Review #82 – Scratch Kitchen and Taproom (Apex, NC)

The holidays are over. Did Santa deliver the goods? Are we going to re-gift that weird lion umbrella stand? Did we get what we asked for at Scratch Kitchen and Taproom in Apex? Well…

After receiving the Westminster Abbey burger, Don was left thinking, “You shouldn’t have.”

“You shouldn’t have cooked my burger, which I ordered medium, to the consistency and taste of a charcoal briquette. The only flavor the burger had was from was the char and the sour taste of the sad clump of bleu cheese lumped under the patty. The candied bacon seemed to be trying to escape this mess as it was clumped on one side.

“Really, you shouldn’t have.” 2 out of 5.

Unfortunately, Carolyn fared no better. She ordered the Jammin’ burger, hoping for a little spicy kick. Her burger was dry and overcooked as well. “The nightmarish char overwhelmed all potential redemption that the otherwise excellent accoutrements — red pepper jam, onion straws, feta cheese and spicy mayo — could have added.”

Every bite was worse than the last and yet still, I kept going, thinking that I’d get to that one good bite. The jam and the mayo were not spread evenly and there needed to be more onion straws. I think there was a dime-sized glob of the creamed feta somewhere in there. “But nobody could overwhelm spicy Korean mayo with char!” you say. “Hold my beer”, says Scratch.

“Utter tripe. I was hungry, and I didn’t finish it.” 2 out of 5.

Michael asked for the Truffle Mac and Cheese burger and received a lump of coal instead. The build was haphazard and ill-conceived. The scant amount of arugula was under the patty which wilted it to a mush. Should have been on top. The fried mac and cheese patty was tasty but would have stayed together better if left under the patty to allow it to melt a little. Keep it gooey. The candied bacon, again, was good, but it was shoved under the bun in a little pile. I had to spread it out. “I couldn’t even taste the roasted garlic truffle aioli. The delicate flavor was lost in all that char.”

“No character to the beef and forgettable flavor.” 2.25 out of 5.

Chad made it pretty clear, this probably wouldn’t be a December to remember, “The presentation was dismal.” The burgers and small cup of fries sat forlornly on a small metal tray, the bottom covered haphazardly with a sheet of parchment paper. It looked like a bad school lunch.

He ordered the Ramen Burger which comes with seared ramen noodles, a fried egg, pickled ginger, scallion slaw, and spicy Korean mayo. When seeing it on the menu, he feared it might be freak show State Fair food with buns made of fried ramen. What came was a fried puck of ramen the exact size and shape of the burger patty. It “added nothing but bulk and starch to the burger, no flavor whatsoever.”

The yolk on the fried egg had popped before the burger was delivered. “Rather than a flow of golden lava at the first bite, I got a bottom bun that had been spot-welded to the parchment paper underneath by drying yolk.” It got worse. “The sloppy, unstable build caused the patty and all toppings to squirt out the back of the bun when I attempted to pry the burger from the paper.” After that and a stack of napkins, Chad attacked his burger with knife and fork.

Scratch did prove that they could cook a burger correctly, though. Chad’s was cooked to medium and lacked the char that ruined everyone else’s. The pickled ginger was excellent. Frankly, though, it would be pretty hard to mess up pickled ginger. “I have only had one burger this bland before, a Sheetz gas station burger that I ordered out of morbid curiosity. The Scratch Ramen burger tasted like not much of anything, an undifferentiated protein with meat-like qualities.

I was sad and disappointed rather than angry, so it merits a 2. But it is the holidays…” 2.25 out of 5.

Really, you shouldn’t have.

Overall rating: 2.13 out of 5

Overall ranking: 80 out of 82

Review #81 – Cow Bar Burgers & Fries (Raleigh, NC)

Michael was eager to check out the latest skinny ties at Merry-Go-Round. Don was after a blacklight poster and possibly a naughty gift from Spencers. Chad just wanted to see if the new Devo album had hit the Record Bar yet. Alas they are no more. Only the mighty food court survives, and, just like us, it has grown up . . . and expanded.

The mall food court is reborn in Morgan Street Food Hall, an evolution of the food truck and gourmet pop-up restaurant movement where grownups (or those of us pretending to be) can sample a wide variety of interesting and innovative cuisines. Morgan Street’s owners call it a “lifestyle dining concept.” Whoever wrote that pretentious twaddle needs to be beaten with a soft pretzel. No, there is no Orange Julius or Cinnabon, and there’s not an Sbarro anywhere in sight, but you and your friends can still mix and match — get a slice of pizza, a swanky taco, an empanada, sweet baked goods and a local beer. And there is definitely a burger available, a pretty darn good one, as it turns out.

Chad’s Review: Cow Bar’s standard offering consists of two four-ounce patties, cooked medium, on a toasted bun. They also offer a quad with four patties if you’re so inclined. I went with the Southern Classic, a standard burger with chili, cheese, slaw & mustard. The first bite was spectacular, beefy with a great crusty char. I was seriously impressed. But an experienced burger maven knows not to be wowed by that first kiss of flavor. With a burger like this, the chili and slaw should either complement the burger or contrast with it. Tart, crunchy slaw should offer a counterpoint to the savory richness of the burger.

The chili should offer another flavor note, an accent distinct from the burger but adding to the overall impression. In this case the chili wasn’t quite up to the task. Rather than accenting the burger’s flavor, it masked it, diminishing the combination. The slaw was crisp but ended up making the burger more wet than flavorful. I gave up trying to eat the burger out of hand after a dozen or two napkins and just attacked it with a knife and fork. The chili needs a more intense flavor and possibly a little heat to really bring the burger to life. And if I were making this burger I would use a red slaw (like the slaw from Stamey’s barbecue in Greensboro & Lexington) for a little more pop. Don’t get me wrong, this was a damn fine burger. I give it a very respectable 4.0 on the Straight Beef’s five-point scale. 

Don’s Review: Sliding on my parachute pants, baggy Frankie says “Relax” t-shirt, and checkerboard vans, I was excited to meet the guys at the food court. You can imagine my surprise when I got there and the stores were gone and I was the only one in the latest fashions.

I put my suddenly re-emerging insecurities aside and strolled confidently to the counter to place my order, secretly hoping Phoebe Cates would be taking my order. Alas, another dream crushed. I ordered the Classic Cheese Burger without sauce. I couldn’t risk staining the pants or shirt because I just got them off layaway. My evening was saved by the delicious comfort that I picked up. Between two slightly toasted buns were two well flavored patties, exhibiting the proper amount of char. These were then topped with nicely melted American cheese. This power clique was completed by lettuce, tomato, and onion. I might not have Chess King anymore but I did have this burger. 4.25

Michael’s Review: When you need a break from trying on Capezios, channel Buster Poindexter and order the Atomic Nuclear Burger. 

Sriracha ketchup (hot, hot, hot,) jalapeños (hot, hot, hot,) CowBar hot sauce (hot, hot, hot,) pickled red onions (not so hot.)

Man. This was the hottest thing I have eaten in a long time. I’m not too proud to admit that I had to take off half of the jalapeños to make it more edible for me. 

Don’t take that as a dig on the flavor. It was a tasty burger. Two thin patties that weren’t overdone. It could have used a lot more cheese to cut some of the spice and give the whole experience a little more texture, though. I fell prey to another stunt burger and bit off a little more heat than I could handle. There was so much capsaicin on this burger, umami was beaten into submission and set ablaze.

Olé olé olé olé. 4 olés is about right. A solid burger. Just a little too Hot Hot Hot for this hombré.

Overall rating: 4.08 out of 5. Ranking: 31 out of 81

Review #80 – Wimpy’s Grill (Durham, NC)

No School Like the Old School

Chad’s review:

Wimpy’s Grill in Durham was a throwback from the day it opened in 1987. Even at the height of the Ford Escort, parachute pants and skinny tie, New Wave era, Wimpy’s was decidedly old-fashioned. Wimpy’s is so retro that in 2018 it is retro again.

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Like King’s Sandwich shop, Wimpy’s is a classic walk-up burger stand. There is no seating. You either get your food to go or eat it in your car. That’s just fine with me. There are some burgers (and my favorite sandwiches) that are better off eaten standing up so the juices don’t run down your arms, or eaten under the comforting, non-judgmental glow of your dome light, where no one can see you consume an entire double bacon cheeseburger and large fries in a disturbingly short time. Not that I did that.

The building itself is a narrow A-frame, most of which is taken up by the submarine-like kitchen. That leaves only a narrow aisle in front. You practically have to turn sideways to get through the door, like entering the haunted house at a questionable carnival. Luckily, the service is very fast. I barely had time to work up a good streak of envy for those waiting by the exit for their food before I, too, received the joyful call.

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I ordered a bacon double cheeseburger (mustard & pickle), large fries and tea. I fully intended to take half the burger home, knowing that there was no way I could eat all of that, especially standing around sweltering at the trunk of Michael’s hatchback in the middle of July. Imagine my surprise when I found myself pawing at the last crunchy ends of the fries and seriously considering licking the burger wrapper to get the last taste of the burger. It was that good. I should have gotten two. Wimpy’s classic flat-top griddled burger earns an estimable 4.5 grease stains* in my Straight Beef notebook.

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* In honor of the late, great Holly Moore.

Michael’s review:

I had the Garbage Burger. One of us had to. Chad was sane with his choice. Don couldn’t embarrass himself in front of his daughter. I, Michael Marino, being of sound mind and, until recently, sound body, ordered the Garbage Burger. What’s on the Garbage Burger you ask? A deep breath now: two four-ounce patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, slaw, chili, tomato, mustard, mayo, and ketchup. This is a mammoth burger. It’s about the size of a regulation women’s ASA softball. I’ll admit. I was a little intimidated at first. I had to eat it like an apple. The shame in that is that I couldn’t enjoy all the tastes together. It was almost like eating a different burger in every bite.

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The chili was tangy and meaty without being greasy. The slaw was crisp. The tomato was juicy and red. I could go on. There was really nothing inherently wrong with the burger except it was just too much. Eventually, all the flavors ran together. That’s the risk you take when eating a stunt burger.

I’m glad I did it. Next time, I’ll get a classic burger with the works. I imagine it will be outstanding. If they can make a ridiculously large burger delicious, they must be able to do wonders with a normal burger. The Garbage Burger rates a 4.25 in my book.

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Don’s review:

Wimpy’s grill is comfort food for me. In a former life, I worked in Durham and had Wimpy’s on Fridays as a bit of a celebration of the end of the work week. What made this trip special was it had been over ten years since my last visit and I was bringing my daughter to get her opinion. Hopefully, this would serve as a life lesson for her about good burgers. I got my old standby chili cheeseburger with tomato, mustard, and onions, a classic combination of flavors that took me back to my younger more fit days. The burger was like a good song that you haven’t heard in years that comes on the radio and puts you back in time. This burger time machine made feel younger, better looking and not so angry- a beautiful experience, albeit too short of one.  The chili, mustard and onions, play well with the burger, and the cheese smooths everything into a nice rounded flavor pallet.  I scored it a 4.25

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My daughter ordered her favorite (probably that of most preteens)- a cheeseburger plain. To me, this is the most dangerous burger recipe, so much can go wrong if any of the three ingredients is not up to par. What makes Wimpy’s able to pull that off is the fact that their burgers are deliciously juicy. The cheese was melted perfectly for a picky eater and she finished it in no time flat, a modern-day miracle. When she had finished, she said that was great (another miracle) and gave it a 4.5.

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Average rating 4.33 out of 5. Overall rank 16 out of 80.

Review #79 – Sutton’s Drug Store (Chapel Hill, NC)

Nostalgia Burger

You don’t go to Sutton’s Drug Store to get a prescription filled, unless your prescription is for a classic cheeseburger, lunch counter sandwich or milkshake. In that case, you’ve come to the right place.

There are a lot of burger places these days that trade on nostalgia for a time that never was, with bright colors, Elvis memorabilia and jukeboxes playing Chuck Berry and Bobby Darin. Sutton’s is the real thing. The drug store has been a Chapel Hill mainstay since 1923 and goes back to the days when pharmacies had soda jerks in white lab coats and served a reasonably priced breakfast or lunch to the downtown crowd. But Sutton’s is not a museum or a Disneyfied version of the past, just a small-town lunch counter (the pharmacy business was sold to CVS a couple of years back) that has managed to stay afloat in chain driven America. That, in and of itself, is pretty wonderful.

So, how’s the burger? According to Chad, it’s fairly close to what he remembers coming off the Eckerd Drug flattop in Chattanooga, where he grew up. “That was a special treat when I was a kid. My mom would stow us at the lunch counter while she shopped. Sutton’s burger patties are heftier and fresher, but the crinkle cut fries are the same.” With several decades and several thousand burger’s worth of experience, he’s hesitant to separate the burger from the location. “We sat and watched a steady stream of families, sometimes a couple of generations, having lunch that Saturday, the kids getting a taste of a hamburger that didn’t come from a drive-through. On a strict grading scale, Sutton’s burger would score a 3.25 or 3.5, but the combination of food, atmosphere and company skews the equation higher than that.”

I’ll take a bacon cheeseburger. Light on mayo. Heavy on nostalgia.

Michael grew up way out in the county near a medium-sized city. It was just after the time when these types of pharmacies were relegated to the city. Our pharmacies were more akin to the big box stores of today. He didn’t really experience greasy spoon dives until high school and beyond. “I don’t really have a place in my history that’s like Sutton’s. I can only compare it to places like Johnson’s. Given how good a Johnson’s burger is, the Sutton’s burger just doesn’t live up to what I expected when I walked in. The best thing I can say about my bacon cheeseburger was that it was solid. Good but not great, 3.25. I am glad for the experience, but I would probably order a bacon biscuit with a sweet tea next time.”

Does Sutton’s offer the best burger in the world? No. Not even the best burger in Chapel Hill, which these days boasts Al’s Burger Shack, Buns, and Top This within walking distance. What it does offer, however, is an experience that is worth seeking out and sharing, at least once.

Overall review: 3.38 out of 5

TSB rank: 52 out of 79