The fourth article I wrote for the Dig (online exclusive)
By now you’re probably starting to get it; boy eats burger, boy thinks about burger, boy writes about burger. Leave it to this guy to try and find something new and thrilling to write on the same subject each and every week. It’s the world we live in now, bombarded with Yelp, Chowhound, Urban Spoon and the like: everyone is a critic and everyone supposedly knows their stuff. I have a hard enough time dissecting burgers, which are elementary enough, I can’t imagine trying to be an “expert” on a more sophisticated cuisine. But it’s what I love and I’m so fortunate that my hobby also happens to be my career. The fact that Boston is full of food enthusiasts; heated debates on who makes the best burger, Pho, or empanada is not uncommon on the message boards, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates. At least that’s how it is in my world. It’s not just about dissecting a burger in the most cynical tone I can come up with; it’s pondering about the food, why it was done a certain way, and what makes it work or not work. Sorry to disappoint all those who think I’m trying my damndest to be an asshole, unfortunately for me I’m already kind of an asshole, but I’ll gladly play the role of burger villain.
It’s harder to represent the role of food critic than you think; breaking down a burger a week is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. Sure, easy at first, if you start eating one burger a week, one burrito, or one duck confit a week, chances are you’re going to notice differences. Subtle at first, but the distinction between burger 4 and burger 65 is huge. My critique of a burger starts well before I take the first bite. Upon settling down to dine, I begin to take in the ambiance and attempt to connect with the staff. While atmosphere and service are secondary to the actual taste of the burger, they do contribute to this diner’s overall experience. Is this a place I’m going to want to come back to? Is the music too loud for this quickly aging, soon-to-be 31 year old curmudgeon? Is the server too cool for school and being sassy and inattentive? The burger, of course, rules all, which isn’t to say it can’t be so friggin’ good that I forget all the negative surroundings. That hasn’t really happened yet, because for me the allure of the restaurant is crucial, and clearly most would agree. Why do you think Bartley’s and O’Sullivan’s are always at the top of the burger lists around town? It’s because they look the part, not just because they serve decent burgers, some to tourists and spoiled college kids, some to sulky barflies and fair-weather Red Sox fans.
But let’s get to the meat of the matter, shall we? It’s kind of easy to tell when a burger will fulfill my needs or not, and believe me, I’m pretty needy. The burger has to fit the size of the bun, the cheese has to be fully melted and the condiments and toppings should be minimal and properly proportioned. Of all the things that drive me nuts it’s the bun and the cheese. Too much bun overwhelms the entire point of the sandwich, and that’s the beef. The cheese needs to be melty and gooey and not much else. Flavor is fine, but again, we need enhancements not distractions. Vermont Cheddar is everywhere on practically every burger right now, it’s delicious but never melts well. American is classic and melts extraordinarily well, but c’mon, it’s American Cheese, can’t we do better? Nail the bun, nothing too fluffy and nothing too crunchy, please, and melt that cheese and you’re ahead of the game. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I don’t need a salad on my burger. Lettuce and tomato are okay, but mostly they fall victim to being there just for the hell of it. I am mildly obsessed with condiments, but there is not much in the way of creativity these days. Why can’t we have more ketchup/mustard/mayo/pickle based sauces on non-griddled burgers? And where are my aioli’s? More original thoughts please, and less ketchup and yellow mustard on the side, no matter how cute the ramekin is that it’s served in. My dry top bun needs this, seriously.
But the beef is king, and for good reason. The masses are too easily fooled either by falling in with the burger on paper, being manipulated into liking it because Yelp tells them they have to, or loving a burger covered up with a lot of stuff. Less is more, I promise you, many ingredients do not make a burger, most of the time a burger is secondary because there’s a mountain of crap piled high. Hidden way below the fried onions, iceberg lettuce, blue cheese, caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms used to be a decent looking patty of beef. All the excess toppings in the world can’t fool me; either the meat is good or it’s not. Ground Chuck is the classic cut because it’s beefy and satisfying. Sirloin is too lean individually but does offer a good beef quality if blended properly. Back Bay Social Club basically grinds dry aged steak into a burger. Maybe I’d rather have that as a steak, but I won’t complain about it in burger form, shame on anyone who thinks it’s too “steaky.” I’m aware I’m a pain in the ass to please; I bitch about burgers being too simple, then I complain about chefs trying to do too much. Mostly, I want originality, but I’ll settle for at least a twist on the perennial favorites. Nine times out of ten I’m ordering a very basic cheeseburger because that’s the house burger across the board. I’m begging someone to think outside of the box, respect the ingredients on hand, and serve me a juicy, salty, medium-rare cheeseburger. It’s not that tough I assure you, I may be a cynic but at least I know what I like.