Chapter 4

In Which Adam Goes in Search of a Bohemian Burger Experience but Fails to Find It

When my wife asked if I wanted to meet her at Dharma Buns for dinner, my response was an enthusiastic “yes.” I love a good burger, and while I make a decent one myself, I always want someone else to make them for me – maybe it’s because I really like fries with my burgers and I don’t make those at home. So far, I haven’t found a burger I really like, but I still like the search process, so off I went.

The “restaurant” is a small store-front in downtown Lowell (Massachusetts). It’s clean, and clearly very new (they opened in August 2009), with a handful of tables, a TV (thankfully with the sound turned off), and a counter where you ordered your meal. The menu is very simple: a few soups, four sandwiches (burgers, steak, roast beef, and turkey), a short list of side dishes (salads, fries, etc.), and drinks. The selection of toppings for the sandwiches, however, was quite impressive; they offer six different “home-made” mayonnaises, barbecue sauce, gravy, two kinds of mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, steak sauces, malt vinegar, even vegetables (three sauteed, the rest fresh), bacon, and fresh avocado. The fries and onion rings are hand cut and fried in peanut oil, and offered with any two sauces. To top it off, they were offering a dinner special: $7 for soup, any sandwich, and dessert (cookies, brownies, small pies, maybe something else).

My wife ordered the clam (or was it fish?) chowder, a burger with no bun (she’s currently avoiding gluten), a brownie (for me), and a garden salad; I chose the pasta fagoli, a burger, a chocolate chip cookie, and side of french fries. With one drink our total came to $24 and change – a bit more than we were hoping to spend (we’re on a limited budget until I find a new job), but not an unreasonable price for dinner for two. The person taking our order didn’t ask how we wanted our burgers cooked, but I’m used to that because we have this stupid law here that most restaurants have to serve burgers cooked at least medium-well. Not remembering that Dharma Buns claimed to grind their own beef (thus making them exempt from said stupid law), we didn’t think anything of it.

Our soups came quickly. My wife forgot that most chowder is thickened with flour, and I don’t eat dairy, so neither of us tasted her soup. My pasta fagoli was thin and tasted mostly of tomato; there was pasta, and beans, but so little of either that I would have described the soup as “tomato vegetable with pasta.” I don’t know if they make their own soup, but if they do, they really need to get a better recipe. We pushed the soups aside and hoped our burgers and fries would make up for the weak start.

After a very short wait, our burgers, my fries, and my wife’s salad were delivered. Her salad was what you’d expect from a garden salad: iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and some carrots; nothing special, but perfectly acceptable. While she was applying her salad dressing (from a foil packet), I eagerly opened my container of garlic mayonnaise and reached for a fry. It was dry and a little over-cooked; that happens sometimes, so I tried another. Same results. I finally found one that wasn’t dry inside, but the outside was still rather well-done and the inside wasn’t nearly as moist as it should have been. The garlic mayo was nice, but I wasn’t about to eat a batch of mediocre fries just to use up the mayo.

My wife’s burger came on a bed of lettuce and tomato and smothered with sauteed onions and mushrooms (both of which she had ordered); I think they gave her extra to make up for the lack of a bun. She likes her burgers rare, and was pleasantly surprised to find it cooked just the way she likes it. I, on the other hand, prefer my burgers medium – not nicely seared on the outside but practically raw inside. I took it back to the counter and they were quite pleasant about cooking it further; I just wish they had asked me how I wanted it cooked when I ordered it and avoided the problem. Quickly enough they brought my burger back and this time it was fine.

Note: Despite my clearly having taken a bite or two of my burger, they took it off the bun and put it back on the grill to cook some more. This doesn’t bother me, but I know people who would be put off by it, and I suspect the health department might not like like this practice. if it had been a steak I would have expected them to just re-cook it, but for a burger I’m used to getting a new one.

The chipotle mayo on my burger was good, but underneath, the meat just didn’t have much flavor. Lest you accuse me of having asked them to cook the flavor out of my burger, my wife felt exactly the same way about her burger. As if that wasn’t bad enough, what supposedly started out as a 7 ounce patty was dwarfed by a large and undistinguished bun. For $6.95 (the cost of a burger a la carte), there wasn’t much there and it wasn’t very good.

Overall, it was a disappointing meal; worse, my search for a great burger continues with no end in sight. I might have felt a little better about the experience if the fries had been good, but they were worse than my burger. I finished my burger, but for me to leave nearly an entire serving of fries on my plate is something I haven’t done for a long time. My recommendation: Save your money, and avoid Dharma Buns.

Dharma Buns
26-A Market Street
Lowell, MA

[Thursday, 04 March 2010]