Owner of Alley Burger wants to leave food, cultural legacy in Columbus

Gary Seman Jr.
The Columbus Dispatch
The Cowboy Burger at Alley Burger.

Mike Onyejekwe doesn’t want only to leave his stamp on the local burger market. He wants to leave a legacy in Columbus culture.

Onyejekwe is the owner of Alley Burger, a new joint Downtown at 26 N. High St., although the storefront faces Lynn Alley.

To listen to an enthusiastic Onyejekwe talk about it, Columbus food doesn’t have much of a PR problem, it just isn’t known for any particular dish or style of cooking.

Yet, Columbus is the birthplace of Wendy’s, home to the corporate headquarters of White Castle and nationally known for the Thurmanator, the towering signature dish at Thurman Café in German Village.

And he doesn’t see the city’s sobriquet of Cowtown as a pejorative; it reminds people of beef.

So, in effect, Columbus is a burger town.

Alley Burger uses prized wagyu beef, the expensive, heavily marbled Asian meat that’s buttery and almost melt-in-your-mouth tender.

“It’s worth it,” he said. “It’s giving people what they want. We’re not selling a burger – we’re selling an experience.

“We didn’t want to go with what everybody else is doing.”

The cowboy burger is one of chef Anthony Watson’s signature dishes. Starting out with 8 ounces of wagyu, the burger is topped with smoked cheddar, cowboy caviar (beans, bell peppers, brown sugar) chipotles, chipotle powder, onion straws and barbecue sauce.

Mike Onyejekwe, owner of Alley Burger, with one of the murals inside the restaurant off of High Street. “My goal is to leave a footprint on Columbus culture,” said Onyejekwe.

All burgers can be substituted with vegan “impossible” patties.

Watson, who trained as a chef apprentice through Columbus State Community College, has worked locally at restaurants such as the late G. Michael’s Bistro, Marcella’s, the Boat House and Medallion Club.

“I’ve been around,” he said.

He’s also been given creative license to invent dishes, such as the salmon cheesesteak sprinkled with the ubiquitous house-made, all-purpose dry seasoning made with smoked paprika, onion, powder, garlic power and other herbs and spices.

Alley Burger makes the only Salmon Cheesesteak in Columbus.

“We’re the only place in the state you can get it,” Onyejekwe said of the sandwich.

Another major part of the menu is the French-fry platters, which use house-cut Kennebec potatoes that are par-fried and refried upon service. The platters are named after alleys in Olde Towne East and other parts of Columbus. Toppings range from lump crab and bay shrimp to jerk chicken.

Aside from burgers and fries, there are chicken, turkey, fish and soft-shell crab sandwiches, appetizers, salads and sides, plus a number of entrees. In fact, Alley Burger released a new menu this week with a number of new dishes.

Watson cooks up crab-stuffed mahi mahi, New Zealand lamb chops and the “Main” strip – named after Main Street, which runs through Olde Towne East. The 16-ounce, USDA prime cut from Allen Brothers beef is dusted with chipotle and served with cheddar mashed potatoes and garlic green beans.

“It’s heavy,” Watson said.

Head Chef Anthony Watson, left, and Executive Sous Chef, Christian Tolliver work in the kitchen during Alley Burger’s soft opening.

Burgers run from $12 to $21 and all fry platters are $8, while entrees run in the $20 to $50 range.

Onyejekwe said he buys produce, bread and other ingredients in small batches to ensure freshness.

He said the liquor license isn’t in place quite yet, but should be in the distant future.

Alley Burger is undoubtedly one of the most well-worn storefronts in Columbus, a long narrow corridor with aging brick walls and a high ceiling with exposed ventilation.

Onyejekwe said he had to do two deep cleans before a light remodeling contract that included wall-sized graffiti murals, an updated bar and revamped restrooms.

While food is part of every city’s culture, there are other thing’s that make up a community’s profile.

Starting at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Alley Burger, which has the tagline of “the R&B Joint,” the restaurant is kicking off its rhythm-and-blues Wednesdays featuring up-and-coming acts in the areas of poetry, singing, bands and other styles of entertainment.

“It’s pretty much a platform we’re building and giving people,” said Jerry Ross, program manager at Alley Burger.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, call 614-929-5255.