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Book ‘em, Danno. Burger One.
It’s not every day that The Straight Beef conducts its 50th official review. Assuming that no one would recognize us if we disguised ourselves as upstanding citizens of means, we duded up and headed to the swankiest Triangle-area joint with the word “burger” on the menu: The Umstead Hotel & Spa.
The Umstead is Cary’s luxury resort hotel. The hotel’s restaurant, Herons, is a five-star, five-diamond establishment – the kind of place where your tie is expected to wear a tie.
While we clean up well, we’re not five-diamond material. Five tater tots, maybe. Diamonds, not so much. We opted for the bar. The bar menu is more casual, and, more importantly, features a hamburger which Scott (Dr. Blumenthal, taking the place of Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett) had tried previously and raved about.
The Umstead Burger: Vine Ripe Tomatoes, House Pickles, Choice of Cheese, Herbed Fries $18
We were in a great mood. We were celebrating a milestone in The Straight Beef and wanted to cap off our 50th review with a great score. The service was impeccable, the sides were well executed, the drinks paired up nicely. We had a great time, great conversation, and great drinks. The burgers . . . well, witness testimony varies.
Four undercover burgiatrists ordered four cheeseburgers, three medium rare and one medium. We received two medium rare burgers, one that was on the medium-well side of medium and one that was decidedly – frighteningly – rare. It wasn’t quite, “Oh my god, is it still pulsing?” rare, but it was close. Close enough that an experienced and adventurous eater felt the need to send it back.
The Umstead does not skimp on condiments, though they are not house made
Don (the Reverend Corey, founder of Transcendental Burgiatry) said, “the Umstead was good, not great. I had to return my burger, and though the meat had great texture, I still thought it lacked a little flavor. The build was sloppy. The brioche bun was nice, but not as good as 9th Street Bakery brioche at Buns in Chapel Hill, and the tomato could have been more ripe. Overall it was around a 3.75 (especially when factoring in the re-burger).”
Michael (Dr. Marino, master of condiments) added, “I found the patty perfect in flavor and texture. As we discussed, I like the beef ground multiple times. The Umstead’s had a silky consistency that was a pleasure to eat. The fault was in the build. The bun was average as well. I gave it a 4.25.”
The Reverend Don Corey and Dr. Michael Marino
Chad (former burgiatry supervillain) retorted testily, “Yes, the beef was truly excellent. If I were reviewing the patty alone I would have rated it much higher, but the bun slid around on a piece of wilted lettuce and a flavorless tomato. I give it a begrudging 4.0. It was a good burger, but if we took price into consideration the score would be lower. The value to flavor ratio is just not there unless you are on an expense account.”
Wilted lettuce and flavorless, out-of-season tomatoes detracted from an otherwise excellent burger
Scott (Dr. Blumenthal, international burger historian) countered, “I’m giving it a 4.5. My two prior experiences were a solid 5.0. Chad, you are giving it a 4.0 (a recommendable burger), and it looks like Michael’s review is also very high. So if anything, it seems that the conclusion should be, ‘Oh sh*t that was good.’ We knew going in that it’s a nationally recognized joint with high prices. We can’t really ding them for that.”
Dr. Scott Blumenthal, renowned burger historian and Chad Ward, former international burgiatry supervillian
The renowned Dr. Blumenthal is correct. While by Generally Accepted Accounting Practices, the Umstead cheeseburger should come with a quart of high-octane champagne and a foot massage from a bevy of showgirls, we deliberately chose a special occasion venue for our special occasion and will not factor price into consideration of our rating. While we would have loved to give the Umstead a 5.0 on our Five-0, we give it a 4.125.
Overall ranking 17 out of 50.
The Straight Beef Episode 11 is super-sized for your listening pleasure. A decadent discussion of the top 10 toppings as determined by a burgiatric conclave. Download the episode here or subscribe to us using iTunes.
The Straight Beef celebrates Halloween in January as it looks back on its five most horrifying burgers. You can download it via our Libsyn feed or you can subscribe here.
As the waiter takes the check and we brush the final crumbs of 2013 from our clothes, it is time for a bit of reflection, a moment’s pause to consider the highs and lows of the 2013 year in burgiatry.
- The Straight Beef closed the books on the year’s reviews on the highest of notes. Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill completely floored all four reviewers in the waning days of December. Despite the restaurant only being open a short while, the burgers there were rated the best of the year and among the top five hamburgers The Straight Beef has encountered in its four year history.
Super. Thanks for asking.
- The Al’s review also garnered the most attention of any Straight Beef post in 2013, with a huge number of page views and more than 500 Facebook shares. Al’s Burger Shack continued an emerging trend – Chapel Hill, NC, is rapidly becoming burger Mecca. Al’s joins Buns of Chapel Hill and Top This to score a hat trick, a trifecta of great hamburgers within a square mile of one another.
- 2013 also saw catastrophic lows, a hamburger so horrifying that the Reverend Corey not only could not finish it, but swore off hamburgers for nearly a month before having his faith (and appetite) renewed in a Dante-esque moment at Top This.
This picture is not out of focus. The burger was so bad it was blurry.
- 2013 saw expansions – both technological and geographic – in the reach of professional burgiatry. The Straight Beef launched its podcast series, bringing burgiatric wisdom to those who would otherwise not have access to the depth of knowledge that The Straight Beef offers.
- We also published our second international review. The first was Dr. Blumenthal’s 2011 video review of Café Chappe in Paris, while the latest was Reverend Corey’s glowing and redemptive review of the hamburger at Dish in Prague, Czech Republic.
- This year saw a nationwide explosion of bizarre gimmick hamburgers, starting with a $380,000 vat-grown burger. We used to refer to these as “Look at Me!”burgers. Now we think of them as “Look at me – and run away!” burgers. Hamburgers with fried macaroni & cheese buns, hamburgers with ramen buns, triple-patty monstrosities with battered, buttermilk fried bacon (no, we’re not kidding), and 7-layer burgers made the national news. Where we formerly gleefully ordered whatever hamburger an establishment called its “signature burger,” we have learned through rueful experience that these are overwrought, overthought, and definitely overbought. Stay away.
Steak & Shake 7×7 Burger
- The greatest story of the year, however, the one worthy of the Bob Costas-with-a-tear-in-his-eye-at-the-Olympics moment, has to be the redemption of Straight Beef burgiatrist emeritus Dr. John McManus. Dr. McManus suffered a shocking breakdown that estranged him from his colleagues and removed him from the field of serious burgiatric inquiry. Early in 2013, despite all odds, Dr. McManus made a miraculous recovery and is once again at the forefront of hamburger research, having finally attained the Holy Grail of hamburgers – a five star burger at GAS in Florida.
Welcome back, Dr. McManus!
This closes the fourth year of The Straight Beef, our first year as the new four-man lineup, and the first year of the Reverend Corey’s Reverend Rants and Chad’s Notes from the Burger Underground in addition to the enduring features the Tao of Cow and Ask the Burgiatrist.
Stay tuned fearless readers, 2014 promises even more burger news and reviews, starting with The Straight Beef’s 50TH review! (yes, it deserves an exclamation point!)
Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery Offers Brioche Bun
Ari Berenbaum has spectacular buns.
There is one ingredient that always makes food taste better. It’s called “love.” It’s also called “butter.” And when there’s love and butter, magic happens.
That magic happened recently when The Straight Beef met with Ari Berenbaum, the new owner of Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery, to taste his brioche hamburger bun. Our host was George Ash, owner of Buns, Chapel Hill’s boutique burger joint, one of our top five burger places.
The Straight Beef has always taken a firm stance on hamburger buns. A bun is more than a mere delivery system. A good bun can make or break a hamburger. The classic diner-style burger bun is a squishy potato roll, which is perfect for a single patty cooked on a flat-top, but for anything larger, it tends to disintegrate with each bite, leaving the eater with a sloppy handful of patty and condiments. On the other end of the spectrum are wheat buns and the dreaded Kaiser roll, which offer greater structural stability but at the expense of excessive breadiness and too much chew.
Brioche, rich with butter and eggs, is a classic French-enriched bread. It is usually found in popover or loaf form and served at holidays. Ari Berenbaum has turned it into what may be the perfect hamburger bun.
Ari explained how the brioche bun is different from normal buns: In addition to the tenderness provided by eggs and milk, the introduction of softened butter–after the other ingredients are mixed–allows for ribbons of butter to layer in the dough.
“There is a richness to brioche,” Ari said, “a depth of flavor, a yeastiness and balance that you don’t often find in a hamburger bun.”
In the interests of objective burgiatric science, we tasted the brioche by itself. It was light, soft and delicious, with a beautiful sweet butter favor. Then we tasted George’s standard wheat and regular buns. The brioche crust was softer and easier to bite through, the crumb was light and airy, and the flavor trumped both other buns easily.
The real test came, however, with the burgers. Could the brioche bun stand up to a variety of toppings? Reverend Corey ordered his burger with bacon, grilled onions, American cheese and a fried egg to see how the light interior of the bun withstood the wet toppings and the ravages of a lava-like egg yolk.
Mr. Ward went classic with pickles, mayonnaise and sharp cheddar, the Spartan selection highlighting the interaction of the bun and patty.
Both burgers were enhanced by the brioche bun, adding depth and a hint of butter to each bite. While the bun had a way of dissolving quickly in the mouth, allowing the favors of the burger and toppings to come through, the interior remained structurally sound almost until the end, surrendering to the juiciness of the burger and toppings only at the last bite or so.
As always, the burgers at Buns were perfectly cooked and seasoned, offering the ideal test platform for the bun.
Ninth Street Bakery’s brioche buns are exclusive to Buns in Chapel Hill for the time being, but Ninth Street distributes its breads in grocery and specialty stores from Greensboro to Raleigh. The bakery expects to have brioche buns in Harris Teeter and Whole Foods stores in the upcoming months.
Pictured from left. Ari, Don, Chad, and George Ash.
The four most renowned palates in burgiatry are gathered at the table.
They are at Al’s Burger Shack, a newly opened counter service and takeout restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The interior is tiny, with seating for fewer than 10 patrons. There are picnic tables outside with propane heaters to hold back the cool night air. The burgiatrists opt for outdoor seating. It is chilly but conducive to discussions on the arcana of burger reviewing, far from the prying ears of the public—and without the risk of revealing themselves to their unwitting host.
Super. Thanks for asking.
The owner, Al, is warm and knowledgeable. The restaurant is busy, but he remembers each name and order. He prides himself on local, pasture-raised beef, local craft beers, cheeses from area creameries, and locally made (or homemade) condiments.
The Straight Beef is here to put his hamburgers to the test.
The four burgiatrists are relaxed. The celebrated experts share surprisingly—sometimes shockingly—ribald humor between erudite observations. Dr. Michael Marino is the master of condiments. Dr. Scott Blumenthal is the esteemed burger historian. Reverend Donald Corey is the fiery orator and founder of spiritual burgiatry. Chad Ward is the former international outlaw burgiatrist who joined legitimate academia. They are gods in the burgiatric world. Bad burger joints worldwide speak of them in hushed tones as The Four Horsemen of the Burgocalypse. They are The Straight Beef. It was this reporter’s privilege to join them at one of their outings to observe their methods.
The laughter dies as their names are called and their hamburgers arrive. Good humor shifts to steely-eyed analysis. As though an unseen conductor has tapped his baton on the podium, the four bow over their burgers and begin prodding, sniffing, deconstructing, and, finally, tasting.
Mr. Ward and Dr. Marino lock eyes in a moment of surprise, chewing slowly. Dr. Blumenthal, enjoying his crinkle-cut fries with sea salt and rosemary before committing to his main course, notes his colleagues’ reaction and makes a more careful observation of his patty. Reverend Corey’s eyes are hooded, giving nothing away. One senses that he is skeptical, cynical, not ready to bestow honor before giving it deep thought.
“This is a perfectly cooked hamburger,” says Mr. Ward. Dr. Marino nods. “The first bite is exceptional,” he says.
The burgiatrists examine the interior of the patty. “Textbook,” says Dr. Marino. “I would use this to show my students what a flawless medium to medium rare burger looked like.”
Dr. Blumenthal takes his first bite and sits bolt upright, all outward movement stilled, his exterior awareness shutting down so that he can properly focus on his burger. “Wow,” he whispers. “Just wow.” He takes another bite, and then another. “This is a very good hamburger. An excellent hamburger.”
Reverend Corey does not bend. “It’s good. It’s very good. It may even be great. But there are…flaws.”
This is where the years of experience, the hours of trial and error, the thousands of experiments come into play as the members of The Straight Beef note their initial impressions and consult their internal grading scale. A good hamburger is easy to score. A great hamburger is trickier, but nothing to world-class burgiatrists such as these. Only when one encounters a truly exceptional hamburger do the fine gradations—and their associated agonies—come into play.
At the outer edges of the bell curve the atmosphere becomes rarified, the data points farther apart. It is but a modest jump from a 3.0 on their five-point scale to a 3.5. The leap to a 4.0 is longer but manageable. The distance between a 4.0 and a 4.5 is longer still, and the quarter point between 4.5 and 4.75 is as vast as a burgiatric Sahara. The gulf between a 4.75 to a 5.0 is nearly incalculable.
It is there that the minutiae reign.
Is the bun properly toasted? Is the patty cooked evenly from edge to edge, or is there a grey ring surrounding a pink center? Are the condiments properly applied, or are they too sloppy, perhaps contributing to a ramshackle architecture that causes the bun to slide? Is the bacon crisp? Was it cooked to order? Does the cheese contribute to the flavor, blending harmoniously as it should, or does it stand uncomfortably apart, undermined by its separateness?
“The shredded lettuce is a nice touch,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “You see that far too little. It makes a difference. I’m impressed.”
“The bacon is crisp and flavorful,” Reverend Corey adds, “but I’m not sure I taste ‘grass-fed’ beef. This is an excellent hamburger, but it isn’t significantly different from corn-fed beef in my mind.”
A discussion ensues. It is a fundamental question, and the discourse is heated. Does one judge a hamburger against a Platonic ideal, the perfect hamburger? Or does one judge the hamburger based on the restaurant’s intent? Does “grass fed” play into the equation, or should the hamburger be judged as a hamburger, regardless of modifiers?
“It’s also a little heavy,” Reverend Corey continues, inviting a chorus of disagreement, most notably from Dr. Marino, whose indignation outshines the others’.
“You ordered the 9-ounce burger. You had the option of the 6-ounce burger. You can’t blame that on the hamburger. If you feel that the burger is heavy, you have only yourself to blame. You cannot fault the burger for that.”
The burger experts continue to eat, evaluating every nuance, until Dr. Marino calls for consensus. “Gentlemen, it is time. Your verdict?”
“Five,” says Dr. Blumenthal. “Yes, the bun got a little squishy at the end. I don’t care. This was an amazing hamburger.”
“Four point seven five,” says Ward. “The beef was rich and perfectly cooked, the accoutrements were exceptional. Even the ‘Al’s Sauce’ was head and shoulders above any house specialty sauce we’ve tried.”
“Four point five,” says Reverend Corey. “It was an excellent hamburger, one of the best around, and the bacon was excellent, but I had those minor issues, which I voiced.”
“Four point seven five,” says Dr. Marino. “The level of care, the attention to detail, the quality of ingredients—nearly perfect.”
The Straight Beef discussed and bickered a bit longer, but the outcome was clear from the first or second bite. Al’s Burger Shack, a restaurant only open for a short period of time, had vaulted into the group’s top five hamburgers of all time.
TSB average score is 4.75, which is good for #4 out of 49.
Tomatoes are red.
Bleu cheese isn’t blue.
Put your burger on a kaiser roll
And you’re a terrible human being who needs to reevaluate your priorities.
What’s better than a good burger and cold beer? The Straight Beef and the NCBeer Guys on the same podcast. Belly up! Download from iTunes or from the Libsyn feed.
Podcast Super Combo
Man, podcast #9—featuring our buds Glenn and Dave, the NC Beer Guys—is a good one, frothing with craft beer wisdom aplenty. Download it from iTunes or directly from our Libsyn feed.
As a special holiday bonus, here’s some stuff that doesn’t appear the podcast (including our verdict on the Village Draft House). It’s just like the podcast, except the content is completely different, and it’s less about the listening and more about the…you know…looking.
Glenn and Dave introduced us to Deep River Brewing’s 40-42 Stout, a rich, creamy stout with hints of chocolate and a bit of residual sweetness. A huge hit with everyone at the table.
For Chad’s Maxmillian burger (with bleu cheese and bacon), Glenn and Dave recommended an IPA to cut the richness. The Maxmillian also paired very nicely with Highland Gaelic Ale.
Devil’s Tramping Ground Tripel from Aviator Brewing in Fuquay-Varina drew mixed reviews. Glenn gave it high marks, while Chad—not a fan of the bubblegum and clove flavors found in some Belgian beers—was less enthusiastic.
Feeling nostalgic for 80s techno-rap, Michael, Scott, and Dave opted for the Der Kommissar Burger, which featured dark ale mustard and sauerkraut on grilled rye. Scott reported that his was well balanced, while the other two felt overwhelmed by sauerkraut. All three agreed that the massive rye slices made the burgers too bready. All in all, a good burger that would be better with more consistent construction and a better burger-to-bread ratio. Scott gave his a 4.0 on the five-point scale, while Michael and Dave both ended up in 3.5-town.
Glenn opted for the Chicago Burger, a classic pub-style cheeseburger with bourbon-cured bacon. He gave it 3.75.
Chad’s Maxmillian burger delivered salty hot goodness in the form of bleu cheese, Frank’s Red Hot sauce, and bourbon-cured bacon. Glenn was skeptical of the burger’s pretzel roll, but Chad appreciated the flavor and structure it brought to the burger. Chad scored the Maxmillian at 3.75.
We were very pleasantly surprised when the manager of Village Draft House, upon learning of the presence of the state-renowned NC Beer Guys, comped our meals. Good beer and no bill? Now that’s a pairing.*
Chicago Burger — photo courtesy of Village Draft House
On the beers: An excellent array of craft beers, with NC breweries making up a good portion of the tap list.
On the burgers: Solid renditions of pub-style burgers, both classic and inventive. With a TSB score of 3.75, the Village Draft House ranks 23 out of our 48 official reviews.
And by the way…
Podcast listeners know that Hot Pistol—the NC Beer Guys’ brew that won Best in Show at the Top of the Hops pro-am competition—was headed to Denver for an exclusive debut at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting. So how’d it go? Sounds like the chocolate raspberry habanero stout was extremely well received. And while there is nothing definite yet, the brewers at NoDa have hinted that it may return to the lineup as a seasonal offering next year.
*Faithful readers know that we have never asked for — nor will we ever ask for — anything for free. It was a very kind gesture on the part of the manager. We will always be absolutely transparent when something like this occurs.
The Straight Beef brings burger podcasting to a new level with its interview of George Ash, owner of the legendary Buns of Chapel Hill. Come for the burger wisdom, stay for the condiments game.
Download this episode and all of our back episodes with iTunes or directly from the Libsyn feed.