Editorial note: This restaurant is closed.
My first suitor was hot, rich, smooth, well-dressed, and arrived promptly. We met at ZBGB on Race Street, where my potential love match came gliding out of the kitchen on a wooden board. I couldn’t help but be charmed by the gently yielding homemade bun, the slice of melted Emmentaler curling around its edges, the patty so rich it sparkled under the hot lights. It led to one of those magically tasty first dates where I thought I might have finally found “The One.”
Eligible hamburgers are everywhere these days, with every new menu sporting a “gourmet” take, and established restaurateurs opening hallowed temples in homage to America’s major contribution to global cuisine. To be sure, this coterie of new burgers is…nice. I guess. Still, I can’t help but friend-zone this new generation, because—for all of its refinement—these burgers all seem to arrive on my table with serious baggage in tow. Whether it’s coma-inducing richness, an industrial bun, lack of seasoning, unappealing sides, or unwieldy architecture, I just can’t seem to find my sandwich steady.
But give ZBGB’s Chef/Owner Tsvika (Vik) Silberberg credit for the sheer effort he’s invested in creating a best-in-class sandwich. Short for “Zula Bar and Gourmet Burgers” (and a reference to the infamous East Village nightclub), the space has the classic OTR reclaimed wood flooring and mile-high exposed brick walls. But Silberberg, a former executive chef of the Celestial and current owner of nearby Zula, places his new spot squarely in OTR 3.0, neither in the hullabaloo of Vine Street, nor on the urban pioneer fringes.
Come thirsty. ZBGB’s hidden strength may be a cocktail program that seems to anticipate the richness of its burgers. A house margarita plays it close to the chest with an orthodox mix of fresh lime juice and Cointreau, while the Hopped and Bothered dips a little IPA into Beefeater gin in a way that gently teases you with its herbaceous bubble. Beer drinkers are exceptionally well served. I paired my burger with a light Belgian Unibroue Blanche de Chambly and its phenol-rich notes of clove and banana.
With all this going for it, our dream date certainly earned a second encounter, and I relished the chance to meet a few of its friends. Sure, there were a couple of near misses, like the too-dry ricotta meatballs served atop a chalky mash of undercooked white beans. But one thing I’ve always adored about Siberberg’s cooking is his gift for hiding stunning flavors in plain sight. Executive Chef John Henry Harrington and his crew have learned well. A nearly invisible glaze of tamarind adds the faintest sweet and sour hint to a plate of pork belly and crispy pig ears. Even the “Lori salad” offered a surprise. Named for a vegetarian friend, the Lori arrives buried under just the right balance of walnuts and goat cheese, bathed in a mild vinaigrette. She fed four of us, easily.
But once our date settled back into one-on-one time, it was time to get down to the nitty gritty. From the start, it’s clear that the burgers’ intentions are honorable—the beef comes from large cuts of USDA Prime Chuck and Shoulder, ground in house every day. The bun is a focaccia, made with a natural starter, that emerges only after a three-day process. (Ever tasted that bread at Zula? You know what I’m talking about.) The cooking technique checks off so many boxes with a strong sear and nice salt balance. And there’s a love match for every appetite: The Big Sur sports a western flavor with a slice of fresh avocado; the Triple Bypass heaps bacon alongside a slice of creamy Havarti; the Italian arrives with some eye-rolling house cured pancetta atop a layer of silky mozzarella.
But there’s some baggage. First, ZBGB’s burgers aren’t well suited to the human jaw. Most are so heavily stacked that the initial bite winds up mauling the bun and yanking the patty asunder, and a burger can’t recover from that. Not to mention that several burgers arrived slick with grease, which overwhelmed the homemade buns and the meager sheets of parchment paper beneath them. It’s a rich patty, and some of this is to be expected, but it’s entirely unfitting considering the attention that went into its design. The burgers don’t so much need to be re-formulated as re-engineered. Perhaps just make them flatter, and rest them longer.
One bright spot here, thanks again to Lori, is the veggie burger. It’s one of those sandwiches that doesn’t pretend to be meat, and the white bean patty laced with red peppers was so much better than the usual lifeless heaps masquerading as sandwich filler.
As for sides, ZBGB celebrates the fried potato, and the crispy fries should be your first choice. I don’t typically encourage diners to go off the reservation, but make the stunning sweet-smoky pimenton aioli your default condiment. The house-made ketchups were unbalanced, and I couldn’t get past the bits of pulp and skin. Or avoid the whole mess and order the pickles, which have excellent snap rounded out by a subtle hit of red and white wine vinegar.
After this first date, it’s clear that—while it’s not a bad burger—it’s not quite ready to settle down. It’s frustrating when the kitchen woos you with bells and whistles but doesn’t follow through on necessary technique. I’ll be back to ZBGB—there are too many things done right to dismiss the place as just another burger joint. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop seeing other burgers.
ZBGB, 1438 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 744-9242, zbgb.co
Prices: $2 (pickled cucumbers)–$14 (Ultimate Hangover burger)
Hours: Dinner Tues & Wed, 5 pm–midnight, Thurs 5 pm–1 am, Fri & Sat 5–2:15 am
Credit Cards: All major
Refined but frequently inconsistent hamburgers and the drinks who love them. Appetizers are generously portioned, so go slow, or work in teams. Service tends to hover.