You’d think that with Romer’s Burger Bar, Splitz Grill, Stackhouse Burger Bar, et cetera, the gourmet, unapologetically beefy burger scene would be sewn up in Vancouver. Astonishingly, Max’s Burgers has found yet another meaty niche: the American-style full-fat shake shack.
Since Soda’s Diners closed many years ago, Vancouver has been short on ’50s-style fare. But when chef Connor Butler opened Max’s Burgers in January, he introduced a fryer full of beef tallow and a globe-sized Behemoth burger, made with a 24-ounce patty. Max’s décor is inspired by the ’50s, with the big, open flat-top grill behind the counter, a roll-up garage-style door in front, and simple booths. Perhaps the organic, vegan movement has sparked a nostalgic rebellion?
Beef tallow is Butler’s sabre rattle. Back in 1990, McDonald’s removed the rendered fat from its fryers, following public pressure. It was the first major, mainstream concession to the healthy-eating movement. The offense: cholesterol. Now, 22 years later, Max’s celebrates tallow.
“Beef tallow just tastes so darn good,” said Butler in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “When we were doing Max’s menu, the intention wasn’t for people to be eating here five times a week. The burger patty is, like, 20 percent fat. I hope you get a milkshake with it. This is real, retro fun food.”
Butler, 34, is a ballsy guy. At 26, the Malaspina University-College grad opened Restaurant Connor Butler, a high-end bistro on Granville. He closed it four years later citing youthful errors and the expense-account-damning recession. In the years since then, he’s made wine in the Similkameen Valley and designed menus for the Morgan Creek Golf & Country Club in South Surrey. Max’s Burgers was conceived by himself and the owners of Redpath Foods, the local company behind Max’s Deli and Catering, and Stuart’s Bakery.
“At 26, I was invincible. Now, I’m mortal,” he explained. He switched from fine dining to burgers because Vancouver’s appetite for multi-course tasting menus is limited. “The audience is so much wider with burgers.”
To test whether Max’s is a satisfactory retro rebellion, I took three hungry friends for the Behemoth. The meal combo, which feeds four for $55, comes with the 24-ounce burger and a pound of toppings, fries, yam fries, and onion rings, and a pitcher of beer (or pop). Four other tables had ordered the Man v. Food–style meal that night. If you can eat the whole thing by yourself, you win a T-shirt. No single person managed it while I was there.
Although the huge burger is a gimmick, it’s surprisingly good. Butler starts with fougasse dough that’s baked with bacon, onions, garlic, and cheese to make the loaf-sized bun. It sandwiches a freshly grilled patty. Then he gives his cooks the freedom to add toppings, based on what they think the table would like. (The kitchen is completely open, so they can see you.) Evidently, we looked like pickle-eaters, because ours came with about a pound of them on the top, plus ham and Max’s sauce: a mix of ketchup, mayo, relish, grainy mustard, maple syrup, and secret seasonings. What captured me, though, were the onions; they’re sautéed down to that succulent, brown, PNE-scented nectar. Very satisfying.
A word about Max’s meat: it’s not free-range or organic. Instead, Butler is interested in traceability—the ability to find out where the cow was raised, and the conditions under which it lived and died. To him, this trumps the more politically correct labels. It’s all bought from Granville Island’s Tenderland Meats. Sausages come from Falconetti’s East Side Grill, where they’re housemade.
Alas, we weren’t quite full. So we ordered the British Columbia burger, which comes with bacon marmalade. We also ordered a poached pear salad. Neither of these extra dishes had much flavour. There needed to be about three times as much bacon marmalade on the burger, and the dressing on the salad was tasteless.
With tax and tip, but no dessert, the bill came to $95.
Late on Valentine’s Day, I returned. Just three other tables were occupied, and the staff had cranked the music to a deafening, conversation-stunting pitch. For $23, my companion and I shared the “Anna and the King” crab po-boy with a salad, and a caramel milkshake. Again, the foundations were solid, but the sauces were weak. Evidently, the po-boy contained a Thai green curry mayo, but this lacked any spice. The broccoli salad seemed little more than florets in a pasty dressing. However, the milkshake brimmed with ’50s bonhomie, hand-blended and rich.
Overall, if this is where I escape for indulgence, I want more. More sauce. More flavor. More spice. When the burger is done, I want smears of ketchup and mayo on my shirt. I want translucent napkins. And I want to have that craving so satisfied that I don’t want another burger for a while. American diners can deliver this stuff. So can Max’s. When I visited, it had only been open for a couple of weeks, but Butler has already fine-tuned some of the menu items and is committed to serving great food. Just give him time.