Burger report: Criteria

I had promised before that I would lay out some of the criteria for judging, but the Pappas post seemed like it was getting too long to include it there. I’m coming to understand after these two trials how much the bun matters. It needs to either be completely unobtrusive, which means a low bun-to-meat ratio (which is where thick Texas barbecue buns fail), or it needs to be a really good bun, as the lightly-grilled poppyseed ones at Prince’s are. I’m not looking for fancy buns, like the wheat ones at Barnaby’s that Dan likes so much.

For the patty, it should be greasy enough that you know it’s a juicy, grill-cooked burger. Anything too thin, pre-formed, overcooked, etc., has no flavor and no grease to it. A really good burger needs to have some flavor and some grease, without being drenched in it or being fatty.

And as far as condiments go, the ratio is what’s most important. If I get cheese on the burger, I want to know it’s there, not have to go lifting the bun to make sure they put it on. Pickles should not be heaped in one giant lump in the middle, and mustard should not saturate and dominate the burger. When a burger is really, really good, I’ll tolerate other condiments, like lettuce, tomato, and onion (never mayonnaise), because it’s good enough to overcome my dislike of those items and comes to taste like a package deal. This is how I approach the burgers at Scotty P’s and Avalon Diner.

For those of you who don’t live in Houston, let me provide some examples of what I consider great burgers from elsewhere, so you might get a sense of what I’m searching for in Houston:

  • Scotty P’s (Dallas area): “That’s one historic burger!” as they say about themselves. One of the secret criteria that Scotty P’s matches is that they have really good chocolate milkshakes, which adds cred to any burger joint. Also, their burgers are the main focus of the menu, although they do have other items, and I think that’s another minor criterion for a good burger: it really is the focus, or at least the showcase item, of what the restaurant has to offer.
  • 101 Hamburgers (Daytona, FL): This is not the name of the place, but I don’t know the name of it. It’s a roadside biker bar that a friend took us to last year during the AP reading. They literally have a menu with 101 different kinds of hamburgers on it, which they cook on an open-flame grill behind the bar. All the burgers are the same price, and you can get unlimited french fries or sweet potato fries for $1.00 on the side. I don’t even remember exactly which burger I got, but it was excellent.
  • In-N-Out Burger (Western U.S.): I’m including In-N-Out, even though it’s a chain, because it’s pretty much the best chain burger you can get. Their buns and fries are particularly noteworthy, and they do proportion the condiments just to your liking; in fact, they’re famous for it. In-N-Out is so good that we make a point of stopping there anytime we’re in California, much as former Houston residents put Chuy’s on their “must-eat” list anytime they’re back in Houston. I’ll also go ahead and mention Rally’s here, which is my favorite fast-food burger from back home. Until conducting this research, I didn’t know that Rally’s is known as Checkers in some parts of the country and, even more surprisingly, that there’s a Checkers in Beaumont. Now, if I only had a reason to be in Beaumont…

5 Responses to “Burger report: Criteria”

  1. Dan
    July 1st, 2008 08:43

    Come on, how is a wheat bun fancier than poppy seed?

  2. erinmak
    July 1st, 2008 08:47

    Maybe it’s not “fancier,” but it’s a nod at health, which undermines the point of a burger. See the parts of the criteria that call for greasiness and visible cheese to be considered a “good burger,” and you should get a sense that healthiness is not a consideration at all in this quest.

  3. Dan
    July 1st, 2008 08:48

    I guess that’s why you don’t like lettuce on your burgers? Too much salad? :)

  4. ctate
    July 1st, 2008 11:59

    In-N-Out’s fries are noteworthy for being the worst french fries I’ve ever been served in exchange for money. Ordering them “well done” helps a lot, but still not enough to make them actually good.

    I’m a latecomer to the mayo-on-burger thing (unless you count the Wendy’s “Whopper”). I do seriously suggest you try the Alton Brown thing, especially if you’re cooking the burgers yourself: Put just a little mayo on the bottom bun (!) before you put the burger on it. Mayo + the yummy juicyness of a fresh burger wind up combining to something approaching sauce béarnaise, especially if you put a little thinly shaved onion on the burger as well. It really works!

  5. Dan
    July 1st, 2008 12:47

    I get that In-N-Out’s fries aren’t for everyone; many people find them flaccid in their standard presentation, and stiff when “well done.” These people probably expect a crunchy-on-the-outside-with-a-chewy-center sort of french fry, which just isn’t possible with I-N-O’s thin potato slicer.

    That’s not why I love their fries. I love them because they are fresh. So fresh you can watch the original potato become your fries. So fresh that you taste potato, not “french fry substance.”

    I’m more than willing to tolerate a skinny (and thus homogenously-fried) fry that requires off-the-menu ordering if the insides taste that good.

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