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Grub for gourmets at Campus Grill

Fresh, interesting comfort food at fair prices awaits at Campus Grill in Ashland. It's at 1690 Ashland Street, adjacent to Printfast in the Ashland Shopping Center, and to say the spot offers burgers, hot dogs and fries is an understatement. There are six burger varieties, six hot dog varieties and six specialty fry choices.

My friend and I walked in shortly after peak lunch hours at 1:45 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon to a clear lobby. We had our choice of two tables, and opted for the one closest to the front window.

The lobby was clean and modern. Walls were painted in fashionable brick red and orange tones, complemented by columns of stylish wood paneling to create a look that was admittedly simple but warm and clearly on trend. It was a step up from other burger dives at the same price point, and favorably reminded me of the bright paint and hip signage that helped Burger Spot in Medford stand out from the crowd.

I went for the Bacon Mac & Cheese Burger ($7.99 plus tax), which struck me as the Traveling Wilburys of junk food, combining my favorites like Tom Petty (cheeseburger) and George Harrison (homemade macaroni and cheese) into something both new (well, for 1988 in this simile) yet familiar at the same time.

I could hear my New Year's resolution shatter as I bit into it, or that could have been the crunch of the panko crusted fried macaroni and cheese. It's akin to two layers of the crispy crust on the homestyle dish, with notes of red pepper and possibly a hint of nutmeg — just like my mom makes. That fried mac and cheese topping merges with bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo on a fresh ground beef patty and grilled buns. Oh, and that bacon is held together with a (non-fried) dollop of warm mac.

It's arguably Campus Grill's most decadent burger, but the classic veggies counter the inherent heaviness of the burger's rich toppings. It's not easy to finish, but the burger is better described as creamy than over-the-top. I also ordered a large side of their fresh-cut shoestring fries ($2.99).

My friend was a little more sensible and ordered the Buffalo Blue Burger with a turkey patty ($8.99, including $1.50 substitution charge for turkey). It came adorned with buffalo sauce, blue cheese crumbles, lettuce, onion and bacon. Tomatoes usually come with it too, but my friend had them hold those.

My friend said his turkey patty was freshly grilled and juicy. I tried a bite and thought the flavors of buffalo sauce, blue cheese and juicy poultry patty worked particularly well together.

As someone who doesn't eat red meat, he appreciated that he had the choice of that turkey patty or a vegetarian one. Better yet, he liked that the turkey patty didn't taste like an afterthought.

As a side, he chose the Garlic Feta Fries ($4.49), which are Campus Grill's fresh-cut shoestring fries tossed with fresh garlic and cool feta cheese. I tried a few, and although I wouldn't have thought to combine the flavors together, I found them to work well as a gourmet twist on a simple favorite.

The spot offers even more adventurous sides than feta fries, particularly the Cinnamon Toast Fries, which takes sweetly seasoned sweet-potato fries and tops them with orange-marshmallow cream sauce. I had intended to order them as a dessert, but my friend and I simply didn't have the room after our hearty meals. Sampling those is something for next time, and I had too good an experience for there not to be a next time.

There's precious little to fault Campus Grill. The ketchup and fry sauce containers were the shallow variety that makes dunking hard unless you tip the fry sideways. Seating is a little limited, same as I remember that space being years ago when it was Happy Falafel.

Otherwise, Campus Grill is a worthy stop for students or anyone else who happens to find themselves on the south side of Ashland.

— Nick Morgan