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Slider Soiree

May 22, 2012
Last week All Over Albany hosted their Burger Lab at Central Steak. It was a fundraiser for the ASAP Daisies and if you were able to get a ticket before the event sold out, $15 bought you a few hours of all-you-can-eat “sliders.”

For today, I’m going to let that go. But officially, I think “sliders” has become a totally overused word and sadly rendered meaningless. In this case, it refers to a mini-sandwiches with a hot meat filling, and not the gloriously greasy burger.

But it was not just a feeding frenzy, there was also serious work to be done.

Over thirty AOA readers submitted their best ideas for a slider using one of four proteins and a laundry list of toppings. I along with Jerry and Janie (aka The Judges) got to determine the five finalists. And on the night of the event, the three of us sat around a table and sampled those creations to determine which one might go on the Central Steak menu.

I’ve been dying to write about this ever since the contest started, to go on the record with what I think makes a great mini-burger. But by waiting, I’m also going to be able to share the valuable lesson I learned at Judges Table.

These sliders were all about the toppings, and pairing the toppings with one of four proteins: ground beef, ground lamb, pulled pork, or braised pork belly.

Honestly, creating a winning combination based merely on the list of ingredients would be almost impossible. Mostly because the flavor profile of some of the toppings was a mystery. There was no way to know that the pulled pork would taste strongly of Chinese Five Spice, or that the mustard was Dijon, or even how delicious the tomato jalapeno relish would turn out to be.

I think after a night of building their own burgers using these ingredients, the readers’  entries would have been a lot stronger.

Because there were a lot of misguided entries.

It was a struggle for me to come up with five that I wanted to eat. But to be fair, a large part of that had to do with a personal prejudice. I’m not crazy about greenery on burgers. Still, I can deal with classic iceberg and bitter romaine; arugula can even sometimes be pleasant. Raw spinach on the other hand has no place on my sandwich.

Now cook that spinach, or even quickly wilt it, and I’ll welcome it with open arms. But raw spinach on a burger is a deal breaker for me.

My nominees kept the topings simple, and chose flavors that not only paired well with each other and the protein of choice, but also struck a balance of sweet, salty, funky, hot, fresh, and tangy. Pickled vegetables cut through fat. Sugar tames spice. Cheese is lightened with some fresh greens. You get the idea.

But I stayed away from the phantasmagorical. The things that seemed to pile toppings on toppings just for the hell of it. So I did not nominate the sandwich that went by the name The Whole Hog.

It was pork belly with black pepper aioli, pickled onion, pickled cucumber, caramelized onion, bacon, sesame purple cabbage, blue cheese and arugula. And it sounded like a mess.

When it arrived at Judges Table, it was a towering heap of ingredients. Grabbing hold of it, and getting it into the mouth was a daunting experience. And I was a little apprehensive about the gelatinous braised pork belly that Chef Devin puts out (I prefer mine with a little more tooth to it).

But it worked. It totally worked. It worked better than any of the other sliders in the top five. Yes, it was messy. Yes, it was even a little silly. But the pickles cut through the fat, the blue cheese balanced the sweet of the pickles and onions. The bacon brought some smoke and the arugula and cabbage freshened it up and gave it some crunch. This either won because of culinary genius or just blind luck.

The other entries were mostly good on paper, but a bit flawed in execution. As Jerry told me, “This is why the teams play the games.” And he’s totally right. You can weigh the odds, and examine the matchups, but it’s only on the field of play that these things can get decided.

Usually I hate sports metaphors, but this one speaks to me.

Kate H. had a slider in the finals with ground beef, caramelized fennel, black pepper aioli, blue cheese, and arugula. The combination of toppings was delicious on its own. But in practice, the ratio of toppings to burger and bun was just off. It needed a lot more toppings, or a much smaller burger to really come together.

Amy Gerling’s pulled pork, coffee molasses glaze, caramelized onions, bacon, and romaine slider suffered from the seasoning on the pulled pork not meshing with the other elements between the buns. But again, unless she were familiar with Central Steak’s pulled pork, there was no way she could have known that going into the contest.

Julie imagined a slider with pork belly, coffee molasses glaze, pickled habanero, and crispy onions. And it was good, but given the ratio of the roll to the filling, the judges all agreed it needed something a bit creamy to pull it all together. Janie and I believe that to be avocado. Jerry holds a dissenting opinion.

Jason submitted ground lamb, black pepper, aioli, caramelized onion, pickled cucumber, and goat cheese. From the start, I knew the pickle was going to be problematic. And it was.

I had been pulling for a similar version by Kizzi which was substituted caramelized fennel for the onions and romaine for the pickles. And when I had a chance to make my own slider, I made a slight variation to Kizzi’s and replaced the romaine with arugula. That was a tasty little lamb burger.

The other mini-burger I made for myself was a blast from the past. It was a menu item that was discontinued from Chili’s probably twenty years ago. It was the blue cheese bacon burger. There was no blue cheese on it, only blue cheese dressing, bacon (obviously), and mustard (oddly). It’s been a long time and I couldn’t remember all the toppings so I added raw onion and a tomato slice as well.

It’s probably not for everyone, but it totally brought me back, and I loved it.

Congratulations to the winner. And keep an eye out for her slider on the bar menu at Central Steak. You may want to go with friends so you can split an order of them. One was tasty. Two might be decadent. But more than that and you are tempting fate.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. PensiveEngineer permalink
    May 22, 2012 12:13 pm

    I remember that Chili’s bacon blue burger. To me it stood out amongst other bacon blue burgers because of the dressing. Straight blue cheese is too dry by itself and I certainly wouldn’t add ketchup or mayo to that. Wonder why other chefs of bacon blue burgers haven’t figured that out?

  2. Kate H. permalink
    May 22, 2012 9:21 pm

    My slider made it into the finals but based on the photo I definitely agree with you. I’ve put carmelized fennel and blue cheese on my burgers but the burger is often a mix of ground beef and pork and wide enough to hold the toppings. The burgers looked like it was too big for what was on top and the bun seemed to overwhelm the whole thing.

  3. Kizzi permalink
    May 23, 2012 3:03 pm

    OMG! Daniel! I am blushing with pride that you wanted my creation! In truth I think I could’ve done better but I really wanted to try the lamb with the fennel. Thank you for that!

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