Fine burgers: Kaelin’s and Primo


The humble cheeseburger quietly celebrated a landmark anniversary this year as Kaelin’s declared Wednesday, Oct. 12, the 70th anniversary of the day that restaurant founder Carl Kaelin allegedly had the bright idea of draping a slice of cheese atop a sizzling grilled burger, and a great new sandwich was born. (For a long time I doubted this story, figuring such a simple idea surely must have occurred to someone centuries earlier; but extensive Web searching suggests that Kaelin’s claim is true.)

By happy coincidence, I dropped by Kaelin’s that day to meet some buddies for lunch, not realizing that it was a red-letter day. In honor of its birthday, the cheeseburger platter was on sale for just $5.95, two bucks off its regular price. Naturally I ordered one, with onion “straws” and a cup of Kaelin’s chili on the side.

2 stars
1801 Newburg Road
(502) 451-1801

I’m pleased to report, by the way, that Kaelin’s has bounced back significantly under new management, and I’m elevating it to a respectable 2-star rating from the 1-star status that lackluster performance had earned it during its declining days under aging family ownership.

As for the birthday cheeseburger, I’d call it good, not great. One fresh but standard grocery-store hamburger bun dressed with a lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato, a slice of white onion and a schmear of mayo bore a good-size but none-too-juicy burger patty and a from-the-packet slice of mild bright-yellow American cheese. A straight-up burger, well-made but bland. Worst, however, I had called for it rare, joking with the server about “pat it on the butt and run it through the fire.” She seemed to get it, but the burger came to the table well-done, tough and dry.

The chili was better, classic “Louisville-style,” thick and spicy with grocery-store chili powder, loaded with ground beef, pinto beans and tomato bits, served over spoon-size lengths of pasta that looked a little more like linguine than the traditional spaghetti.

Kaelin’s remains a fine neighborhood spot, with extra points for new management’s clean-up, fix-up (and an attractive streetside patio out front with an awning and heaters that will make it habitable for much of the year). But historic or no, this burger’s still no Hall of Famer.

4 stars
445 E. Market St.
(502) 583-1808

Now, you want to talk about a burger? Here is a burger: The Allo Burger at Bim Deitrich’s new Primo may be an offbeat rendition of the American bar-food standard – it’s fashioned from veal, not beef, enriched with tangy, earthy Italian Gorgonzola blue cheese. But it’s so good … I hate to throw around words like “divine,” but I can’t recall when I last ate a burger (or just about anything else) that inspired me to stop chewing in stunned silence, turn my eyes heavenward and utter a quiet hymn of praise.

A disk of ground veal that must have weighed close to 8 ounces was carefully mixed with Gorgonzola and an aromatic hint of sage, handled gently, gently to keep it as tender as a mother’s kiss, then sandwiched between two English-muffin-size rounds of fresh, chewy Blue Dog ciabatta, and artfully garnished with an intriguing mini-salad of crisp-tender marinated julienne strips of finocchio and yellow bell pepper, tiny pear tomatoes and grilled button mushrooms; a handful of colorful Terra chips, and three crisp sweet-pickle chips, no mere throwaway items but a gourmet-style brand, crunchy and tart-sweet and infused with just enough hot peppery spice to get your attention.

It’s actually a burger made in the style of Primo’s outstanding veal polpette (veal meatballs) that’s one of the killer items on the evening menu, there served with pappardelle pasta and wild mushrooms in a creamy sauce ($18). At lunch, pressed into service as a burger, it’s dubbed the Allo Burger in fond memory of Deitrich’s Allo Spiedo, and goes for $8 (just a nickel more than Kaelin’s cheeseburger platter on a non-sale day.

A lunch salad of tonno e fagioli ($13) was fine, too, seared blocks of fresh ahi tuna chargrilled just long enough to sear the outside while leaving the center sushi-rare, drizzled with a tart-sweet red-wine vinaigrette and served over mesclun greens and not-quite-done white beans, but it took second place to the burger. Oh, that burger.

I had been mightily impressed by Primo during its soft-opening night but forbore from a rating until I had a chance to get back during regular operating hours. Today, I’m in no further doubt. This place is a hit, a quality match for my other recent favorite, Seviche. Give it the same rating as Seviche then, four stars and 95 points. It’s a keeper, folks.