(In First Look, we visit a new restaurant or bar in Central New York to give readers an idea of what to expect. If you know of a new place, email me at email@example.com or call/text me at 315-382-1984. If I take your suggestion, I just might buy you a meal.)
Syracuse, N.Y. — Getting to the newest restaurant in the city’s Eastwood neighborhood is like walking through a town bazaar in the Middle East where you’d eventually find exotic food in a back alley.
Here, you must walk through Marketplace on James Street, a gift shop full of racks displaying vintage clothing, artwork, handmade jewelry, artisan soap and other trinkets. In the back you’ll find a lone lunch counter sitting in front of a six-burner stove with a flat-top griddle.
“Yeah, this can be hard to find,” said Jullen Merrill, the owner of Kofta Burger. “It’s almost a secret … a secret that I hope gets out.”
Jullen, 30, opened this Middle-Eastern fusion stand on Feb. 5. It’s located in the back of the multi-vendor market at 2802 James St. The storefront had been the Tip A Few Tavern for decades before the city shut it down in 2019. Kofta Burger has a few tables and long counter for dining in, but everything can be packaged to go.
The kitchen here was basically a turnkey operation that came with a freezer, fridge, sandwich counter and stove. All Jullen had to provide was a concept and a menu.
He created a spread of sandwiches, pizzas, salads and appetizers with a Middle-Eastern flair. The most unique are the fatteh nachos: toasted pita chips, shaved flank steak, garlic sauce, pomegranate, mint, tomato and sumac onions ($12).
Jullen is the latest chef to leave a job at a large restaurant and rent a tight galley kitchen. Three trained chefs recently opened Fork & Knife, a quaint sandwich shop on Clinton Street downtown. Steve Samuels, a chef who worked at Pascale’s and Scotch & Sirloin, rented the kitchen at Chadwick’s Bar three blocks down on James Street and created KrunchBird.
Samuels welcomed Kofta Burger to Eastwood by raving about his food on Facebook. He now offers a 10% discount at KrunchBird by showing your receipt from Kofta, and Jullen is reciprocating.
“There are a few great places in the neighborhood: KrunchBird, Kofta Burger and Hiero’s to name a few,” Samuels said. “We’ve talked about doing some cool dinners on Sundays once the weather provides the opportunity.”
Jullen grew up in Lyncourt. After graduating from East Syracuse Minoa High School, he enrolled in the electrical engineering program at Onondaga Community College. He successfully made it through two semesters when he met his wife. She could tell he wasn’t happy.
“I spent all my free time in the kitchen. I just love to cook,” he said. “So I switched my major to hospitality management. Suddenly I was happy.”
He’s since cooked at the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, Pastabilities, the Arad Evans Inn, the Century Club and Justin’s Grill. He went on to become the executive sous chef at Citronelle in Armory Square. The owner, Methin “Max” Chutinthranond, ultimately promoted him to executive chef at his flagship restaurant, Lemon Grass.
Perhaps the biggest compliment Jullen Merrill has received since opening Kofta Burger was preparing a takeout order for his former boss. It was two weeks ago today that Max ordered one of everything off the menu for his staff at Lemon Grass.
“It was very very good,” Max said. “It wasn’t your typical hamburger. You had fresh vegetables and unique spice blends. It was something new. Even the bun on this hamburger is special.”
You must try …
The Kofta Burger ($14): Max is right about this burger. It’s topped with flavors you probably haven’t experienced or expected. Jullen uses a fresh 80%-lean halal angus patty. (FYI: halal are foods allowed under Islamic dietary laws.) He dusts each side of the patty with his own mixture of spices (cumin, paprika, coriander, clove, allspice and a touch of salt). The spices create a crust-like coating during their time on the griddle.
As the meat reaches the medium-rare temperature, Jullen lays a slice of white cheddar across the top to start its melt. He places a buttered challah roll next to it to toast while taking in some of the beef’s juices and aroma.
The burger gets a handful of chopped tomatoes, parsley and onions tossed in sumac before that all gets a healthy ribbon of garlic sauce.
The Kofta Burger, like all sandwiches, comes with a mound of potato wedges. Jullen starts each morning by cutting 25 potatoes into wedges. He coats these long triangles with za’atar (usually a mix of thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and sumac) and salt. He grills these on the griddle alongside the meat.
After you finish this oversized meal, you just might develop an additional craving of these potatoes later in the day or night. I certainly did, so during my second visit, I planned ahead and got an extra order of taters for $4. They were the perfect late-night snack.
The Shawarma Wrap ($16): Jullen starts making this sandwich more than a day before you even order it. The meat you choose (beef or chicken) soaks in a heavily spiced yogurt marinade for 24 hours in the refrigerator. The protein then spends a few minutes on the grill before he rolls it in a plain wrap with tomato, onion and tahini sauce.
It then spends another few minutes on the griddle to turn the soft wrap into a crunchy shell.
In the end, you’ll notice the tender meat requires almost no effort to chew and mix with the crunchy vegetables and sauce.
Falafel Smashburger ($13): This isn’t your typical falafel. Why? Because Jullen doesn’t have a deep fryer here. He doesn’t really want one, but he did want to offer this vegetarian entrée. He figured turning falafel into a smashburger was the best conversion.
He shapes his medium-ground chickpeas with finely-ground chickpeas into a tennis-ball-sized sphere. He smashes it onto the hot griddle and shaped it into a hamburger-like patty. The flat falafel goes onto a toasted challah bun with tomato, parsley, sumac onion and tzatziki sauce.
It’s not all that different from the Kofta Burger. Well, except it’s much lighter, and probably a little healthier. Then again, who really cares about that? It’s damn good.
Running Kofta Burger is a vast change for Jullen. Instead of running a team of 15 cooks and dishwashers to amass $10 million in sales each year, he’s now a one-man show. It’s humbling, he says.
In his first month of business, Jullen has been met with raves on the Where Syracuse Eats Facebook page and Google. He had just one complaint: a 75-year-old woman didn’t expect such flavors in a hamburger.
“Working at this level is rewarding on a more human level,” he said. “Getting to just feed people and seeing their reaction when you deliver above their expectations.”
The venue: Kofta Burger, 2802 James St., Syracuse; (315) 991-6862.
Hours: Thursday-Monday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Credit cards? Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Eat in? Yes
Parking: Plenty of on-street parking
Charlie Miller finds the best in food, drink and fun across Central New York. Contact him at (315) 382-1984, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (AND he pays for what he and his guests eat and drink, just so you know.) You can also find him under @HoosierCuse on Twitter and on Instagram. Sign up for his free weekly Where Syracuse Eats newsletter here.
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News Source: https://www.syracuse.com/food/2023/03/first-look-another-popular-chef-is-renting-out-a-kitchen-to-spice-up-eastwoods-growing-food-scene.html?outputType=amp