This review is meant to be enjoyed with a friend—Mad Libs style!
Scott’s review: 4.25
Chad’s review: 3.25
Michael’s review: 3.25
Overall ranking: 27th out of 52.
We Three Kings of Burgiatry AreWe three kings of burgiatry are Bearing hunger we traverse afar To Geer & Foster, getting lost-er Following yonder char Refrain Oh, burger wonder, beefy delight Patty cooked perfectly right Westward leading, still proceeding Guide us to burger insight
The good book tells us that the Three Kings traveled in one accord, which must have gotten pretty crowded, what with all the frankincense and such. We three kings, however, traveled in a roomy and stylish Nissan Maxima. In the course of our research, we did come across the fact that “myrrh” is the ancient Aramaic word for “special sauce,” so maybe we have more in common with our kingly predecessors than we realized.
However, we came not bearing gifts but seeking one, the gift of a well prepared burger.
King’s Sandwich Shop has been a Durham institution since 1942. It closed in 2007, but after a long-overdue rehab (and some unnecessary regulatory BS) opened again in 2010 under new owners. The neighborhood near the Durham Athletic Park has seen quite a bit of rehab as well, with Geer St. Garden, Manbites Dog Theater, Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco Music Hall all within a very short walk.
Kings is an archetypal walk-up burger joint with limited outdoor seating. Order at the window in the front, pick up your food at the window on the side. They offer burgers, hot dogs, pulled pork, a reportedly excellent fried shrimp po’boy, and even vegetarian hot dogs and black bean burgers for those whose, um, tastes, run that way. So, yes, you can even take your patchouli-wearing hippie friends and introduce them to some classic Americana.
Each of us ordered a variation on the King Burger combo. The Reverend Corey supplemented his burger with a milkshake. We were not disappointed. This was the 1950s on a plate, a flat-top griddled burger with a lightly seared exterior on a butter toasted bun. The flavor was rich and beefy and the patties expertly cooked. The milkshake was excellent as well. If you like Char-Grill, you’ll love King’s Sandwich Shop.
Reverend Corey 4 Classic Burger Babes
Chad Ward 4 Classic Burger Babes
Dr. Marino 3.75 Classic Burger Babes
Overall score, 3.9
The Triangle has become a destination point for high-end burger chains. Five Guys has long had a presence. Zinburger opened at SouthPoint late last year. Before that, Elevation Burger brought its sustainable, organic, grass-fed ethos to Brier Creek. The latest entry in the fast-casual boutique burger war is Smashburger, opening March 12th, 2014 across from Duke Hospital in Durham. Recognizing the power of The Straight Beef, Smashburger PR issued an invitation for a preview tasting.
Smashburger did a wonderful job of giving us a glimpse into how they prepare their tasty burgers. They did more than that, though. Greg Creighton, the chief operating officer, gave us a tremendous amount of information about the philosophy behind why they do what they do.
The location in Durham which opened on March 12th is number 259 for Smashburger. The founder, Tom Ryan, is responsible for the Stuffed Crust Pizza, McGriddle, and McDonald’s Dollar Menu, amongst other fast food innovations. We spoke with the owners, and they plan on opening six to eight more locations in the Triangle.
Greg threw out some interesting facts. Smashburger only uses 100% certified Angus beef in their burgers. The cows are “grain fed, grass finished” in the Midwest and the beef is shipped fresh. Only 8% of the beef used in burgers is certified Angus in the US and Smashburger uses 40% of that. All the buns are baked at a facility in Chicago. We were able to try four different types of bun: egg, multigrain, pretzel, and chipotle. Huzzah! Not a kaiser roll in the bunch.
While Smashburger does have salads, a black bean burger, and chicken sandwiches we won’t touch on those here because this site isn’t The Straight Salad.
If you are into thick burgers, Smashburger is not the place for you. They use a proprietary “smasher” to prepare the patties. The beef is seasoned and cooked on a buttered flat grill. The burger is cooked to order, and a properly trained cook can prepare one in 2-3 minutes. The chicken sandwiches are prepared “picatta style.” Everything is flat to help with speed. Their goal is to have a freshly cooked meal ready for you in 6 minutes.
They have burger prep down to a science. Obviously, this is done to make sure the Smashburger experience is consistent not only from location to location but from visit to visit. The length of the smash, the pattern of the sprinkling of the seasoning, the angle of the spatula, the places the temperature is checked – everything has a specific reason for why it is done. The trainer told us that the seasoning side is placed down so that the tongue touches it first. They really have thought of everything.
This technique will only work on a flat grill as smashing a patty on an open grill will only get you a flat dry burger. The smasher doesn’t have any holes, so no juices can escape through the top either. If you’re going to try this at home, I would suggest using a small cast-iron skillet or a heavy tea kettle to achieve the same effect. If you want to learn more about this technique, please read the excellent Burger Lab article by J. Kenji López-Alt.
Enough with statistics and technique, let’s get down to talking about the burgers. We were able to sample four different burgers. The first was the Classic Smash which had American cheese, Smash Sauce, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onion on an egg bun. I could tell you what’s in the smash sauce, but I would have to kill you. I will say, however, that there is no Thousand Island dressing. The Classic Smash was the best of the bunch as it allowed the flavor of the patty to shine. You can’t go wrong with this choice on your first visit.
Next was the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar Burger, which was topped with cranberry BBQ sauce, applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, and haystack onions. This combination of flavors would have worked great on a thick burger. Unfortunately, it overwhelmed the thin patty. Maybe order this selection on the chicken sandwich, but the burger disappeared here.
The Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger made up for the previous one. The sautéed crimini mushrooms and truffle mayo accentuated the already flavorful patty. This one’s a really nice change-of-pace burger if you want something a little different for lunch.
The Regional Burger was a Carolina staple, a chilli burger topped with slaw on a pretzel bun. The pretzel bun was necessary to hold the somewhat soupy toppings. It was nice to see they didn’t resort to using a kaiser roll. This one’s solid but nothing that you haven’t had before.
When you go to Smashburger, get the Classic Smash with one of their top-notch sides. When you go back, experiment and make your own. Unless you go overboard with the toppings, you will not be disappointed.
Five the Hard Way
A Guide to Burger Best Practices
The Straight Beef just celebrated its fourth year and 50th official review. Over that time we have compiled some burgiatric wisdom. Restaurateurs and burger joint owners take note, this is the hard earned truth coming your way. These are my (Chad’s) opinions, not the consensus of The Straight Beef, but we agree on many of them.
1) No foil! Do NOT wrap your burgers in foil. Just don’t. I don’t care if you were told that foil will keep the burger hot on the way to the table or in the customer’s car on the way home. The truth is that wrapping a burger in foil simply steams it. The bun becomes soggy, and toppings like pimento cheese or chili just turn into soup. Your perfectly cooked patty turns into a grey, flavorless puck molecularly welded to a soft goo formed from what was once the bun. If the customer made the mistake of ordering a chili cheeseburger, they now have to eat it with a spoon. There is a very good reason that In ‘n’ Out and other lauded chains use the “burger diaper” wrap. It works. Here’s a tutorial on how to wrap burgers in the parchment available from any restaurant supply.
2) No Kaiser Roll! Unless your burger is greater than a half pound, you have no need of the structural support of a kaiser roll. A kaiser roll is too bready, too chewy, too much for most burgers. It overwhelms and completely buries the flavor of the patty. The proper burger to bun ratio has the burger patty slightly overhanging the bun. If the patty is completely enclosed in the bun you have too much bread. The traditional bun for a flat-top-cooked, diner-style burger is the potato roll. Even better is the brioche bun. If you want to see it done perfectly, order the burger at Buns in Chapel Hill with a brioche bun from 9th St. Bakery. That’s what it’s like when a perfect bun and a perfectly cooked burger come together. The only exception to the No Kaiser rule is for pub-style burgers of more than 8–10 ounces. A flame-kissed burger that’s more than half to three-quarters of a pound might actually need the hefty, juice-absorbing foundation that a kaiser roll offers.
3) No Gimmick Burgers! We used to make a point of ordering whatever “signature burger” a place offered, figuring that was where the chef or owner really wanted to shine and would put his or her best efforts. In the spiraling arms race of burger weirdness, those signature burgers have become freak shows. The happy surprises — like the “My Wife Said It Wouldn’t Sell” burger at Salem St. Pub in Apex, a peanut butter and honey burger that is absolutely delicious — gave way to monstrous concoctions of buttermilk Ranch bacon burgers dipped in desperation and deep fried on a donut. If you feel the need to create a Tex-Mex by Way of India burger with queso, masa harina and ghost chiles … Resist. Just don’t. If your signature burger comes with a warning, a waiver, or gets the eater’s photo on the wall, you have left the true path of burger wisdom and gone over to the dark side.
4) DO offer your burgers in a variety of sizes. While a 5.5oz (1/3lb) patty is just about perfect, anything from 5oz to 8oz works. Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill offers its burgers in 3oz, 6oz and 9oz patties, allowing the diner to pick a portion that suits his appetite. Most places offer a double for those looking for a little more fulfillment. Borrowing from the Freakburger theme of #3 above, your 16oz “Enormity Burger” is a sideshow, not a meal. Keep it manageable. If I have to unhinge my jaws like a python to take a bite, you have failed.
5) Pay attention to the little things. House cut fries score major points. They let me know you care. I can tell freshly cut potatoes from the crap that came out of a Sysco bag. Unless you are buying the same frozen fries that chef Thomas Keller developed for Bouchon, you are better off investing the $50 in a french fry cutter and learning to properly double fry. IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE. So do toppings. Shred your lettuce. It’s a small thing, but shredded lettuce is so much better than the bun sliding around against a wilted leaf of iceberg. Oh, and tomatoes are seasonal. If they don’t taste like summer, leave them off. You’re just making the bun soggy.
I have exhausted my allotment of exclamation points for the month. These are some of the things that separate an average burger place from a spectacular burger place. You’ve still got to get the basics right. Use excellent beef. Grind it fresh every day. Buy your buns locally or make them in-house. Learn to cook to temp. After that, these five hard lessons should help keep you on the path to greatness.
(cue horns and surf guitars)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.