Tasha Smith had a brilliant way to get people into Burger 809 (1821 Cherokee Street, 314-899-5959), her Cherokee Street brick and mortar. On days she cooked her jalapeño bacon jam, she'd prop open the front door so the entire area would be filled with the rich smell of sweet smoke. It was a siren song, drawing in people from around the neighborhood in a cartoon-like trance, and guaranteed a packed house.
But the house couldn't handle the crowd. Located in a micro-sized storefront on Cherokee Street's west-of-Jefferson commercial district, Burger 809 was dizzyingly tiny. There was no room for tables and only a small space outside for a patio; if you stood at the order counter and stretched out your arms, you could likely touch both walls. When Smith first opened the restaurant in 2019, she knew this was going to be a challenge. As her popularity grew, so did the urgency to find a bigger space.
Smith found that larger footprint in Bluewood Brewing, a local craft-beer brand that opened in a stunning historic building near the old Lemp Brewery in Benton Park in 2019, the same year she launched her Cherokee Street business. Last year, Bluewood parted ways with its original food vendor, Mac's Local Eats, and was looking for someone to fill that space. After hearing about Smith's food and giving it a try, Bluewood's partners approached her about moving into their space. They got to know each other, realized their visions were aligned and inked a deal that would finally give Smith the space she needed to accommodate her growing business.
The move to Bluewood, which happened in January, was a turning point for Burger 809. Prior to the Cherokee Street location, Smith had been running the brand as a catering- and delivery-only operation while working full time as a health counselor for people with HIV/AIDS. Though she loved her day job, she was passionate about cooking and began making food for family and friends' special events, eventually moving into the festival circuit. People were floored by her slider-sized burgers, so Smith expanded her business to include a partnership with third-party delivery companies. She thought the Cherokee Street brick and mortar would serve as a complement to her existing business; instead, it increased it exponentially.
Smith no longer has that problem. The Bluewood tap room is a soaring space, characterized by stunning historical architecture, eye-popping vintage chandeliers, ample table seating and a large covered outdoor patio. The move has also allowed Smith to expand her offerings thanks to a much larger, on-site kitchen; at the original Cherokee Street location, she relied upon an off-premises commissary.
For Smith, though, it's not only the space itself that's been so refreshing but also experiencing her guests dining on site. It allows her to see real-time reactions to her cooking, such as the pure joy that comes over someone's face when they bite into her Signature Slider, a mouthwatering mini burger that balances the deep, earthy flavor of a backyard barbecued patty with sweet-and-spicy smoke from her housemade jalapeño bacon jam. Molten Monterey Jack and mozzarella cheeses cover the juicy burger, which is tucked into a butter-griddled, pillow-soft bun. That something so seemingly simple can hit every single point on the palate is magical.
Burger 809's entire slider portfolio is remarkable. Barbecue sauce enhances the cookout vibe brought about by the meat's charcoal-grill flavor on the West Side. The Hey Henry amps up the Signature Slider with Smith's creamy mac and cheese, a decadent and whimsical replacement for a standard cheese slice. Another outstanding option is her newest offering, the Bluewood Baby. Here, Smith tops her classic grilled burger with silken pub cheese, grilled onions, lettuce and pickles, then places it inside a soft pretzel bun. If this is the embodiment of the new partnership with Bluewood, it must be a match made in heaven.
Though the majority of the sliders feature beef burgers, Smith shows that she is just as accomplished with other proteins. Her turkey burger, the Cherokee Street Slider, is amazingly juicy and is enlivened with a smoky seasoning blend. The South Side Salmon Slider pairs garlic-and-herb-butter-gilded salmon with jalapeños and a passion-fruit-glazed Hawaiian roll.
Smith's deft touch even makes a grilled cheese special. For this vegetarian sandwich, she pairs gooey Monterey Jack and mozzarella cheeses with tomatoes and avocado. It's all on some of the most expertly griddled bread I've seen and is golden and buttery from corner to corner. The attention to this level of detail on a simple sandwich shows the care she puts into her food.
Before the Bluewood location, Smith was not able to offer fries, which forced her to be thoughtful about her side dishes. The result is a wonderful selection of soul food accompaniments that make you wonder why anyone ever thought that burgers needed deep-fried potatoes. Her tomato cucumber salad is a refreshing concoction of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers in a zesty Italian dressing. Potato salad hits quintessential picnic side-dish notes with tangy yellow mustard softened by creamy mayonnaise. Far and away, though, Smith's greens are the standout. Fiery, slightly sweet and enriched with turkey drippings, she could build an entire restaurant around such a magnificent dish.
Like the enrapturing scent of Smith's bacon jam, a side dish as good as those greens is bound to pack the house. Thankfully for Smith, she now has all the space she needs to shine.
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