Top This: The Right Burger at the Right Time
Spring has always been a time of rebirth and redemption. Just as Persephone returned from the underworld and Dante emerged from his journey through Hell at this time of year, so did The Straight Beef experience its own rebirth and redemption.
Take burgiatrist emeritus John McManus, who, after a shameful fall from grace, emerged stronger and more committed to his role as arbiter of all things burger. In similar fashion, the Reverend Donald Corey—after suffering through an ill-conceived, ill-prepared burger at our last outing—was undergoing a crisis of faith, going on two weeks without a single burger. He was hesitant, fearful even, about our impending visit to Chapel Hill’s Top This.
Fortunately, Franklin Street’s newest digs were just what Reverend Corey needed to get him back on track.
The atmosphere at Top This is comfortable and casual, with a menu that is refreshingly straightforward. (There are no grandiose claims, as Michael noted, about “kick-you-in-your-teeth” pimento cheese or “three-pepper mustard that will make you slap your mama!”) Here’s how it works: You choose a protein (burger, hot dog, chicken breast, roast beef, etc.), a type of bun, a cheese, a topping or two, and a dressing. Sky’s the limit on combinations. If you want a quarter-pound frank with bleu cheese, sauerkraut, and spicy Thai peanut sauce, that’s your problem.
With Scott in Prague for a condiments workshop, it was just Don, Michael, and Chad for this review. All three ordered the six-ounce Angus burger, differing only in accoutrement. Don went with the pretzel bun, caramelized onions, fried egg, cheese and bacon; Chad went Greek, with Kalamata olives and feta cheese on a brioche bun; Michael went old-school Southern, with pimento cheese, three-pepper mustard, and fried pickle chips on a pretzel roll. All three of us agreed that the underlying patty was uniformly excellent and properly cooked.
“Top This lets the food do the talking,” said Michael. “They tell you what they offer and they back it up with quality and care, not with fireworks. Very solid. I give it a 4 out of 5.”
Chad was also in 4-town. “My brioche bun was a little dry, but the experience was otherwise excellent,” he said. “This was a well-crafted and well-presented burger. I appreciate the chance to mix and match to create a burger that suits my mood. I give it a 4 out of 5.”
The real story, however, was at the other end of the table.
One could see Reverend Don emerging from his Dante-esque anguish as he bit into his burger. Shadows dissipated. Warmth and the smell of fresh grass enveloped the room. Persephone (albeit a big, hairy Persephone) emerged from the underworld to signal the return of spring.
“Top This certainly did [rejuvenate my faith in humanity]. My doubts and worries disappeared when I picked up the burger and the yolk of the fried egg broke perfectly, showering the burger in salvation,” said Don. “I was in an evangelical state of satisfaction. The last bite of my Bavarian pretzel bun had the perfect ratio of beef, caramelized onions, fried egg, cheese, and bacon. Top This restored my faith; 4.25 out of 5.”
By John McManus, Burgiatrist Emeritus
Grab a box of tissues.
This isn’t just a review of an extremely rare and beautiful cheeseburger; it is an emotional story of regret, awakening, and redemption.
I was once at the top of my field, recognized and esteemed by my peers. My accomplishments, along with the considerable rewards and respect they garnered, were accumulated with relative ease, thanks to my limitless passion for fine cheeseburgers and the practice of burgiatry. I was a leading academic, critic, philosopher, poet, and practitioner, contributing something noble to my fellow man: a deeper understanding of—and propensity for—burger bliss. With two of my beloved Ivy League burgiatric colleagues, Doctors Scott Blumenthal and Michael Marino, TheStraightBeef.com was founded, and we began to reach and better the lives of millions of people through our work.
Our vocational passion flared, and we accelerated our efforts, consuming and reviewing burgers with an unprecedented fervor. Simple erudite culinary criticism could not satiate our urge to share our burger love, and so we found release in more creative self-expression, in the forms of haiku, an advice column, and burger prose. I was honored by our academic community with the title of Poet Laureate of Burgiatry. And in these early days, we were lucky, happening upon such beefessence and bovinatious derivations as to pique our palates and inspire our industriousness. We drove hard together, with joy and fulfillment.
But by the third year, despite our continued success and ever-growing fame, I had become spiritless and utterly demotivated as a burgiatrist. I hid it deftly and painfully from my beloved TSB partners. The causes were myriad: the Wagyu/Kobe farce; the Facebook-esque ascent of the dry-ass Kaiser roll; the topsy-turvy build-order fad, with burgers sliding completely off their foundations of wet lettuce, sometimes traveling clear off the plate and onto my best gabardine, if not the checkered tile below. Primarily, though, my fall from grace was precipitated by the combination of an inordinate string of “3-town” (or lower) burgers on the rating scale, and the culmination of my personal despair at not having discovered an elusive 5.
I wanted to give a 5. But more than that, I wanted desperately to eat one. I knew they existed, as I had experienced the perfect burger once or twice before in my life, though I could not quite recall the details of the wheres and the whens to prove it. Rose-colored glasses and the temptation to round a strong 4.5 up would fool no one, least of all me, and I couldn’t do that to our loyal followers in good conscience! By this time, Doctors Blumenthal and Marino had each bestowed fives, which made me jealous and even more desperate…desperate enough to start sneaking out on solo recon missions to hasten my own discovery, which only led to more bad burgers and more frustration, resentment, and, eventually, a pitiful state of self-loathing.
That’s what led to the veggie burgers and the infamous paparazzi shots of me in the bushes with a mouthful of produce and Merita bun.
It was not, I declare to you, a secret love of veggie burgers. It was self-flagellation…punishment for who and what I had become. For having lost my passion, lied to my friends and family, and for feeling like a failure and a fool.
When the pictures came out, I did not blame the world of burgiatry and my beloved colleagues for expelling me. I moved my family out of state and, for these many months, continued to punish myself with veggie burgers while staring longingly out to sea for answers.
Then came Gas. No, no…not from the veggie burgers, but a restaurant in my new hometown of Saint Augustine, Florida, by the name of Gas, named for the building’s humble history as a gas station. Shortly after we arrived, I began to heard rumblings and whispers of a phenomenal classic cheeseburger there. At once I would take note and immediately remind myself that I had no interest in such things. As I continued to overhear more effusions and extolations of this burger, the self-reminders grew increasingly delayed and less convincing, until one day they didn’t come at all.
I placed my order and sat at my table, stoic and bewildered by where I was and what I was doing. My Diet Pepsi sat untouched as I waited, its white straw still floating high and leaning precariously to the right upon the edge of the dewy glass.
The waitress had given me the pitch: local grass-fed ground chuck, house-made bun, yada yada yada. In one ear and out the other. But when, behind me, she finally stepped out of the kitchen and into the cozy little dining area, I smelled of it, and something deep within me stirred. She placed it before me and, upon seeing a beautiful, house-made potato bun of perfect proportion, picturesque tomato and lettuce rich with color and in the proper build order, two juicy patties cooked to absolute medium perfection and dripping with juices and melted cheese, I freed my soul to hope again and bristled with anticipation of the first bite.
And with that first bite, my brain was awash in endorphins, and I swooned with that long-forgotten burger bliss. Inconceivably, it was the COMPLETE burger bliss that had been eluding me all those years. A FIVE! A unicorn! The Sasquatch of burgers! I was sitting greasy-faced and grinning on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
Tears. Uncontrollable laughter. Loud groans of pleasure. It was a shameless spectacle of satisfaction and celebration that nearly cleared the dining area of its uncomfortable witnesses.
In that restaurant, on that chilly late-winter evening, I awoke from months of a destructive fugue, not able to recall all that happened in it, but crystal clear on how lost I was, how I got there, who I had been before it, and overjoyed at who I would be again! I was Ebenezer Scrooge on his glorious and fateful Christmas morning!
I kissed my wife and children and immediately called my TSB brothers, who have since told me it was like hearing clear speech and lucidity from a loved one tragically lost to the great grips of insanity. More tears! More laughter! God Bless Us! God Bless Us, Everyone! God bless the miraculous and sometimes magical cheeseburger, and God bless Gas Restaurant in Saint Augustine, Florida, for bringing this burgiatrist back from the dead.
Burgiatrist: John McManus
Burger: Classic Rocks
The film version of this article is slated for nationwide release fall 2013. Starring Bradley Cooper, script by Nicholas Sparks, directed by Ron Howard.
Classic Drive-In Cooking
Sometimes you can’t get out to a restaurant when the burger craving hits. The Straight Beef feels your pain. Here, then, is your guide to making classic drive-in and diner style burgers, hot dogs, fresh cut french fries, onion rings, and milkshakes at home, courtesy of Holly Moore. Just click the link to get started.
Holly Moore is a chef, restaurateur, food writer and lover of all things fried and greasy. More formally, he’s the former owner of Holly Moore’s restaurant in Philadelphia, former food and restaurant columnist for Philadelphia’s City Paper and did stints in product development for McDonalds and Burger King. He was one of the developers of the Big Mac. These days he does a little television and is the host and reviewer at HollyEats.com. Long before Guy Fieri’s ridiculous hair and over-the-top presentation, Holly was reviewing diners, drive-ins and dives with the passion of someone who has loved — and worked in — just that sort of place for a very long time. HollyEats is a road map to great food just a little off the beaten path.
In 2003, the food website eGullet started offering online classes in its eGullet Culinary Institute (eGCI) series. I wrote the knife maintenance & sharpening workshop and Holly provided this hands-on lesson in how to prepare classic drive-in fare, lessons learned beginning with the Sip’n'Sup Drive-In, “back when cars had fins.”
Scroll all the way down the tutorial for a link to a Q&A where Holly answers questions about technique, ingredients, et al.
Just another way The Straight Beef maintains and passes on the sacred burgiatric wisdom.
Review compiled from email exchange following burgers at BDBB’s:
Scott: What did you guys think of Bad Daddy’s last night? The beef-based Cantina Burger was decent. I’ll go as far as “acceptable.”
Michael: I think if they were striving for mediocrity with the Frenchie Burger, they nailed it.
Chad: The Classic Southern burger was…okay. Too much Classic Southern and not enough burger. But not offensive.
Don: ESTEEMED GENTLEMEN, I TAKE UMBRAGE WITH YOUR REVIEW AND MUST VOICE MY DISAGREEMENT—NO, MY DISSENSION—WITH YOUR SENTIMENTS.
Scott: My score is somewhere in Three-town. Maybe a 3.25. The tater tots were good. What’s up with Don?
Michael: I’m with you, Scott. I think a perfectly average burger deserves a 3.25. Not sure about Don. Too much Bad Daddy’s Sauce?
Chad: It’s always a tough call whether to go with the mathematically correct 2.5 as the midpoint between 1 and 5 or the bell curve 3 for a burger that is average. I’m hovering on 3. The tots were pretty darn good.
Don: I RESPECTFULLY DIFFER. WHEN AN ESTABLISHMENT’S SIGNATURE BURGER—IN THIS INSTANCE, THE “BAD ASS”—IS BELOW STANDARD, ALL OTHERS MUST BE VIEWED THROUGH THAT LENS. WHEN ONE ENDEAVORS TO MAKE A “BACON AND BEEF” PATTY, IT IS EXPECTED THAT ONE WOULD AT LEAST FIRST PREPARE SAID BACON SEPARATELY AND COOK IT TO AT LEAST HALFWAY DONE. INSTEAD, THE PURVEYOR SEEMS TO HAVE MIXEDED THE UNCOOKED BACON AND BEEF TOGETHER. THE RESULT WAS A FLACCID, INEDIBLE BURGER.
Scott: Did I mention that the tots were good?
Michael: The pickle chips were tasty.
Chad: What was that thing on Don’s plate, by the way? I’m not sure if he was supposed to eat it or perform an exorcism.
Don: IN SUMMATION, LET ME STATE THIS: THE “BAD ASS” BURGER COULD BE BEST DESCRIBED BY THOSE TWO VERY WORDS—BUT SEPARATELY. LET THE RECORD SHOW THAT I SUBMIT A 1 OUT OF 5.
Scott’s rating: 3.25/5
Michael’s rating: 3.25/5
Chad’s rating: 3/5
Don’s rating: 1/5
Skillet, Seattle’s acclaimed diner and food truck empire run by chef Josh Henderson, is known for its extravagant burger. Not extravagant in terms of high-dollar ingredients, but extravagant in the sense of “lacking restraint” with high intensity flavors and perfect execution. The bacon jam is the real scene stealer here, and you can make it at home with relative ease.
Skillet burger recipe with link to bacon jam recipe. Seriously, try this at home.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo didn’t become the Beatles by just dabbling in music. Chipper Jones didn’t become a baseball legend by just occasionally taking grounders. And Gallagher didn’t become a world-renowned comedian by just casually smashing watermelons in his free time. These people worked relentlessly at their craft. They struggled, they honed, and they sacrificed. They committed themselves.
The same principle holds true for burgiatrists.
To create a truly great burger, you’ve got to make it your life. You’ve got to get all the basic stuff right—from grass-fed and freshly ground beef to fresh and varied toppings to well-trained and personally invested staff—and then perfect it. You’ve got to have the first sentence on your website be something like, “[We want] you to think about your burger.” And you’ve got to—as the three Atlanta-area Farm Burger locations do—fully dedicate yourself to making a damn good hamburger.
Farm Burger doesn’t just dabble in burgiatry. It’s committed to it.
My review: 4.75 out of 5.00