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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.
Pop Culture A-Plenty
On the menu. On the walls. In the enormous fish tank (which was featured on Animal Planet’s Tanked). Everywhere you look at Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in Raleigh’s trendy North Hills is a reference to pop culture images, symbols, and icons. So when it came time to sit down and write our review, we just couldn’t get ‘em out of our head.
Eating at Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar is like eating inside a pinball machine. It’s bright, it’s loud, chipper urbanites bounce off one another on the way to the bar (free ball!) and the bathroom (double bonus!), and everybody watches the big scoreboard, where their assigned cartoon fish get closer to the LCD surface while they wait—and wait and wait—to finally be seated (high score!).
But tune out the frenetic motion and noise and just groove on the burger, and you’ll be at the table all night. The Boursin Burger was a fine example of burgerdom. The patty was properly cooked with just a little char around the edges, and the garlic and herb boursin cheese added a nicely sharp counterpoint, though the grilled onions were overpowering, and I ended up removing them.
All in all, a rock solid 3.75.
Pete Best, as you know, was the Beatles’ original drummer. There’s lots of debate about why he was sacked—maybe he was too conventional for John, too quiet even for George, or just too good-looking for Paul’s liking—but whatever it was, he just wasn’t quite right.
Of the burgers we ordered at Cowfish, the Black Truffle Cheese Burger was the Pete Best of the group. While my fellow burgiatrists found at least some greatness in their burgers, I couldn’t help but feel that despite the promise, mine wasn’t quite right. The cheese covered only about half of the burger, there wasn’t quite enough roasted garlic aioli, and the overall taste was inconsistent at best. I’m willing to give Cowfish another try, with the hopes of getting a Ringo.
Michael’s review: 3.5
Think of Elvis—but the 1975 Elvis. Very good, very entertaining, but perhaps more than you could—or wanted to—handle. That’s how I felt after eating The Arnold Hamandegger at the Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. It wasn’t the fault of the patty, which had a nice flavor and was cooked to temp. It wasn’t the fault of the egg, which was cooked perfectly so that its yolk broke on impact, showering the burger with yellowy goodness. Maybe it was the grilled onions…or the bacon…or the Black Forest ham…or the “Cowfish sauce”…or just the overall combination of all these things that brought me to the verge of the meat sweats after eating this hunka-hunka burning love.
Don’s review: 3.75
I’m about to break a rule—kind of.
The Straight Beef does not allow non-burger variables like atmosphere, art, or service to influence its ratings. A burger is what the burger is, be it served at Versailles or Penn Station. But I gotta say: The décor at Cowfish—with its burger-themed send-ups of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Broadway, and anime—is pretty darn amusing. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t help but question whether I was enjoying the burger, which struck me at the time as downright solid, just a teensy bit more for the beef-in-cheek visuals. It’s likely that I’ll never know.
Scott’s Review: 4.0
Overall position, Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar: 21 out of 47 (3.75 avg)
I stand before you today with a warning. Yea, I beseech you to turn away from the allure of the ever-unholy combination of meats and sauces and frivolities known as the “signature burger.” These “unique combinations” are ne’er less than distractions, ruses, barriers to burger enlightenment.
Barriers, my flock!
False burger prophets preach the graces of their scandalous creations, tempting you with their “unique combination of select ingredients” and the impossible enlightenment that you, my brothers and sisters, will surely attain. I beg you, rebuke this temptation! Rebuke it!
Only through the basic burger may true enlightenment be achieved. Only through simplicity may the burgiatric kingdom be built.
Courtesy of our McDonald’s-lovin’ burgiatrist-in-residence, here are some fun facts about everybody’s [TSB: Dave’s] favorite restaurant.
- McDonald’s sells more than 1/3 of all the French fries sold in restaurants in the U.S. each year.
- Nearly one in eight workers in the US has at some time been employed by McDonald’s.
- Sälen, Sweden, opened the first SKI-THROUGH McDonald’s in the world.
- More than 50,000 students from all over the world have graduated with “Bachelor of Hamburgerology” degrees from McDonald’s “Hamburger University.” Our own “Burgiatrist” is being considered for an honorary degree.
- McDonald’s’ three kosher restaurants in Israel are the only McDonald’s in the world where you cannot buy a cheeseburger.
- On average, there are 180 sesame seeds on a Big Mac bun.
- The northernmost McDonald’s restaurant is located on the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland. The southernmost franchise is located in Invercargill, New Zealand.
- Antarctica is the only continent without a McDonald’s.
- The most popular international McDonald’s location is located in Pushkin Square Moscow. The store serves an amazing 40,000 people each day.
- McDonald’s is the world’s largest distributor of toys.
- The Queen of England owns a McDonald’s near Buckingham Palace as part of her vast real estate portfolio.
- Americans alone consume one billion pounds of beef at McDonald’s in a year. That’s five and a half million head of cattle.
- Every month, about 9 out of 10 American children visit a McDonald’s restaurant at least once.
- A personal note: I have eaten at McDonald’s almost 2,000 times (visiting restaurants in Mexico, Canada, Austria, China, and the US), consuming an estimated 500 pounds of McDelicious burgers. Oh…in Austria, they serve it with beer.
We find our humble burgiatrists wandering around Merritt’s Store & Grill, each of them eager to successfully execute the Sisyphean processes of ordering, receiving, and paying for a hamburger.
ACT I: ORDERING
Michael: Well, hello there, stranger! Why don’t you sit a spell? What’s that? Can’t find a seat? Heck, just wait in line, order your food, and worry about the sittin’ later. Which line, you ask? Well, the orderin’ line, of course. Just make sure you don’t get in the pick-up-yer-food line. Dag-nabbit, son, it don’t matter when you pay. You look like a smart city slicker. You’ll figure it out.
Chad: Uh oh—looks like Michael has fallen into his front porch curmudgeon persona again. Happens every time we get near one of these country store-type burger joints. I swear, if there’s a rocking chair nearby, Marino turns into a bad community theater version of Our Town. We can’t even drive by a Cracker Barrel without him getting out and spewing folksy wisdom to frightened children. Good thing Don keeps the tranquilizer gun handy. He’s in one of those lines here…somewhere…I think.
Don: Oh boy—I’m confused. This carpetbagger definitely does not understand the three-line system. An old-timer was gracious enough to point this greenhorn to the line to the left, but only solved one of the problems. When I got to the front of the second line—what I think was the second line—I was told that my burger would be at least 15 minutes more. So I went to the third line to pay and kill some time, but then I—hey, my B.L.T. burger is ready! All the way back in the second line. I think. Dangit.
Scott: This place can use a sign—you know, with some instructions. While I’m wandering around, I’d might as well jot down a few sentences they might find useful…
- Here’s the thing: Start in the line on the left. Trust us on this one. Keep in mind that lots of people will be trying to figure out where’s they’re supposed to be. So be friendly!
- Then, go back to where you came in and pay at the register. Prepare to (1) repeat your order and (2) see a different variety of chips from the one near the first line. So…um…maybe you should read this step first.
- Write this step down—it’s tricky: Then, go back to the area where the first line was, but this time, stand in the line on the right. (But honestly, where you are in line won’t really matter; you’ll be served in the order in which your meal is ready. Just go with us on this one, ‘kay?)
- When your order is ready, we’ll call out your order number. (Important note: Your number is the last two digits on the receipt thing we gave you. Sorry—probably should have put that earlier in this sign.)
Excuse me, waiter? There’s a fly on my burger.
ACT II: REVIEWING
Don: The burger was good. Not great, but good. Slightly overcooked, not really worth standing in three lines for. The tomato was the best part—big, juicy, and ripe. I give it a 3.5 out of 5.0.
Michael: Those whipper-snappers. I remember when you could order your food and it would be cooked right then and there! Nowadays, bacon and patties are cooked ahead of time and kept in some fancy-shmancy warmer plate for assemblin’ time. I will give ‘em the tomatoes, though. The size of your fist and as red as a sunrise before a rainstorm. Hoooo-ey! All told, this here burger’s a 3.5.
Chad: You know what? I think I’ll join Michael in one of those rocking chairs. I’m feeling a bit cranky and curmudgeonly myself. Merritt’s makes a good B.L.T., I’ll give them that, but reports of their burgers are greatly exaggerated. Leaving aside an ordering and pickup system designed by the makers of Mouse Trap, the burger—even with Merritt’s vaunted bacon and tomato—was disappointing. It was overcooked and a little bland. The patties are prepared on a tiny, non-stick Presto-Daddy type electric griddle, so there isn’t even any crust or char to give the beef a boost. Not bad, but it definitely didn’t live up to the hype. I have to go with a 3.0.
Scott: Send help. Stop. Lost in Merritt’s. Stop. Ate burger, then got trapped in line. Was decent, not stupendous. Stop. Good tomato, though. Giving it a 3.25. Stop.
Average rating: 3.31
Overall position: 32 out of 46
The Straight Beef discusses its top 5 burgers of all time. If you love burgers and the adjectives that describe them, you won’t want to miss this one.
Download this episode and all of our back episodes with iTunes or directly from the Libsyn feed.