Restaurant Review: WineBurgers on Tierra Verde

If you want to go out to eat on Tiera Verde, there's just one place to go. Smack dab in the middle of the island, right on the Pinellas Bayway, is downtown Verde, a strip mall and a half of restaurants that run the gamut from Chinese take-out to German schnitzel. And tucked into a hidden corner on the second floor of one of the buildings, next to a realtor and a spa, is WineBurgers.

It used to be Crazy Conch, a typical island-fine-dining spot most well-known (to me, anyway) for crab cakes good enough to win a Best of the Bay Award back in '08. Earlier this year, owners Michael Peel and Sally Herb closed down their seven-year old restaurant, rebranded, refocused and re-opened as WineBurgers.

It's a simple concept — take hamburger standards, mix with great ingredients, execute well and serve with a wide variety of adult beverages. The formula has worked well over in Tampa at Square One, and has been all the rage in big cities for well over a decade. And WineBurgers has the basics of the concept down pat.

Beef is Meyer Natural Angus, which means humanely-raised, vegetarian diet, and no hormones or antibiotics to be found. Buns some from Giovanni's Bakery in Largo. Produce is local, when possible. Servers won't ask how you'd like your patty — they default to medium, oddly enough — but the kitchen will accomodate your desired temp. Grill the meat, dress the bun, serve. Simple, isn't it?

And when WineBurgers stays with the basics, the restaurant hits the mark. The patties are irregular and knobbly, some bites bearing a crunchy caramelized crust, and subtly seasoned with just enough salt. Buns are light and airy, dense enough — barely — to contain a moderately stacked burger without structural failure.

The restaurant has two signature burgers, including the eponymous WineBurger. One bite and it's clear that wine goes next to a burger, not on it. The bun is schmeared with a pungent red-wine pepper sauce that overwhelms the beef — along wit destroying pretty much any wine you might pair with the meal. Better is the Green Chili Cheeseburger, topped with marinated chilies and sharp pepper-jack cheese.

Like at Square One, toppings are plentiful and tasty, but don't go overboard. Cheese and bacon is a good combination, but chili, fried egg, slaw, and wasabi mayo is going a bit far. You're eating a burger, not a hoagie. Enjoy the beef, not the extras.

That said, feel free to pile on when it comes to WineBurgers' non-beef burgers, like a slab of sushi grade tuna, or the marinated portobello mushroom cap. Those non-traditional offerings need the help. WineBurgers also serves brats and dogs, as well as a beautiful grilled cheese that has enough variations — thanks to the long topping list — to tax even the most inventive sandwich mixologist.

But don't forget sides, including the holy trinity of fried finger food. WineBurgers' onion straws are perfect, with well-seasoned breading that's crisp and flaky but manages to cling tenaciously to the slivered onions. Fries are thin, but not too thin, and homemade potato chips are almost preternaturally crisp. Order those without the default blue cheese and skip the chili-cheese fries — the parts are better than the whole, especially chili that's coarse, spicy and damn tasty.

There is still the occasional hint of WineBurgers' former incarnation as Crazy Conch, both on the regular menu — tomato soup that's loaded with fresh, bright flavor and a hint of rich cream — and on the daily blue plate specials. Those specials are a lot pricier than a burger and fries, but it's also the only way you'll be able to enjoy that award-winning crab cake ($18.95, Saturdays only).

WineBurgers' beer offerings are largely lackluster mega-brews, but the place isn't called BeerBurger. The restaurant offers twenty wines by bottle and glass, mostly new world selections that are affordably priced and have the chutzpah to handle the food. Then again, you might opt for one of the restaurant's thick milkshakes, a much more apt accompaniment to a loaded burger.

Despite the troublesome location, which takes a little detective work to find in spite of the roadside signage, WineBurgers has a cozy interior, complete with a living room couch and love-seat setup in front of a giant TV showing — on one night, at least — an old, black-and-white John Wayne western. Outside is a perfunctory patio with a slice of view across the water that separates Tierra Verde from St. Pete Beach proper. It's brutal during sunset right now, but will become a selling point as temps fall.

That, and the capably accomplished upscale burger concept, should be more than enough to tempt Tierra Verdans from the smattering of restaurants that surround WineBurgers. It might even pull some mainlanders over the bridge for a little island dining.

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