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Eight Burgers I Ate

May 21, 2019

It was a tremendous honor and privilege to get to help the New York Beef Council determine the best burger in New York. Last week I was one of the judges tasked with tasting all of the finalists. There were only supposed to be four. But because of some technical difficulties with the online voting, all ten nominees were invited to the judging.

Two were not able to make the trip out to Onondaga Community College. Zoe’s Ice Cream Barn in Lagrangeville pulled out, so I didn’t get to try their JSK Cattle Co. Burger. But most tragically Nighthawks from Troy wasn’t able to come with its triple burger topped with a fried egg, special sauce, cheese and house-made pickles.

I didn’t even know they made a triple burger. Seriously, that thing had the potential to win it all.

But burger slingers came as far as Long Island to bring their beloved burgers to the NY Beef Council contest. And at the judges table were Kita Roberts of Girl Carnivore, Jacob Pucci who writes about food and dining for The Post-Standard, Christopher Carosa who literally wrote the book on hamburgers, and Kenneth Krutz from the NY Beef Council board.

All of the judging was done blindly. No, we weren’t blindfolded. We could see the burgers, but we had no idea which burger belonged to which restaurant. Each judge was provided a full sized burger, and could do with it as they saw fit.

One judge would just grab the burger with both hands and shove it in their mouth. Another went to great lengths to make it beautiful for Instagram. And as for the Profussor? Any guesses?

My burger judging process was to give every piece of the burger a thorough examination. I was looking at the visible surface of the bun, taking note of the cut side of the bun, picking through the toppings, noting the order of the build, observing the level of char on the patty, and tasting along the way.

Then I cut a cross section, taking note not just of the internal temperature, but the juiciness, the grind, and the packing of the beef. One half was cut into quarters, and I took the perfect bite from the center of each burger.

Maybe it’s a little OCD, but it’s my process.

The hardest part with these contests is in evaluating the relative tradeoffs. But in the end, we were only asked to come up with one taste score for each of the burgers. And certain flaws in texture can absolutely affect the overall taste of the product.

Another challenge is that the final results are the combined total from five different judges. And while my personal top three were the same as our collective decision, my picks were in a slightly different order. In part, I blame myself, because after eight burgers I wasn’t thinking strategically.

Sometimes I’ll go back and re-level my scores, bumping my top pick up to a higher score than originally noted. Consider them bonus points for being the best in show, even if it may not have been a perfect specimen.

So let’s play this out. Burger by burger. From start to finish. And then you can question how I lived to tell the tale.

Burger #1 came from Pizza Man Pub in Baldwinsville and it was called the Bleu Moon Burger. We were off to a strong start with blue cheese, bacon, and fried onion petals. The burger had a great crust on it too. The biggest problem, besides the stiff dense texture of the patty, was the bun. It dampened the flavors, and while i loved the assertive blue cheese, the fried onion petals were also lost. A good burger, but not the best.

Burger #2 came from Ale ‘n’ Angus Pub in Syracuse which won the contest last year. This time around they made a Beef on Weck burger using a kimmelweck roll and topping a ground beef patty with sliced roast beef, cheese, and horseradish sauce. And that was one tasty burger. The problem, as I saw it, was that the burger played second fiddle to the roll. The roll was the star of this show, and it brought along a supporting cast of beefy extras.

Burger #3 came from from Madison Bistro in Wampsville, and I was nervous when I saw the plate at first. Their Texan Burger which was simply a burger patty topped with smoked brisket was put inside an inauspicious looking bun, and the whole plate was drizzled with barbecue sauce. But biting into this beauty put all my predisposed notions to bed. This was glorious. Largely because of the gentle hand formed burger patty, its crust, and the extra beef fat from the brisket. On top of that, there was all the smoke, and the zing of heat from the barbecue sauce. The bun, while not much to look at, did its job of holding this thing together without distracting from all that amazing locally raised beef.

If you couldn’t tell, this was my top pick.

Burger #4 came from from Crazy Otto’s Empire Diner in Herkimer. They brought a Mushroom Swiss Burger, which was almost like a burger sandwiched in between two soft pieces of garlic bread. This is the same place that made the Loose Caboose last year, a grease bomb that almost did me in. Well, the Mushroom Swiss Burger fell victim to the same lack of acid or contrasting crunch to keep it from being overly heavy and greasy. But sometimes you just want that gut bomb, and Crazy Otto will give it to you like no one else.

Burger #5 came from Uncles Tavern in New York Mills, and it some ways it was a remarkable thing of beauty. They called it the Main Event burger. And it was unexpectedly massive. I spoke to the chef after the contest, and the bakery delivered buns that were larger than usual. To compensate, the burgers were made larger than usual. The cook on these burgers, and the juiciness of them was without equal. And I liked where they were going with a pineapple, hot pepper sauce, bacon, and cheese. However, the beef portion of this burger was so massive, it drowned out the other flavors.

Burger #6 came from CB Craft Brewers in Honeoye Falls, a town I don’t know how to pronounce. The MacBubba Burger is a tower of excess. From the bottom to the top, it’s lettuce, tomato, burger, cheese, bacon, a fried egg, and chili. Yet amazingly the bun was not grilled in butter. My egg was more over medium than over easy, and I felt the chili was pasty. But the thing I was least happy about was the sad, mealy May tomato. I’m sure people love this over-the-top burger that echoes the All American breakfast, but it’s not my thing.

Burger #7 came from The Gate House in Rochester. I’m not sure why they went with The Pandora burger which is a combination of sautéed jalapeños, avocado, pepper jack cheese and sriracha mayo. Especially when they have on the menu something called The Douglas which mimics a garbage plate with meat hot sauce, american cheese, mustard and onions. But again, May tomatoes are a killer. As are avocados. If you’re presenting avocados to judges, you should make sure they look good, and don’t have brown fibers running through the silky green flesh.

Burger #8 came from Black Door Burger in Long Beach, and was a blessed relief! Their Black Out Burger is a straight up, classic, smashed patty on a flaming hot griddle, and thrown on a grilled Martin’s potato roll with pickles, red onion, tomato, and special sauce. I may have squealed a little when I saw this one arrive. The crust on the patty was remarkable. Really, more than anything else, I wanted a second patty on this burger to bump up the beefiness which was overwhelmed a bit by the sauce and the cheese. However, the onion, pickle, and tomato are there for relief.

This was a dynamite burger and it was my number two.

But when all the judges scores were tallied, it was burger #2 that came out on top. That was the one one the kimmelweck roll, and just so happened to be my choice for number three. Technically, I ended up giving burger #2 and #8 the same score.

When I asked the other judges why they didn’t rate the Texan Burger higher, it was based on the uneven distribution of brisket fat on top of the burger. And that, I thought, was a fair criticism.

Part of me really wishes that Josh and his team were able to make the competition. I think they could have given Ale ‘n’ Angus a run for its money. But now we’ll never know. Congratulations to this Syracuse institution. This is the second NY Best Burger they have taken home in a row. And that’s serious.

Now I’ve got to go and take my blood pressure. Wish me luck.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Benjamin M. permalink
    May 21, 2019 11:38 am

    Honeoye Falls – sounds like “Honey – oye! – Falls”

    It’s near Rochester, that’s how I know.

  2. May 21, 2019 5:35 pm

    Wow. I had to skip lunch after reading this, because I was already full.

    I do want to comment on your tasting technique which seems to define quality by the very center of the burger, am I correct? You cut it into quarters, then take your first bite from one of the points? For a round sandwich meant to be eaten from one hand, that’s an odd strategy.

    I like to go straight through like a saw cutting down a tree. The crispy outside and any stray condiments give you a preview of what’s to come. The middle is intense and can be tough going if there is too much there. Then you come out the other side, triumphant.

    Also, how can a bun “dampen the flavors” as in the case of Pizza Man Pub? “Tamp down” maybe?

  3. Dave permalink
    May 22, 2019 5:23 am

    None from the Albany area?

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