Why do burgers have such a hold over us? Are we simply charmed by the novelty of putting meat between two buns, or is there some mysterious alchemy at work? Linda Scarborough bites a little deeper into the perfect burger.
Firstly, we need to discuss the elements of a top-class burger. Those unfortunate enough to know first-hand the horrors of a grey defrosted disk will argue it ultimately comes down to the perfectly cooked, free-range, all-beef patty. It could also all hinge on the butteriness of the bun, the crunch of the pickles, or the tang of the sauce. You might say it’s all of the above combined in one breathtaking mouthful.
For me, the true measure of a burger’s quality is what I will call the face factor. As in: how fast I want to get it in my face. True to their American heritage, burgers are big, brassy and bold – not something to be slowly savoured, nibbled politely or sipped like a subtle consommé. When facing a good – nay, a great – burger, you want to open your mouth as wide as possible and take great gulps, gasping for breath as you chew. Basically, you want to inhale the thing.
Sides play a supporting role, too. Like courtiers to a queen, they must play up her attractions, complement her dress(ing) and show her buns to their best advantage. And pop culture tells us that the best crowd-pleasing pairing for a burger has to be a portion of hot, salty fries with a squeeze of sweet, umami-laden ketchup. About ten years ago potato wedges had their heyday; they made way for skinny shoe-string fries; and, more recently, triple-cooked chips – perhaps with some homemade aioli? – are what menus rave about.
I like chips and all, but I can’t say no to an onion ring. The bigger, the better – and beer-battered too, please. The kind that arrives all puffed up and crunchy on the outside, with a sweet, tangy circle of onion right in the centre. Whoever came up with the onion ring was winning at life.
When McDonalds opened its first SA store in Blackheath in 1995, my mom drove for about an hour, queued for even longer, and brought home a precious paper bag laden with… well, what tasted like more paper bag. An insider from the brand told us at a recent press tour that McDonalds was so overwhelmed by the early demand that they had to fly in emergency supplies of meat. (Eat Out online editor Katharine then whispered that she pictured the poor little patties flying to meet their fate, strapped into their seatbelts in a Boeing 747.)
Things took an upwards turn in 2004 – my first year of living in Cape Town – when I tasted a gourmet Royale burger for the first time. I had never seen anything like it, with the main sources of excitement being the gluten-free rolls, sweet potato fries (glory!), and the fact that people were now putting brie on burgers.
The next notable notch in my burger belt was having my inaugural Hudson’s experience one day after work about five years ago, washed down with a glorious pint of Jack Black lager in the early days of the craft-beer trend. Hudson’s burgers have major face factor. Plus they get bonus points for their Poppa Trunks offering, which sports a chilli popper – yes, filled with three cheeses, battered and deep fried – on top of the patty, plus some more layers of cheese, inside the bun. It is both insane and insanely good.
Last week Friday was a similar watershed moment, when I tasted my first Jerry’s burger in the smoke-filled student hangout in Obs. Irreverently dubbed the Sweet Baby Cheesus, this joyful bundle came with a brioche bun, a moist and tasty patty topped with cheddar and Swiss slices, and just the right amount of cheese sauce. The lettuce was shredded thinly to keep its texture and crunch (I abhor single leaves that wilt, sweat and become slimy) and the fresh tomato slice and pickles were accompanied by a few slivers of red onion – my favourite. I took bite after blissful bite as the juice ran down my wrists and into my sleeves. Face factor: 10 out of 10. Perfection.
Who serves your favourite burger? Let us know in the comments below.