an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Getting Closer Still … Three Greater Tallinn Burgers

 

You’ve got to respect the Jahu crew.  First, they’ve taken over an eatery which – despite its ideal location – has had a questionable reputation over the years. You might remember the place as the mythical Söögiplats (Eating Place) – legendary not for its food but for being a late night gathering place for those headed home after a bout of heavy drinking but looking to sober up a bit with the help of some greasy fries or with one of those burks which was more coleslaw than meat. The place even earned itself the nickname of Löögiplats (Hitting Place) for the many late-night fights which once broke out there. Fortunately, Jahu has sobered the place right up by advertising their high-end coffee, cutting back on their late-night hours, and calling themselves Jahu Tänavagurmee (Flour Street Gourmet) in order to scare away the “food is fuel” crowd. I must say that their makeover has brought major changes to this once infamous corner spot. Respect.

The second reason you should respect the Jahu crew is that they’ve decided to take on not just one but both of the top two street foods classics at the same time: burgers & pizza. Their red or white pizzas, made across the street from the site of Tallinn’s first serious pizzeria, are excellent even if they don’t quite achieve the same level of perfection at those at Kaja (see my Fulfilling Tallinn’s Pizza Plan). However, since Jahu is open long after Kaja closes, they will probably become your best bet for a tasty pizza in the evening — assuming, of course, that Jahu hasn’t run out of its pizza dough or that you don’t happen to arrive in the middle of a large Wolt home-delivery pizza run.

To be honest, other than laziness, I can’t really understand the appeal of home-delivery pizza. Jahu, after all, makes real pizza which means that it has an effective half-life of about 15 minutes. In other words, while it will take you 30 minutes to eat the pizza at a normal speed, by the time you get half-way through it at the 15-minute mark, the pizza tastes about half as good as it did when you first started. As tasty pizza dough like the kind that Jahu serves is a short-lived and ephemeral thing, I would recommend sharing one of their pizzas with a friend. You’ll be happy that you did.

Let’s talk about Jahu’s burks now since, after all, this is supposed to be a review about burgers rather than about pizza. Jahu’s burks is really quite good and is so it should come as no surprise that it is busy making a run to the top of many of Tallinn’s leading burks charts. When I tasted my first one, I even thought that Jahu might be using marinated beef to make their patties as this would definitely be one way to tenderize traditionally tough and chewy Estonian beef. While it seems that Jahu does make the occasional special gourmet burger with aged beef, the regular Estonian beef in their classic burks is holding them back from leveling up even if their patties are flame grilled. However, Jahu gets full points in my book for making their own mayonnaise and garlic aioli – they spread the latter on their classic burks and then add on the basics: lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles. As an onion lover, I would also love to get some onions or something with little extra zip on my burks. I guess this is one of the reasons why their Pablo burks – served with jalapeños, guacamole, and crispy bacon – seems to be their no. 1 hit. Jahu also gets extra points from me for toasting their buns – but then loses a bunch of them for using such a non-descript “American-cheddar” cheese. Too bland. Fortunately, most of Jahu’s flaws could be easily fixed by following my Five Easy Steps Towards Better Burgers. Once they amend the error of their ways, Jahu would be a front-runner for the grand flatfish prize of “Makers of Tallinn’s First Proper Burger.”

The other Tallinn burks getting within reach of the same prize is One Sixty’s new Dirty Burks. I’m a real fan of this Kalamaja burks’ minimalist approach: it is served on a good bun together with their special house sauce and some wonderful grilled onions – a combination which can make the burks messy and get you dirty if you pick it up and try to eat it in the proper burks way. One Sixty’s sauce seems to be a somewhat spicier variation of Thousand Island – minus the thousand little chopped pickle islands – although it does taste like it might make use of some pickle juice instead. While good onions (grilled or fresh) are likely to win me over every time, One Sixty also does a nice job of hacking their Estonian beef which they flame grill, searing it on the outside. So, extra points to them for that. But now it’s time for that proverbial other shoe to drop. Besides their bland sliced cheese and their failure to properly butter and then grill their otherwise tasty buns, the Big Thing holding One Sixty back from achieving burger perfection is their apparent inability to grill to order. One time my burks was cooked well-done and then another time it arrived medium-rare – neither was cooked the way I asked. If One Sixty were to fix these three flaws – and then perhaps add some of their excellent pickles and/or a slice or two of tomato on the side, then they would be ready to claim the crown as the “Makers of Tallinn’s First Proper Burger.”

Now from Tallinn burksid let me take you over to Bursa which you’ll find in Helsinki’s lovely Hietaladen Market Hall. Yes, I know that Helsinki is not part of “Greater Tallinn” – although I must confess that I sometimes think of these two neighbors as one big Finno-Ugric city. Recently, my sister even questioned why I would write that I was off to Helsinki “to run some errands.” But if you ever traveled on one of the fast ferries, you know that it can take you less time to get from Tallinn to Helsinki than it might take you to get from one end of London to the other. As a result, the gap between these two cities – at least for me – has never been that large. And if we ever live to see Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Dream come true, then travel time across the 80 km gap will take fewer minutes than it once took by helicopter. Truth be told, I got used to going on my hunter-gatherer expeditions to Helsinki when I couldn’t find the food items I needed in the Tallinn of the 2000s. While the Tallinn of today has almost everything I need, I recently was forced to head north to find some Spanish rice for a future paella (fortunately there is a nice Spanish food stall at Helsinki’s Vanha Kauppahalli or Old Market Hall). And, of course, I’m always happy for any chance to browse the English-language offerings of the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore), although it sadly seems to be fading away into a shadow of its former self. But back to burksid and Bursa.

One of Bursa’s secret weapons is that they’ve hired an American grill master who knows all about flame broiling burgers to order. Mine was grilled to perfection. Bursa also uses select Finnish beef, prepped just the right way. They then add on a nice mature cheddar which gives their burger the right umami accent. Among their standard array of fixings, their house mayonnaise stands out: it is more of a Bernaise sauce than anything else as it is flavored with tarragon and a hint of vinegar. In France, Bernaise is often served with fine steaks so you can see that Bursa is trying to live up to its own hype of serving the Best. Burgers. Ever. And while the Bursa burks probably is the best burger I’ve had so far in the Greater Tallinn-Helsinki Metropolitan Area, it was their All American Bun which failed me. First, it was neither buttered nor grilled. And, second, just to rub it in, the bun I got was at least a couple of days old – if not even older. Sad, as otherwise Bursa would have earned the “Makers of the First Proper Cross-Border Burger” prize.

And so, my quest for Estonia’s first proper U.S.-style burger continues …. If you wish, you can read about my five other contenders for the crown. Until then, there’s always my backyard grill. Stay tuned.

 

Image: A refrigerator magnet my mom gave me . Maybe she was trying to tell me something … (designer unknown).

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