As I travel this crazy burger-loving world, it becomes increasingly obvious that burgers are attaining their rightful status as a national meal. It warms this burgiatrist’s heart.
My burgiatric travels recently took me to Prague, where I learned about a new burger venture called Crush Street Food (www.crush.cz). Jan Picha, the brains behind Crush, was driven to burger greatness. In order to get his burger to the people, he retro-fitted an old Citroën truck into a burger-making machine. I discovered this silver beast among a throng of food vendors—a veritable olfactory celebration—in the Andel area of the city.
Jan explained to me that today he was serving the Hovezi Burger—a beef burger topped with grilled red peppers, pickled red onions, tzatziki sauce, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and chipotle ketchup.
Quite simply, the burger was great. Fresh, hot, juicy, and very tasty—the burger grand slam. The patty was nicely charred, the bun was toasted perfectly, and the toppings did not overpower the perfectly seasoned patty.
Well played, Crush. Well played. And yes, I’ll take the easy pun: You crushed it.
Don’s score: 4.75 out of 5.0
Strip Mall Surprise: A Recipe
Review painfully slow website. Preheat snark to medium.
Arrive at generic strip mall sports bar. Note the Skee ball machines and clusters of patrons at the bar—and the virtually empty dining room—and lower expectations to simmer.
Order wings and beers. Note with mild surprise the tastiness of the wings while lamenting the skimpiness of the beer menu. (Remember that too much lamenting this early in the recipe can lead to some bitterness.)
Order three half-pound burgers: one Carolina burger with chili and coleslaw, one Cheddar burger, and—taking one for the team—one Mac & Cheese burger, piled high with “homemade” macaroni & cheese that looks homemade only if your home is a blue box with “Kraft” emblazoned across it. Raise snark to high.
Take a bite.
Note the well-toasted, locally baked bun. Note the near-perfect sear and proper seasoning level on the patty. Reduce snark back to medium, raise expectations slightly. Chew thoughtfully. Take another bite.
Discuss quality of the burger with tablemates. Dial snark down to low. Remark on the high quality of the burger—with or without extraneous toppings—and completely rethink the experience.
Peel away previous bias and enjoy. Voilà! Strip Mall Surprise!
Scott: For a slightly spicier version of the recipe, add pinball machines, 70s-style paneling, and an unremarkable-looking joint serving an unexpectedly remarkable burger. I’m going all the way to 4.0-town for the Carolina burger.
Don: Cheddar Burger- Cheddar Cheese: I went with one of the most basic burgers listed and was struck by the nice char on the burger as well. The bun was great and perfectly toasted. My biggest complaint is with the amount of cheese that was used. It was lost on the burger. I don’t know if I actually tasted it in retrospect. All in all a very solid 4.0.
Overall rating:4.0, putting Rally Point Sport Grill at 22 out of 53.
***Congratulations to Brian Anderson for winning the contest. The correct answer was 40%.***
The nice folks at Smashburger in Durham have teamed up with The Straight Beef to give one lucky reader a pair of free entrées.
Smashburger opened its first Triangle location last month in Durham’s Lakeview Pavilion East shopping center (2608 Erwin Road), located across from Duke University Hospital.
What’s that, you say? You have a friend who—for no good reason—doesn’t eat burgers? Never fear! Smashburger offers grilled chicken sandwiches and fresh-tossed signature salads, as well as a variety of succulent sides like rosemary and garlic-seasoned Smashfries, Haystack Onions, and Veggie Frites.
But first, to win the contest for the pair of entrée certificates, you need to answer the following question correctly:
What percentage of the certified Angus beef used in burgers in the US is used by Smashburger?
(Hint: the answer can be found in our Smashburger Preview.)
Dear Buffalo wings,
What I am about to write will embarrass you, but I cannot contain my feelings any longer.
I love you.
I love you, I want you, and I need you. I am at peace when we are together, and I long for you when we are apart. You are the very definition of delicious.
There is no need to respond, Buffalo wings. Just know this: I love you now, and I will love you forever.
I understand that you saw my letter to Buffalo wings, and that you’re upset. I see now that my admission was tactless and cruel. Please know, hamburgers, that it was never my intention to hurt you.
We’ve been together for many years, you and I, and our memories exceed measure. And despite my affection for Buffalo wings (which, my dearest, I cannot deny!), my love for you shall never diminish.
You are, and will forever remain, my dearest heart.
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.