50 Burgers, 50 Days: Sputnik

 
Day 41: Sputnik
1300 E. Sixth St. 628-1250, Facebook page here.
Hours: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.20.11
 
The jukebox is still here at Sputnik, the one from the Good Knight that serenaded customers with a side of the Pogues to go with their chicken pot pie and bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Now the music infuses a menu of burgers and fries and draft beer at Sputnik, which opened Sept. 12, less than three months after the Good Knight closed in June.
 
In the space of 10 minutes at Sputnik, I’ve heard Sinatra, XTC, the Cramps and the Kinks. Fitting for chef Brandon Stratton, also known as @Rawknrollchef13, whose Twitter feed is full of wrestling and metal and hard-core sentiments on the chef life and this: “If we meet at Sputnik one day, please don't ask me why the Good Knight closed. I will never truly give you the right answer.”
 
So take this answer with a grain of salt when Stratton and owner Randall Stockton tell me that 45 seats weren’t enough to support the volume the Good Knight needed to sustain its artisan menu and the staff to produce it at relatively modest prices.
 
Why call it Sputnik, after the little Soviet satellite that fed Cold War paranoia and Space Age fascination at the same time? Stockton said he just thought it was a cool-sounding name, with a bonus payload of artificial nostalgia. Neither his wife’s grandmother nor Stratton’s mom were amused, Stockton said, the retro irony lost on a generation that stood in the shadow of detente. Stockton said he found a stronger resonance in the name when he found out one of the Russian applications for the word “sputnik” is “traveling companion.”
 
In addition to Sputnik and the late Good Knight, Stockton and his wife, Donya, also have a hand in Beerland, Rio Rita, the Liberty, the Grackle, Shangri-La, Live Oak Barbecue and the Legendary White Swan. Randall Stockton said they’d originally wanted to do a burger joint at the Good Knight space. We talk about some of my favorites from this 50 Burgers, 50 Days project, and it comes out that Stockton’s a fan of Top Notch on Burnet Road, that he’s been going there since he was a little kid. In that spirit, he tells me that Sputnik will add fried chicken, not just eventually but inevitably, because that’s one of the absolutes Donya Stockton insisted on.
 
Stratton cooked at the Good Knight for the past two years, but burgers are friendly territory. “Burgers are my comfort food,” Stratton said. “It’s a chance to do a burger place for the first time and have some fun.” He’s wearing a black bandanna and a Hellacopters shirt, talking about “flavor-forward” burgers, unable to shake entirely the military-like indoctrination of the Las Vegas Le Cordon Bleu culinary school he attended. He and Aaron Zielsdorf run the kitchen, and the menu is a brainstorm-in-progress. “Right now, it’s a burger joint,” Stratton says.
 
The burger: The package is held together by a buttery, locally baked brioche bun with the density to handle a half-pound of hand-formed, 100 percent Angus chuck. It’s $6 for the basic burger. Add cheese for 75 cents or bacon or chili for $1.50. The house-cured bacon conveys deep smoke and a good bite, with just enough fat. With Romaine lettuce, tomato and sliced onion, it makes for a towering burger anchored by beef with a real primal bite. Stratton won’t tell me the twist, but I taste something different here. At least as different as having a real burger in a real bar from a true believer.
 
Fries or rings? Fries are cut in-house from russet potatoes, soaked overnight, blanched and finally fried to order. An order is $1.50, or $3 with chili that has a tomato twang with a backbone of chipotle and cayenne. Texas red with no beans, with relief from $3 drafts of Pacifico or Firemans #4, or a Lone Star pint for $2. The longterm brainstorm forecast calls for onion rings.
 
(Inset: Sputnik owner Randall Stockton, center, with Sputnik's kitchen team of Aaron Zielsdorf, left, and Brandon Stratton. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)