Sometimes you just want a burger. Steaks and seafood and dishes full of exotic ingredients all have their place. But sometimes all you really want is two hands full of food you can pick up and fill your face with.
Back in the mists of time, when woolly mammoths roamed the earth and phones had dials, hamburgers topped with anything besides lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese were radical. I can still remember gasping at the audaciousness of putting onion rings and barbecue sauce on a ground beef patty.
Then the great burger arms race began. First came the notion that Americans could find other types of cheese pleasing, then the concept that any tasty thing could make a burger better.
Which brings us to today, when any remotely edible substance can be found between buns. Are we the better for it? This is the question I found myself pondering at Cask + Cow in Lewiston.
The restaurant occupies the spot on the town’s main drag last occupied by Bailey O’Riley’s Village Pub. With its dark interior, rock 'n' roll soundtrack, and tap list of medium adventurousness, my first impression was of an Allen Burger Venture lite. That Allentown outpost for adventurous burgers, beers and bourbon goes quite a bit further in its culinary mission, but Cask + Cow struck me as a pretty hip place for Lewiston.
The place was practically empty when we arrived, walking through a barroom into the dining area. Both were bathed in the light of vast televisions.
The technique for coming up with a really out-there burger often goes like this: think of a tasty sandwich. Now make it a burger.
[Related: Seven Buffalo-area burgers to flip over]
Thus we have the Hot Tempered Elvis ($15) with a peanut butter and banana spread, caramelized banana and bacon, echoing The King’s favorite snack. It also has cheddar, and sautéed jalapeno, for heat.
Beef brisket can make a fantastic sandwich. But if you want a burger, your eye may fall upon the Big Ox ($15), cow-piled-on-cow, with cheddar, crispy onions, apple slaw and barbecue sauce.
Like nachos? Try the El Toro ($15), with toasted corn pico de gallo, fried avocado, queso fresco and fried tortilla chips. Oh and lest I forget: a burger.
Cask + Cow burgers are made from never-frozen Black Angus beef. For another $2, diners can opt for a burger that’s made of grass-fed, non-GMO beef that’s antibiotic and hormone free.
House-made potato chips are the standard accompaniment, but another $2.50 will bring you a selection of sides, including baked macaroni and cheese, truffle fries, sweet potato fries and onion rings.
We tucked into a few appetizers first. A kale and apple salad ($9) was a fresh way to start, with eye-pleasing fans of thinly sliced apple, duded up with bacon, walnuts, lots of Gorgonzola cheese and split grape tomatoes sautéed briefly for extra sweetness. Fried asparagus ($10) was successful, too, pleasantly non-greasy and eminently snackable.
Soft pretzels ($8) were routine supermarket-level fare, notable mostly for the cheese sauce made with Big Ditch Hayburner and cheekily cheddar-y. The name of the Texas Corn Fritters ($8) should have tipped me off that these were not made of corn grown around these parts, so no grudge was held for the chewy crust and pasty matrix surrounding corn kernels.
On the upside, I did find my new favorite bag-to-fryer product, coming to fried food menus near you: Buffalo Chicken Rinds ($8). Quite similar to a US Foods product called Chick-arrones, these are chicken thigh meat and skin, no bones, starch-coated and fried.
Crispy as heck, delivering much of the pleasure of chicken wings without those pesky bones, these came topped with a drizzle of blue cheese dressing and crumbled blue cheese, and did an alarming job rousing my inner fatboy.
Brisket nachos ($10), alas, did not. The dish got points for avoiding the stereotypical nacho pitfall of a cheese-quilt covering inches of bone-dry chips. The chips and cheese were applied in layers, for cheesy satisfaction all the way down, along with spiced corn kernels and black beans. Rubbery beef brisket without its own smoky savor was a disappointment, however.
When it came to the burgers, though, Cask + Cow held its own.
The Maverick ($15) added Italian hoagie fixings like provolone and capicola, for worthwhile diversion. Ordered with the grass-fed beef, I couldn’t pick out the difference, but maybe the Hungarian pepper spread and garlic truffle aioli threw off my meter. Like the other burgers, it came on a bianco roll (think a Kaiser with a focaccia surface), that provided a sturdy grip. It arrived medium instead of rare, but was juicy enough to shrug and carry on.
The Holy Nandi ($18) brought a black-truffle-flavored patty with garlic brie spread, cremini mushrooms, caramelized balsamic onions. The umami bomb went off in my mouth and I was sad to put it down, the mushroom, and allium undertones supporting a swaggering beef experience. It was paler inside than the requested medium-rare, but still.
Even the Afternoon Graze vegetarian patty ($14) was acceptably tasty, with a black-bean-centric patty laced with cumin. Done up with cucumber, grilled asparagus, arugula and sun-dried tomato aioli, it was still a substitute, but not an embarrassment.
Of the side dishes, the mac and cheese – made with bacon and that Big Ditch beer cheese – was my favorite. The truffle fries, dusted with Parmesan and parsley, renewed my determination to petition purveyors to sell truffle oil in eyedropper bottles.
Cask + Cow is a righteous moniker for this restaurant. It doesn’t try to do too much, sticking to the booze and beef, with just enough fanciness to reject that old ampersand. If you’re looking for a burger with a little more punctuation, Cask + Cow will get it done. Period.
Cask + Cow – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 840 Center St., Lewiston, 405-7063
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: appetizers, $8-$12; burgers and sandwiches, $10-$18.
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: gluten-free buns available.