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CHEAP EATS

Burger bonanza

Email|Print| Text size + By Denise Taylor
December 30, 2004

I confess: my taste for burgers suffers from arrested development. It's stuck somewhere at about age 10, at the backyard grill, most likely around the Fourth of July.

You know the burgers I mean -- hand-formed patties carefully charred and sandwiched on a soft bun with tomato, crisp lettuce, gooey cheese, and a cool disc of onion. No perfect puck-shaped patties, Kobe beef, or truffle oil, please. Just give me the basics.

This is why my first burger at Wild Willy's in Watertown made me wonder where the sparklers were so I could celebrate. Willy's has the backyard-style burger down pat. And it seems I'm not the only one who likes them that way.

The original location that opened in York, Maine, four years ago has legendary lines, and it's getting crowded at the one-month-old Watertown branch, too. As founder Jim Williams puts it, by lunch time in York "it looks like Custer's last stand. You see this little building with smoke pouring out of it and all these people surrounding it."

The Willy's concept is simple: good, basic, charbroiled burgers for $5.75 that come with 12 combinations of fresh, not-too-fancy toppings. Sides are either hand-cut, pure-potato fries or freshly battered onion rings.

Rebels can order rather juicy grilled chicken sandwiches ($5.75), the standard-issue veggie burger ($5.75), or a credible steak chili ($4.75 a bowl). But besides the frappes, ice cream (get the draft root beer float, $3.25), and warm cobbler ($2.75) for dessert, that's all you get. As Williams likes to say, they don't do "froufrou."

The setup is equally froufrou-free. You enter the big red barn-style restaurant, order at the counter, slide into one of the pine booths, and wait for the staff to bring your meal. Though don't be fooled by the foil wrappers on the burgers and the red plastic trays: This is not fast food. A sign warns that the burgers take about 13 minutes on the grill, and they do.

But the flavor these 7-ounce lovelies pack is worth the wait. Willy's knows how to season with fire. The Willy -- a classic cheeseburger with leaf lettuce, tomato, and sweet red onion -- was a tad dry, but the ground chuck and flame-swathed flavor was so good that I obsessed about returning for another.

The trick here is that they shape certified Angus beef into patties with hand presses that don't squish all the air out and make an overly dense slab. The meat is never frozen, and the kitchen sizzles your burger until it is crisp-charred at the edges with a touch of pink inside (for health reasons, they don't accept rare or medium-rare orders). All this lands on pillowy soft, buttered and grilled buns.

We found the simpler the burger here, the better. Since the strong suit is taste, not texture, choices like the Sante Fe or the Conestoga, which smother the meat in salad dressings, were less appealing.

In contrast, the Rocky, which gussies up the beef with just a few sauted red and green peppers and cheddar cheese, was a joy to eat. The Bandito worked just as well, with tender sauted onions and cheddar, as did the spicy Rio Grande cheeseburger, with roasted green chilies.

Our first order of skin-on fries ($2-$3) was too soft, but the second try yielded a superb batch of crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites. Thin-cut onion rings ($2-$3) were delicate, flavorful, and not too greasy. Vegetarians willing to brave a burgerteria can eat both; they're fried in vegetable oil.

Watertown is the third Willy's (there's another in Rochester, N.H.), and former Booz Allen operations consultant Peter Stahl, who owns this newest branch, will open another in Manchester, N.H., next fall. More locations will likely follow. If things go well, we just might have a "real burger" chain to rival California's popular In-N-Out Burger. 

WILD WILLY'S

Cuisine: American

Address: 46 Arsenal St., Watertown

Phone: 617-617-9700

Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sat-Sun 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Prices: $2-$5.75

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