It's nearly the best scene in Pulp Fiction. Vincent asks Jules if he knows what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris. Jules says, "They don't call it a quarter pounder with cheese?" Vincent: "No, man, they got the metric system. ... They call it a royale with cheese."
Living in Europe as kids, my little brother would go limp with hunger, practically expiring until we could shovel his boneless form into an American-style burger joint called Wimpy's. It was familiar but just different enough that it caused an odd sense of vertigo. In fact, one of the more unsettling parts of travel is checking out American fast-food innovations in foreign lands: McDonald's filet-o-shrimp burger in Japan; their taro pie in China; the Toblerone McFlurry in Denmark.
In 2013, an American-style burger restaurant called Drama Burger opened in Lithuania, successful enough to spawn another and then another. In February, Simas Slabaciauskas and his co-owners debuted the first one in the United States, a quirky, be-muraled box I watched go up where the bedraggled Jade Garden once stood at the corner of Kennedy and S Armenia.
Evidently, these successful restaurateurs fell in love with the Tampa-St. Petersburg area while on vacation, smitten with our craft beer scene and our grass-fed beef. And so the Lithuanian invasion began.
I welcome the invaders with open arms, despite a longtime vow to court less drama in my life.
Drama Burger is funky, with whimsical black-and-white drawings by David Schiesser (naked armless dude giving a piggyback ride to a sailfish; martini-hefting pith-helmet guy riding a flamingo) and live plants hanging from the exposed rafters of the blue ceiling. Tables are set with tiny crystal vases of carnations and wine comes in impossibly tall cut-glass goblets. Pay close attention to the soundtrack — each song is better than the last, but try to figure out a song title using Shazam and your cellphone just shrugs at you. Hint: It's something cool. And Lithuanian.
The beer list is a great mix of local favorites and European cult crafts, and wines feature some novelties at good prices (plus half price on Wednesdays), but I'm eager to dive into the food. The single best sandwich isn't a burger at all. It's the thin-sliced housemade pastrami ($10.99) piled onto a glossy, soft brioche bun with a spicy house mustard-mayo, thin curls of red onion with some snap, and tangy herbal pickle slices. The meat itself is the star, the swaths soft but not stringy, with a discernible smokiness. Its preparation takes about a week, with marinating, then cold smoking, then boiling gently for days to get the texture just right.
The second best sandwich is the burger upon which that pastrami has hitched a ride. I couldn't quite envision the successful union of ground beef and pastrami, but clearly my imagination is limited. The bounciness of the beef, the plushness of the pastrami, a little smokiness, a little juiciness — it's worth its $12.99 price tag.
There's a burger of the month (around $14) that tends to be a shock-and-awe stack of elements that requires jaw unhinging. The most recent one, the umami burger (named for the mysterious "fifth taste" after salt, sweet, sour and bitter), was less absurdly tall, but really lovely. This fifth flavor is often described as meaty and deeply savory, so they've combined flavors that frequently get the umami nod: beef and mushrooms and Parmesan and nuts that pushed the savory meter up to 11.
I could keep going on the burgers: The portobello cheddar ($8.99), with its exotic Georgian spice mix, is no wan concession to vegetarians, and the chorizo burger ($12.99), with its slightly spicy meat, is memorable for softly cooked jammy tomato, sweet onion, avo and a swipe of chipotle mayo.
The fries and other sides are worthy of praise as well.
We tried all three potato options — skinny sweet potato, fat Belgian twice-fried planks and skinny skin-on rustic russets — and all were good (but I wish the Belgians didn't come in the coffee cup because the bottoms get steam-sogged). They were offered with housemade truffled ketchup and mayo just different enough that you might have a moment's reverie about what life in Vilnius is like. It feels American, but with a hard-to-place accent.
There are Drama dishes that some folks will shrink from (the nearly medicinal ginger caraway lemonade, the crunchy black breads sticks with a blue cheese dipper), but most of the novelties will make you wonder why other hamburger concerns don't follow suit. Still-crunchy harissa-blushed young carrots (salty, sweet, spicy) and snappy okra pods dotted with meaty bacon are perfect burger foils.
Parking is the biggest impediment — there are maybe a dozen spots total. And right now the restaurant offers a lunch special at 11 a.m. so that the first 20 takeout orders get a burger and fries for $1. South Tampa has seldom seen so much sharklike driving drama. But as their sign promises, "All is better with a little drama."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.