JOINT SIZZLES DESPITE OBSTACLES

STEVE BARNES SENIOR WRITER
Section: Food,  Page: E2

Date: Thursday, October 22, 2009

If you're in the mood for a luscious burger and have time for a story or two, pop in some afternoon or evening at 250 Delaware Ave. in Albany to see the garrulous chef-owner, Dave Khan.


You won't need to ask for him or have any trouble figuring out who he is: Only two people work at the restaurant, called Burger Centric; Dave is the one not named Octavia.


He's sure to come out to say hello. Given how slow business has been -- one recent day Khan served just 20 people over 11 hours -- he'll probably have time to sit once he's made your food.


Order the kebab burger, a hefty mound of fresh-never-frozen ground beef that's been marinated in onion, garlic, tomato and more than two dozen spices for 48 hours. Or the burger with ground lamb and blue cheese. Or the Twin Peaks burger: one patty of hand-chopped chicken breast, one of ground beef, two kinds of cheese. Or the Ultimate Colossal Burger, a comically overindulgent creation piled high with onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle, chili, pastrami and a fried egg. Available with beef, poultry or vegetarian patties, burgers mostly cost from $7 to $9, fries included, topping out at about $12 for lobster.


Once Khan has rushed back to the kitchen to make your burger and hand-cut a spud for his signature fried potato discs, he'll come back out to the few tables in the front bar area, have a seat, settle in with a cup of sweet, milky British-Indian tea and tell a few stories. (The dining room proper, between bar and kitchen and equipped with a buffet station, is temporarily unused, so sparse have customers been.)


"I love this country! I love to cook food for Americans!" says Khan, 37, who arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago. The story of his life, by turns astonishing and inspiring, goes like this:


A child of privilege, Khan grew up in Pakistan, the son of an Indian-born scientist and a British mother. There were fine homes and automobiles with bodyguard-drivers, exotic vacations, the best schools. Khan studied accounting but never had to work, he says, instead training as a bodybuilder and earning his black belt in jiujitsu. He fled Pakistan after his prominent father was murdered by religious extremists, he says, quickly landing in Albany, where friends of his brother, who were in the hotel business, invited him to cook.


He worked at a succession of restaurants, never staying long at places where finished products came out of heat-and-serve plastic pouches. "That's not cooking," he says. "That's just assembly."


Finally ready to go into business for himself earlier this year, he gambled on a spot with a poor reputation and a difficult location, at least temporarily: the former Chang's Chinese restaurant on Delaware Avenue, near the Spectrum 8 Theatres.


"This building was a dog-poop hole. It was in such bad shape," Khan says. After months of expensive work he was ready to open, in mid-August, only to be nearly done in by the extensive remaking of the street. Delaware Avenue merchants have blamed the work for a 30 percent drop-off in business; Burger Centric is losing thousands of dollars a month, and has been since opening, Khan says.


He said the few potential customers not scared off by the construction weren't able to use the building's driveway and the parking lot out back for two weeks because of road work; a backhoe broke through his basement delivery entrance in front, letting cold air flood the basement and making the dining room frigid for days; the carpet was damaged by dust and mud trudged in from the nonexistent sidewalk; and absence of customers required him to let go every employee except waitress Octavia Hall, whose loyalty he has promised to reward with a promotion to manager once business picks up enough to permit hiring of staff for her to manage.


"We're really struggling. We've done so much, but so much more has to be done," says Khan, who has a wife and two young children. "I want to make this beautiful. When people come here, I want it to be like sitting in someone's home and eating their food. This is good food. I know it is. These are burgers like you've never seen or tasted. We just have to make it through."


After lunch, I tried to depart via the front door of Burger Centric. Work crews were pouring concrete for the sidewalk, meaning I had to go out the back, around a neighboring house and across a yard to be able to get to the street. But this also means that by the time you read this Dave Khan's sidewalk, at least, will be finished.


Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com. Visit his blog at http://blogs.timesunion.com/tablehopping.


BOX:


Piled-high patties


Burger Centric


Where: 250 Delaware Ave., Albany


Fare: Beef, chicken or veggie burgers available with 14 different preparations, $7 to $9; other steak, chicken and pasta entrees, $8 to $15; wings and fried snacks also available. All-you-can-eat American and Indian buffet to be launched in coming weeks. No license to sell alcohol yet.


Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.


Parking: Lot behind building.


Delivery: Free within 5 miles.


Phone: 512-3835