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We live in a chaotic country. Half a million rowdy bipeds jostle for space, attention and opinion on a sliver of land no larger than a proper town elsewhere. We’re not the most considerate or polite nation either so we’re loud and rough around the edges.
With some effort, it is still possible to escape to little patches of relative silence and collect your thoughts. Then you need to get back to what passes for civilisation and the moment’s gone in a flash of angry driving and unchecked aggression.
I structure my life in a relatively anti-social bubble. I don’t follow local news. I dismiss the lot as a collection of stories that describe the way one self-serving entity had a choice between doing what’s right or what’s selfish and inevitably chose the selfish path. I’m not vaguely interested.
So, I structure my work environment to include people who are smart, considerate and skilled. I pick social encounters that place me in contact with people who are smart, considerate, and interesting. Driving between any of these is an unfortunate and inevitable period of frustration but I don’t really have a choice.
I wish I could use public transport. I’d do away with the futility of driving and parking, making better use of the time to read and listen to music. But my daily 15-minute commute would translate to a bus ride of anywhere between 45 minutes and one-and-half hours and I’m not prepared to give up so much time.
Once we had a tram. I’m not going into how logical a proper underground system would be because I’m sure there are others who have posited this and a gazillion others who’ve expressed their expert reaction. I’d love to tram/subway everywhere. But then I’d also like to be Batman so I have to be realistic about my wishes.
We do have a relic of the tramway that made its way across our country. This was so long ago that I only learned of it from my grandparents. It’s sitting, quite forlorn, in the preserved tram station in Birkirkara, ensconced in the centre of the little garden that’s dedicated to the railway. The station is a beautiful piece of architecture and worth visiting in its own right. Someone saw fit to cage the tram in a heavy, black aluminium box so most of the lower floor of the station is covered by this unsightly structure. Still, just adjacent the loud and chaotic mess that the Birkirkara bus terminus is, there’s this little garden and you can be forgiven for forgetting you’re in the middle of a busy town when sat close to the station.
On the way into the garden is a surprise in the form of a proper burger kiosk. It’s called NomNom, the cutesy onomatopoeia that food bloggers used for a while a few years ago and dropped when they realised it was foolish.
Still, it entered our vernacular so we know what they’re referring to. NomNom has a few tables outside in the open and a whole lot of others under that sort of fabric tent you see at outdoor weddings. I suppose it’s a marquee but it’s got gathers and stuff so you can’t exactly miss it.
You order at the counter and pick from a menu that’s above your server’s head. The most common option is the make-your-own-burger side of the menu, where you pick the type of bread, the patty, your preferred cheese, and a host of add-ons like bacon and crispy onion.
While the cheerful orange gives a very fast-food look to the place, the menu shows there’s more going on. The first surprise is that you’re given the choice of meat – Scottona, USDA, and Wagyu, no less. Next on the list of unexpected is the two sandwiches that sit next to the burgers. One’s with brisket and the other with porchetta.
There are three ways to tacos and another three ways to the hot dog, plus the obligatory salads.
Somehow, I find myself passing through that awkward junction regularly and I’ve stopped a couple of times. Being the jittery eater, I don’t think I’ve ordered the same thing twice so I’ve tried a decent spread of their fare.
While the cheerful orange gives a very fast-food look to the place, the menu shows there’s more going on
This week, by some unpredictable set of coincidences, I wound up having lunch there twice. It’s one of those places where you place your order at the counter and take a beeper with you. When the food’s done, it beeps and you go and collect it. The man at the counter is patient and eager to help, was smart at joining the banter and knew all about the food he was dealing with.
The first time I visited, I ordered the Wagyu burger, with crispy onion and provolone while the legend I was with settled for the USDA with crispy bacon and mature cheddar. I’d tried the USDA before and it is perfectly serviceable but I planned on sharing my experience with all four of you readers so I hit the fancy button.
Adding drinks to our order brought the total to just under €30. I’d ordered what is by far the most expensive burger. It’s entirely possible to eat there for under a tenner per person.
Everything’s prepared to order so a 10- to 15-minute wait is to be expected. This is spot on at lunchtime. In the meantime, if it’s a sunny day, you just get to sit in a shady, quiet garden and have a peaceful chat while the rest of the country honks and yells.
Burgers are served in their own little half-box and a nifty paper wrap so it sits proudly vertical on the tray. The paper wrap is clever because it prevents you from making a mess as you consume the burger. The legend loved the packaging and stared at me, incredulous, as I dismantled it. I like to eat my burger over my chips. That way, instead of losing juices and bits of melted cheese to the paper wrap, gravity just adds it all to my chips.
There’s something about a burger that is larger than the sum total of its components. The NomNom brioche bun is actually great. The salad is fresh, the sauce is on point, and the patty tends to be overly ground for my liking. I prefer the fattier USDA patty, considering the Wagyu better but not enough to justify the difference in price. And I could go on with a list of specific descriptions of the bits and bobs that make up the burger but the reality is that every burger I’ve had there is deeply satisfying. It’s the kind of burger dreamt up by someone who is concerned with the final experience (a factor that’s also revealed by the careful packaging) rather than flavour alone.
My next foray was with an inveterate gourmand, the kind of man who travels to eat, cooks with love and patience and can speak about food for any amount of time. We ordered the tacos to share as a precursor to his burger and my hot dog, called the messy dog. Both are served with a portion of skinny fries that have a wonderfully satisfying crunch to them and are well-salted.
The tacos are almost good. The soft taco shell is lovely but the beef brisket is the weakest link here. It’s topped with chopped onion, tomato, and coriander, a sort of pico de gallo without its heat but the brisket needs its sauce and falls flat without it.
The gourmand agreed that the burger is satisfying and looked impressed that we were eating a pretty decent burger in a place he’d probably never think of stopping at. My messy dog is messy but that’s never stopped me. The sausage was a surprise. It’s made of local pork and spiced almost like a merguez sausage so there’s a heady, earthy flavour coming from the sausage itself.
We’re a nation that thrives on fast food and has done so for a while. Having been an agricultural and fishing island for millennia, much of of our food was prepared at home but then consumed on the go. Like pastizzi, timpana, ftira biż-żejt and baked rice to mention a few. Maybe a fast food nation deserves a fast food station and we’ve quite literally got one now.
If you’re in the area, pop into the garden, grab a bite and go and eat it near the old train station. While you’re there, e-mail the transport authorities and demand proper public transport, ideally with trains in it. There are worse ways of spending your time.
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