“I was so focused on the beets, it took me a minute to notice the meat,” a friend told me on our way back from lunch at Boxcar Burgers in Brunswick.
I was getting her thoughts on the restaurant’s signature sandwich, a grass-fed patty packaged with verdant butter lettuce inside a sesame seed bun. But the secret ingredient — Boxcar’s calling card since the business first opened as a lone food truck — are the thick rounds of pickled beets tucked beneath the patty. Earthy and nuanced, and not at all sour, they add an extra dimension of flavor to the simply seasoned beef patties.
Root vegetables aren’t the restaurant’s only claim to fame.
Since owner Brett Novick opened the truck in 2017, he’s relied on local beef to shape his third-pound patties. In most cases, the meat is sourced from Middletown Valley Beef, a small producer in Jefferson that raises grass-fed Black Angus cattle. The cost of locally raised ground beef puts some limits on the menu, Novick admitted — mainly in the variety of products he’s able to offer. But he’s gradually working to expand the menu at the new brick-and-mortar, mainly through specialty sandwiches like last week’s poutine burger.
Settling into a restaurant space is another new challenge. Boxcar shares a storefront with Towpath Creamery, a local ice cream shop that serves up scoops from Trickling Springs and South Mountain Creamery. Serendipity Market used to share the space, Novick said, but left at the beginning of the year. For him, the circumstances aligned. The business was still struggling to integrate a second food truck, something Novick described as more “operationally difficult” than he intended. In February, downtown Brunswick was gutted by a fire that destroyed four historic buildings.
“I wanted to do something to help,” Novick said of the city where he’s lived for the past six years. “Downtown has been in rough shape since the fire, and I think the community could use a few more places to eat.”
With Boxcar, it’s earned a spot that pairs comfort food staples with neighborhood bonhomie. I counted no less than three families enjoying lunch together on every visit, joined by local veterans groups or scruffy hikers straight off the C&O Canal. The menu is small, but Novick and co-chef Rory Watts do a good job with the basics. Deep-fried mozzarella sticks boast a toothsome texture and extra notes of flavor thanks to dried oregano in the breading. Fries are thin-cut and crisp, even better with a thick coating of creamy homemade cheddar sauce and sweet-sharp sprinklings of spring onion.
Expect crispy beef burgers with a diner-like crust from their time on the griddle. Despite the meat’s pedigree, though, I couldn’t help wishing that the kitchen would enhance the tangy ground beef with an extra hit of salt. Luckily, a duo of dark pink hot dogs didn’t have that problem, packing in extra flavor with a drizzle of brown mustard and thick serving of tangy beet slaw.
If there’s one thing on the menu that I’ll always recommend, it’s the Impossible burger, even for the most hardened of omnivores. The umami-rich meat substitute is cooked ever-so-gently to retain a rosy center, with a griddled crisp that helps the patty maintain its shape without toughening the protein. With toasted bun and a zippy slather of Boxcar sauce, it’s even better than the real beef.