Review #83 & #84 – Wayback Burgers (Raleigh, NC) & Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Apex, NC)

Be-Bop-A-Lula, Be My Burger

Faux-retro burger places are a sub-genre unto themselves, distinct even from the shiny diner format. Places like Freddy’s, Checkers/Rallys, and the two under consideration here, Wayback Burgers and Hwy 55, bank on a Happy Days nostalgia vibe, with Bobby Darin on the sound system and vintage photographs and paraphernalia to give the impression that you’ve just come off the dance floor at the sock hop. Some do it really well. Hwy 55 does. Wayback Burgers doesn’t.

#83 – Wayback Burgers

Wayback Burgers, tucked away in a generic strip mall on Capital Boulevard, is bland. As Chad said, “It has all the warmth and charm of a Subway. There is no surface that can’t be hosed down.” The photos of vintage soda shops on the walls are the only nod toward the retro theme. As Don said, “The only thing Wayback about this place is that it’s tucked way back in the strip mall.”

Unfortunately, the burgers matched the decor. Don said, “My Classic burger was the epitome of average — two beef patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard. The burger like the store was a bland amalgamation of classic derivative imagery. While the burger looked good, it was just a hollow façade hiding an unimaginative blend of lacking favors. I give it a 2.5, could be better, should be better.”

Michael was equally unimpressed, “I ordered the Cheeeesy. No, my E key did not get stuck. With that many Es, I was expecting a grilled cheese sandwich with a burger patty on it. Alas, what I got was just a sad double cheeseburger with one extra piece of cheese served on limply toasted sourdough bread. I would have sacrificed one or two of those Es for some flavor to the patties. My Philly roots were screaming for some Cheez Whiz. Don’t waste that many Es on bland processed cheese. C’mon! This is supposed to be a throwback burger place. A time before we didn’t know that a big fat cheesy burger was bad for us. The only thing Wayback Burger gave me was regret and a longing for more cheese. I give it a 2.5.”

The only thing Cheeeesy is the inverted bun gimmick

Chad and Carolyn were even less enthusiastic. Chad said, “I ordered the special, limited-time Horseradish Butter Burger, which offered nary a hint of butter or horseradish. A real butter burger has a big slab of just melting butter between the patty and the bun. The Wayback website and the in-store promo poster show what is presumably horseradish butter oozing between the double patties of their burger. Mine had no ooze. Investigation revealed a scant teaspoon of some kind of sauce between the patties. It might have been horseradish butter, it was hard to tell as it had no discernible flavor. The burger was about the same. I saw the cook put the patties on the flattop, but they tasted like they had been steamed. For all intents and purposes, this was a Wendy’s hamburger, passable but completely forgettable. 2.5 (aspires to Meh).”

The Horseradish Butter Burger that wasn’t

Carolyn, who also rated her Carolina burger at 2.5, noted that the Straight Beef crew spent the entire meal talking about where we would go next rather than the burgers in front of us.

In my mind I’m going to . . . find a better Carolina burger

Wayback Burger Average: 2.5 out of 5

Overall rank: 76 out of 84

#84 – Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries: Retro Redemption

Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries is also tucked away in a strip mall, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Hwy 55 is warm and inviting. It feels like a real burger joint. As Michael said, “Hwy 55 is what Wayback Burgers tries to be. The decor is authentic, the staff truly cares about your experience, and they know how to make a good old-fashioned burger. I ordered the All-American Cheeseburger with bacon. The patty was seasoned with plenty of salt. The bacon was crisp and laid perfectly in the cheese. Good quality American cheese, mind you. My quibbles were minor. They used leaf lettuce instead of shredded, and the tomato was not on top next to the mayo. Simple ingredients done exceptionally well. I give it a 4.25.”

Carolyn arrived early and had a platter of the chili cheese tots, which we happily helped her finish off. She gave her Pimento Cheeseburger an enthusiastic 4.25.

Chad had the Andy’s Double with bacon, cheese, pickles and mustard. “This was a really good classic burger,” he said. “It was properly seasoned, had a properly beefy flattop flavor, and didn’t fall apart when I tried to eat it. Easily a 4.25.” Even the sides were good, with the peaches and cream ice cream and Michael’s fresh squeezed Orangeade being particular standouts.

In short, Hwy 55 does the faux-retro theme proud with an average score of 4.25.

Overall ranking: 22 out of 84

2018 Festivus Guide to Gifts for Cooks!

The Straight Beef Festivus Guide to Gifts for Cooks

As the calendar winds down to the close of another year, we should gather with friends and family to celebrate the bonds that bring us together. Should. Deep inside, however, we’re all greedy little children who just want cool toys and as many cookies as we can jam into our mouths. Catch us on a good day, however, and we will share our cool toys. So in the spirit of Festivus (or whatever observance you, um, observe), The Straight Beef is proud to present our 2018 Festivus Gift Guide, a quick overview of kitchen essentials and nifty tools for the cook in your life.

Baking Steel

Let’s start big and work down to the stocking stuffers. First up, the mack daddy kitchen accoutrement: the Baking Steel is 15 pounds of kitchen magic. Yes, it is heavy. Yes, it is pricier than your average pizza stone. Yes, it is worth it. Inspired by the observation in Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” that steel is more conductive than a pizza oven’s brick floor, former pizza chef Andris Lagsdin of Stoughton Steel created the Baking steel, a 16” x 14” slab of solid steel that is not only the perfect pizza stone, but works wonders for breads and other baked goods and can double as a griddle for the ultimate homemade smashed burger. Don’t worry about storage. Just keep it in your oven at all times and it will regulate your oven’s temperature for more even cooking, no matter what you’re making. For great recipes that use the Baking Steel, add Baking with Steel to your cookbook collection.

Spatula of Joy

To make those smashed burgers, the Due Buoi Wide Spatula is the ideal tool. The Due Buoi is short, wide and stiff, perfect for burgers on a griddle or in a cast iron pan. Can a spatula make you happy? Yes, it can. Not quite giddy, but pretty darn close.

Sidenote:

For a first class primer on making smashed burgers (and why you should) see Kenji Lopez Alt’s article Smashed Burgers vs Smashing Burgers. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Kenji’s The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. As Wired said, it’s the ultimate guide for nerds who cook. The burger section alone is worth the cover price.

Thermopop

Great cooking is ultimately the art and science of heat management. For that you need a Thermapen, the fastest, most accurate instant read probe thermometer available, to satisfy the fanatic in your family (Chad has three, if that tells you anything). For those not quite so obsessive, or if you need a great stocking stuffer, the Thermopop is perfect. No guessing. No confusion. No archaic subjective tests for doneness. You know with absolute confidence that whatever you are cooking is right where it should be, and you know it immediately. No interminable waiting with the oven door open for a dial thermometer to register. The Thermopop is fast, light weight, accurate, and inexpensive. There is a even a discount if you buy five or more. Thermopops for everyone!

Digital Scale

Continuing the science-y theme, a good digital scale is a must for bakers. Using a digital scale rather than measuring in cups and teaspoons is the difference between using your new high-tech laptop and writing in the mud with a stick. One of the more robust and accurate scales is the My Weigh KD-8000. It works in whatever system you need – ounces, pounds, or pounds and ounces (e.g. 20oz = 1.25lbs = 1lb 4oz), grams/kilos, and baker’s percentages, the method bakers use to weigh ingredients in proportion to the flour weight. That’s just freaking cool. This scale can handle up to 8 kilos or 17.5 pounds of ingredients with 0.1oz accuracy. Taking up significantly less counter space, the EatSmart Precision Pro kitchen scale is a great alternative.

Aeropress

If you really enjoy a good cup of coffee, and want it RIGHT NOW, the Aeropress is a godsend. Think portable, unbreakable French press and you have the idea. The cylinder-plunger-filter arrangement extracts the coffee under pressure, and while it’s not espresso machine levels of pressure, it does produce a rich cup of coffee in about a minute. Great for travel and camping, too.

Heavy Duty Sheet Pans

Most of us have a shameful stack of warped and blackened cookie sheets and jelly roll pans hidden in our cabinets. Get rid of them. Go pro. Heavy, commercial grade half sheet pans and cooling racks make a huge difference. Cook’s Illustrated recently did a shootout, and the Nordic Ware Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet pans were their favorite, along with Liberty Ware cooling racks. Cook’s Illustrated is known for its rigorous hard-use testing. The Straight Beef adds the chaos and pure destructive power of kids and pets to our kitchen use, and we like these sheet pans too. Not the most glamorous Christmas gift ever, but sure to be appreciated

A residential oven won’t fit a full size sheet pan, but 1/2-sheet pans are just about perfect. Add in a non-stick Silpat baking mat and a fitted wire rack and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. The Silpat makes cleanup amazingly simple. Nothing sticks to it, so even problematic items like Parmesan crisps (frico) release easily. It can withstand temperatures up to 480° and can be reused thousands of times. A simple wipedown after use is usually all it needs. The wire rack is sold as a cooling rack, and it’s fine for that too, but the real magic comes when you use it to make bacon in your oven.  Yes, in your oven. Lay your bacon strips on the rack in the sheet pan, slide the pan into a cold oven and set the temperature to 400°. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Flip the bacon when the timer goes off and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or so. Done. Your bacon stays flat, is perfectly cooked, and has conveniently drained all of its grease into the sheet pan below for easy disposal. You are a freaking genius. As an added bonus, it is hands-off and frees the stovetop for everything else.

Offset knife

Often called a tomato knife or a deli knife, an offset serrated knife is an indispensable kitchen tool. The 7” version is a solid utility knife while the 9” version is a bit more versatile and can double as a bread knife.

No Airing of Grievances

See, it’s not all burgers all the time at The Straight Beef. We cook (or con people into cooking for us). Some of these gift ideas may seem oddly practical, but for cooks, good tools make the difference between struggling in the kitchen and having fun. Now, on to the feats of strength.

Review #60: Elevation Burger (Raleigh)

ELEVATION: THE SOY LATTE OF HAMBURGERS

Elevation Venn graphic

Do you drive a Prius? Do you own a recumbent bike? Have you ever organized a protest? If you answered yes to any one of these, have we got a burger place for you!

Do you love hamburgers? Well…

Elevation Burger, one of the latest boutique burger chains to tackle the Triangle, talks a lot about sustainability, about organic and grass fed and free range. What it doesn’t talk much about is the delicious flavor of its burgers. There’s a reason for that.

An Elevation burger is a burger you eat on principle. Because you want to feel good about where your food comes from. Because you like companies that respect the environment. Because it’s the right thing to do. And because if you find yourself thinking, “Gee, this isn’t very good,” you can always console yourself with the printed menu, which depicts—in cheery graphics—how other burger chains hate cows and the Earth and are doing their best to destroy them.

Free-range, grass-fed beef can be a wonderful thing. However, in its zeal to appeal to the suburban soy-latte demographic, Elevation Burger placed fat—and hence flavor—too low on its checklist.

Elevation Burger’s vision is to be “much more than just a burger restaurant.” However, it might need to tackle the “burger” part before striving for the “much more.” That’s what we’d call sustainable.

dcconvo

“You going to eat that?” “No.” “Me neither.”

Chad’s Review: 2.25 (though the fries are truly excellent)

The aftermath tells the tale. Four hungry and adventurous burger eaters sat down at the table. Three of us left our burgers unfinished. I picked through the remains of mine trying to salvage a dab of mustard or a leftover pickle, desperate for anything with some moisture or flavor.

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Don’s Review: 2.25

What I appreciate about Elevation Burger is that they know what’s best for you. If you order grilled onions and they don’t put them on the burger, as was the case with mine, it’s because you don’t need them. To me, it’s the burger you order on principle, and the one you don’t finish—on principle.

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Michael’s Review: 2.50

I’m guessing that the calorie count on the menu assumes—correctly—that you’ll leave a quarter of the burger on your plate.

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Scott’s Review: 3.25

My overall review was more positive than that of my colleagues. Though I did use an obscene amount of ketchup. (Seriously, Scott was nearly wrist-deep in ketchup by the time he finished his burger.)

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Overall ranking: 54 out of 60

Guest Review: Nu-Way Lounge, A Classic Dive Bar Burger in Spartanburg, SC

Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun recently published a paean to a quintessential dive bar: Our Kind of Place: Nu-Way Lounge & Restaurant

Nu-Way-Lounge-and-Restaurant-620

Photo spread from Garden & Gun article on Nu-Way Lounge & Restaurant. Click to read.

I said to Becky, the owner who worked the grill on this particular day, “I want a Redneck burger, and I need a plain burger with nothing on it for my dog.”

She said, “Your dog’s outside?” I nodded. She said, “You got a leash? You can bring him in.”

I said, “Yeah, I do. How nice,” and got Dooley out of the Jeep.

I don’t want to get all existential and dog-whispering about this, but when I brought Dooley in I pretty much felt him saying, “Wow! Thanks. Can we play that bowling game?” (George Singleton, Garden & Gun, Aug/Sep 2014)

This place sounded too good to miss. Luckily Spartanburg designer and artist Jane Beckler Bird is an old friend and a fan of classic cheeseburgers. She quickly was sworn in as Adjunct Burgiatrist and guest reviewer. Here’s what she had to say.

“Despite being a resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a decade I had visited only two of the three known “burger dives” in this town – The Beacon and Ike’s Korner Grille. At last, I made it to Nu-Way Restaurant and Lounge, a renowned player in this heavenly trifecta. The White Trash Burger did not disappoint…

Nu-Way is truly a burger dive with no frills – just a row of barstools, a handful of tables and a fully stocked bar (complete with the usuals as well as local craft beer). Friendly staff, who seem to know everyone in the place, are eager to please. Clever menu items make selection tough (they all sound great) with Redneck Cheeseburger, Trailer Park Burger and such, but I settled upon a favorite there: The White Trash Cheeseburger.

Nu-Way White Trash Burger

Nu-Way White Trash Burger: hand pattied beef, homemade slaw, mustard, pickles, onions, chili, jalapenos, and American cheese

The White Trash features a sizeable angus patty grilled to taste and includes American cheese, pickles, onions, jalapeno chiles, slaw, mustard and whatever else you wish added for that matter. It’s served on a classic sesame seed bun that perfectly soaks in all the ingredients’ deliciousness. Yeah… a good ol’ messy burger you only eat around those you really love! Paired with some crispy shoestring fries, this burger really hit the spot. It was so filling I elected to take half home for later, and trust me, this is one burger that does leftover very well. It was even amazing the next day!

I am not a well versed foodie or writer of reviews, but I do know a great burger when I find one. Nu-Way’s White Trash Cheeseburger is a must if you’re in downtown Spartanburg. It has close rivalry, but that’s for another writeup another time. Enjoy!” Jane Beckler Bird

NuWay Pet Friendly

Photo borrowed from the Nu-Way Facebook page. Looks like they really are pet friendly.

Notes from the Burger Underground: Media Roundup

This month’s edition of Notes from the Burger Underground is an overview of burger news and reviews that have appeared in major media outlets. Enjoy.

Roman Burger

The Roman Burger. Photo by NPR.

This is the Roman Burger from M Burger in Chicago, which uses grilled cheese sandwiches for buns. The fearless correspondents at NPR’s Sandwich Monday give it a (gut) glowing review.

Southern Burger

The pimento cheeseburger from Southside Smokehouse. Photo by Michael Stern.

Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame declare the pimento cheeseburger at Southside Smokehouse in Landrum, SC, the ultimate southern cheeseburger.

Disappering Burger

NY’s The Gander only sells this sweet baby during the day. Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

Grub Street laments the disappearing burger, a loss leader in NY restaurants that have proven so popular that chefs limit access to their meaty goodness. “More top New York chefs limit their burgers by selling them in very small quantities, or only at lunch, or only for the first 30 minutes their restaurant is open, or maybe just to the people sitting at the bar but not in the dining room, or possibly only on Mondays.”

grinding-meat

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Author Michael Ruhlman reminds us that if we want to make the best burgers we need to grind our own meat. Why?

First and foremost: taste and texture. When you grind your own, you can regulate the amount of fat you include; your hamburger should contain 20 to 30 percent fat for a juicy, succulent burger. I can season the diced meat before grinding it so that the burger is seasoned uniformly throughout. And I can use the large die so that it’s got real bite to it.

Importantly to me, when I grind my own, I know it hasn’t been contaminated by any of the bad bugs that can get into ground meat these days at big processing facilities, or even through carelessness in the meat department of my grocery store. Provided I give the whole muscle a thorough rinse and pat it dry, I can eat the ground meat as tartare or serve it to my kids as rare as they want it.

And finally, the NY Times’s Sam Sifton deconstructs the perfect burger, dividing the universe into diner-style griddled burgers and thick pub-style. The trick? “Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.”

Renegade Review: Crush Street Food (Prague, Czech Republic)

Czech burger truck

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.

Czech burger

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

Review #53 — Rally Point Sport Grill (Cary)

Strip Mall Surprise: A Recipe

skeptical-burgiatrist

The skeptical burgiatrist at work. An original watercolor.

Ingredients:

  • 3 skeptical burgiatrists
  • 1 generic strip mall sports bar
  • 3 burgers
  • 2 orders of hot wings

Preparation:
Receive an email about yet another “best burger in the Triangle!!!” with too many exclamation points and questionable source data from Rally Point Sport Grill in Cary.

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!

Tasters’ Notes:

  mac and cheese burger
Chad: I ordered the Mac & Cheese burger. The underlying hamburger patty was excellent, and the bun was perfectly toasted. They also get bonus points for house-cut fries. The mac & cheese provided nothing more than bulk and starch and took away from the experience of the burger itself. This is a well-deserved 4.0 for the burger alone.

Carolina burger

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.

Cheddar 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.

RallyPoint Sport Grill on Urbanspoon

Review #51 – King’s Sandwich Shop (Durham, NC)

We Three Kings of Burgiatry Are

Art by Will Fernandez

Art by Will Fernandez

 
We 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-2-web

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.

King's-1-web

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.

King's-3-web

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.

King's-5-web

Reverend Corey 4 Classic Burger Babes

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Chad Ward 4 Classic Burger Babes

4-BurgerBabes

Dr. Marino 3.75 Classic Burger Babes

375-BurgerBabes

Overall score, 3.9

King's Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Notes from the Burger Underground: Five the Hard Way

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.

corbettpimento

Even excellent burgers get soggy when wrapped in foil

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.670px-Tuck-each-triangle-under-the-burger-one-at-a-tim-7

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.

No-Kaiser

No Kaiser Rolls!

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.

carrottop-gym

If your signature burger was a person, who would it be?

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.

Review #50 – Burger Five-0! Umstead Hotel Bar (Cary, NC)

(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.

Umstead burger

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.

Condiments

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.”

Don & Michael

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.”

Off season produce

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.”

Scott & Chad

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.

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