It's just five minutes before 5:00 pm on a Monday evening, and there's already a couple of people gathered outside Alden & Harlow, waiting for the doors to open. Once the doors are unlocked, everyone floods in and snags a seat. Within minutes, the bar is alive, and the entire room feels like one big party.
Just shortly after the first round of guests arrive and the first cocktails have been poured, a cloud of smoke hangs heavily in the air — a sign of what's to come. From afar, a thick, freshly-ground patty is spotted. It's liberally dusted with crystals of salt and coarse black pepper. It hits the grill and flames roar up as the fat melts and drips into the fire. The other side is carefully seasoned and closely watched; the chef awaits that perfect moment to flip it. The smell of charred beef, smoky and meaty, perfumes the air. Just as the burger is flipped, a house-made bun joins it on the grill. It's soft and pillowy and just needs a charred kiss from the grill to give it some crunch and complete it. At the perfect moment, the bun is removed from the grill and set on the plate.
The burger is careful rested on the bottom bun and is dressed with shredded lettuce, a secret sauce, and a crisp frico. The top bun is balanced upon it, and a generous pile of crisp, house-made chips joins the burger on the plate. The finished product is placed at the pass and carried over to the hungry recipient. The first one — of just shy of 40 burgers — is out, and it's only a matter of time before the rest of them are ordered and consumed, at which point the Secret Burger is taken off the menu until the late-night menu kicks in and more burgers are released. It's a guessing game how long the burgers will last though dinner service. They've been known to sell out as early as 5:20, but sometimes they hang around a little over an hour.
The burger arrives and the chips are sampled. Crisp and crunchy, they are a satisfying stand-in for the French fry that is the burger's common companion. The meat on the patty is loosely packed and a solid medium rare. It bears a smokiness that is brought out further by generous seasoning. The frico and lettuce provide textural crunch, and the sauce offers a creaminess that balances the fat. The bun has a sweetness to it that masterfully rounds everything out. It's easy to see why it's so popular.
Once that first burger is out, it seems to start a chain reaction. One by one, the burgers are artfully prepared and placed at the pass before they are swept away. It's almost comical to watch: A restaurant with a seasonally smart and creative menu seems to look more like burger joint at 5:00 p.m. As the clock inches towards 6:00, the stream of burgers has slowed to a trickle, and some of the other dishes are getting more attention. The bar is very lively at this point, and the dining room is reaching capacity. The bartenders are working fast to fulfill cocktail orders and pour wine and beer. The servers, dressed in plaid, gather at the pass, waiting for their orders to be up. They disappear into the crowd before returning to get more.
The kitchen is in full swing now. There haven't been any burgers to hit the grill in quite some time, and it's safe to say that the reserved amount has run its course until later at night.