are staples that will always be part of the Iron City; comfortable like well-worn, like a hoodie and Doc Marten shoes. Primanti Brothers and their gloriously ridiculous constructs of a sandwich will forever be a favorite destination of Pittsburghers and Pittsburgh-émigrés. Eat ‘n Park, a Denny’s-like institution of mediocrity will always be there for breakfast, whether immediately after last-call or when the sun actually appears. Mineo’s Pizza in Squirrel Hill took my “damn, that’s really good pizza” virginity. The pizza has been made for so long on Murray Ave. that a morning walk through the neighborhood is ripe with the aroma of years’ of pizza-making embedded in the bricks of the stores that line the street. It is the new flavors, the big, in-your-face, no apologies concepts that are shaking customers to their gastronomic epicenters that bring me to town.
A devilishly-inspired burger joint with a nod to divine eating experience, Burgatory (http://www.burgatorybar.com/) is one of those new places that bring hand to forehead with a smack, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Dazzling milkshakes, ridiculous burgers and all the other stuff that goes along with a smokin’ hot operation, open since January and busting at the seems ever since, I spoke with Executive Chef, Brad Kohut, about the operation’s impressive success.
Curious about the seemingly endless trail through the front door, Kohut explained that Burgatory, in Pittsburgh's Waterworks Mall, maintains a constant flow out of the kitchen. Specifically, at any point in the day, unlike more traditional (translation: less busy) operations, Burgatory can experience an eruption of customers. My visit brought me in at 2pm on a Saturday; I can attest to Chef’s assertion. I watched as waves of customers filled the twenty-nine booths and tables. I watched as those seats became empty, only to refill, nary a second to cool down. The traditional ‘two-turns per service’ is all but abandoned here.
In order to keep in touch with the customer demands of such an explosively busy operation, one modified aspect of the menu came with the loss of entrée selections. Kohut explained that the Custom Creations aspect of the menu rakes in between 60 and 70% of the kitchen’s volume, translating to some 200 beef patties alone, let alone the other varietals.
To make room for the burger demand, the low-volume movers were dropped and the MOOvers were set free to roam. In essence, the menu is comprised of appetizers (“Fingers”), a few salads and burgers.
The milkshakes come loaded for the 21+ crowd or equally sinister decadent creations for those looking to save the alcohol for the nearly 50 varieties of beer by the bottle.
The burgers, though, make up the devil’s share of the soul of Burgatory. An impressive selection of locally sourced ingredients dances with the mischievous sprite in between-the-bun bits and pieces like a bison patty, aged Wagyu, crab and a vegetable amalgam. The combinations range from the sublime, Peppercorn with Horseradish Cheddar, to angelic, Burger with American, Lettuce and Tomato. Food cost has grown better and Kohut insists that the quality is the priority. Judging by the magnitude of saints and sinners passing through the doors, volume sales are doing what is necessary to be successful.
With a calling in the cooking field starting at fifteen, Kohut’s abandon of a career in engineering has served Burgatory well. With responsibilities to sister operations like Joe Mama’s, an Oakland-area mainstay and Fuel & Fuddle, Kohut finds strength in the staff that works with him. Words to younger members of the industry, Kohut goes on, “Listen! There’s a lot to learn.”
The bold formula is working. The prices are repeat-customer favorable and the food speaks volumes for the intent which Burgatory seems to foster. From a culinary standpoint, the menu is refined and gives a more than adequate nod to creativity while cementing the simple integrity that is the landscape of today’s eating. “God and the devil alone could not have made you up! The two must have worked as one together,” says Dave Matthews. He must have stopped in Pittsburgh.