Figured I might as well post my articles for the Dig here. This is the first of four articles I’ve written so far, look for new burger musings each and every week at the Dig online. Feel free to send along burger topics for me to cover.
Burgers are the ultimate blank canvas food; the possibilities and condiments are pretty endless. But at what point does it become too weird, too over-the-top, or too “gourmet”? We are so accustomed to grilled, back-yard burgers during the summer, that anything elevated beyond that becomes categorized in the aforementioned gourmet category. Locally, the likes of R.F.O’Sullivan & Son, Washington Square Tavern and Post 390 are what I consider to be the full-on, summer burger your dad probably made for you as a kid, and they all do it with varying degrees of success. I think food memories certainly play a large part in any local loyalties, especially in the world of flip flops, sprinklers, a few beers, and the glorious smell of charcoal and smoke. The $16 burger just can’t compete with that.
What makes a burger gourmet anyway? I’m not even sure I know what the word gourmet means in the world of food, especially in the world of the hamburger. I’ve always felt it to be an over-used word adopted by the ill-informed. Maybe because I’m a chef I don’t consider anything to be “gourmet,” just different degrees of difficulty. Is Foie Gras a gourmet ingredient or just showy? Is gourmet entirely tied to price or does it merely refer to what’s common and what’s not? If it’s a term that’s applied to any burger which is outfitted with more than the standard shred of lettuce, out of season tomato and slice of American cheese, then there’s a whole world of gourmet burgers right here in Boston. I don’t need a fried egg or a rosemary aioli on top of my ideal burger, but that doesn’t mean it’s not damn delicious.
It’s a fine line between the cheaper establishments serving a simple burger versus a burger that is ordinary and lackluster. I’m a burger purist, but acknowledge I have different expectations and various attitudes towards certain burger styles. The classic burger can be interpreted as the larger grilled style you’ll find in a local Pub, or it can mean a thin and griddled burger often seen on the West Coast (in Boston, think Tasty Burger or Flat Patties). Either way it’s basic and familiar and that’s why we like it. But don’t expect it to be cooked to the requested temperature (if you’re even asked) or to have any finesse. But why do we need finesse; it’s a burger and, by definition, is the antithesis of finessse – it should be greasy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get to the bottom of what makes a particularly delicious burger a success. Highland Kitchen has one of my favorite burgers because it’s so humble, being literally beef, cheese, and a bun. It’s a glorious sandwich because of its minimalism. Whether it’s intentional or not, the simple Pub burger is successful because of the restraint. Fancy pants chefs and their “cheffy” tricks don’t always translate to the burger world. Back Bay Social Club serves up a fantastic burger that is $21, all while able to resist topping their fare off with the extraordinary.Prime cuts of beef and slow-cooked caramelized onions are all you’ll get, yet this burger is worth every penny. There’s a reason it’s all about the beef, folks.
Of course price does not dictate enjoyment; plenty of the more expensive burgers around town are flawed because they either try to do too much to such a basic product, or the chefs can’t even cook it to a rosy medium-rare. If I’m shelling out $14 and upwards of $23 for a burger, the least they can do is cook it the way I want it cooked. I don’t think I’m asking too much here.The problem with the state of burgers in Boston right now is that many of the better ones are expensive, and burgers are supposed to be a food for the people. Mostly this comes in the form of a French Bistro, where the chef is a James Beard nominee. I don’t need an award winning chef making my burger, but I sure as hell won’t complain when Tony Maws makes my favorite burger at Craigie on Main. Yeah, it’s $18 but it’s the best burger I’ve ever had and it’s not even that close. The burger contains miso, bone marrow and mace ketchup… so much for being a purist.