Welcome to a new frontier: a Bang for your Burger Buck recipe. I had been mulling over how to jump into the recipe game without going all Smitten Kitchen on you for more than a minute. I would say the timing was perfect when OK! Magazine reached out to me for a recipe. It just so happened that I was working on my soon to be posted Shake Shack edition and had come across their excellent bacon cheeseburger, the SmokeShack. If you know this blog you know that I usually lambast the addition of bacon as a misallocation of precious burger funds. Why not spend that money on more beef? Well in the case of Shake Shack, we find a truly delicious exception to the rule. The bacon is perfectly cooked and is of a complimentary quality to the special proprietary beef blend Shake Shack uses, in other words it ain’t Hormel. But what really gets my noggin spinning is the spicy pickled cherry pepper spread. It provides a remarkable counterbalance to the overall richness of the bacon, beef and cheese. Now I love spicy pickled things. It doesn’t take a Stephen Hawking to tell you that it’s part of my Indian DNA, hell it might read giardiniera as some sort of chutney. And pickled cherry peppers are no strangers to the chambers in my fridge. Weeks earlier I happened to be toying with an aioli spiked with spicy pickled cherry peppers and well, timing right? So now you know how we got here, let’s talk about what we are going to make.
the burger: The Fats Domino 1/3lb custom burger blend from local butcher(Johnny Gs), standard issue bun, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, pickles, mayo, mustard, jalapeños, onions, grated cheddar cheese and a spicy New Orleans seasoning
the bucks: $7.75
the coordinates: Austin, TX
Imagine Austin, Texas in 1939. A time when skinny jeans were reserved for skinny cowboys. When food trucks were just for shipping food. When a hamburger joint was just a . . . well in the case of Hut’s Hamburgers, somethings do the stay the same, or in this case, have clearly not forgotten where they came from. You know this place is special the moment you walk in. The sign that bears the year of its founding is about as necessary as the last line on a McDonald’s sign that says Billions and Billions served. History is heaped onto the walls and boasts that type of hoarder chic that has become the trademark style of casual dining empires such as TGI Fridays and Applebee’s, but of course Hut’s feels infinitely more authentic with the predictable but thoroughly enjoyable Texas Roadside feel. Faded baseball pennants with that font that literally takes you back to your childhood bedroom help ease the notion that a midday beer is just what the doctor ordered. Or if you are committed to a course of Bang for your Burger Buck, rest assured that signs like this mean the place you are sitting in is serious about burgers.
the burger: smashed double cheeseburger on an egg bun, american cheese, custom sauce, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, ketchup
the bucks: $7.99
the coordinates: tested in Austin, TX(locations nationwide)
For some, patience is a virtue. I think it’s kind of overrated. I didn’t always feel this way, certainly not in the days of my moderately spoiled youth where I would turn coming home with an “A” on a book report into a trip to KB Toy Store(that’s the 80s version of Toys R Us in case you’re a Millennial). Harnessing the power to persuade while gingerly finagling is all about patience and patience was so often the key in convincing my parents that a $60 Transformer was instrumental to my path of mastering the works of Ernest Hemingway. Today, in our food crazed world we certainly wait for food, in which case patience is paramount. The other day I waited 3.5 hours in a line for BBQ. This act not only demonstrated my own patience, but that of my wife’s for putting up with a man who single handedly altered her weekend with an act of lunch. Which brings me to Smashburger, a burger chain who I patiently waited to try, even though I longed for their style of smashed burgers when I lived in Los Angeles, a town surprisingly deficient in such style. The great burger of my youth was Steak ‘n Shake, and in the 20 years I lived in LA, I would dream – literally dream about finding a branch of the Midwest burger chain somewhere in the outer environs of Southern California. It took me just over a year to make my inaugural trip to Smashburger. And then it took another two years before I gave it the requisite second and third Bang for your Burger Buck trials. I suppose the reason for my lag in return visits was that I wasn’t initially blown away. And while $8 for a double cheeseburger, not cooked to temp, may not scream deal of the century, I have to say that my patience with Smashburger is indeed your reward because I ultimately did find a version that really exemplifies the smashed burger style. I suppose patience isn’t too overrated but I’m going to let this burger justify all that.
the burger: two patties of a custom triple cut grass fed beef blend, on a sponge bun with lettuce, tomato, onion and thousand island dressing and american cheese
the bucks: $7
the coordinates: Los Angeles, CA
Last night I dreamt about Zankou Chicken. For those of you who are ignorant to the work of Beck, or happened to have never called LA home, Zankou Chicken is one of those dirty bird chains blessed from the Gods. A Lebanese-Armenian take on the typical fare one finds in a fast casual Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, order at the counter kinda spot. The place not only fed me for my 20s and some of my 30s, but it also served as my first introduction to cheap eats staples like shawerma, falafel and hummus. When you eat at a place for a decade, you can catch off days. And truth be told there were better(albeit pricier) renditions of Lebanese Armenian throughout LA, but I always kept coming back. Now I’m 8 months away from Zankou Chicken and the city that chicken shack calls home, and it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to tell me that my belly is a little homesick. Which brings me to the burger at hand: a straight outta Los Angeles, in the style of In-N-Out, flat top griddled stackable burger. Fast food in design but not in the ingredients. A burger style that is the standard-bearer of burgers in SoCal. A brilliant design whose appeal to youth certainly carries over into the kind of adult who responds to questions like “Is In-N-Out good?” with a “oh dude, you just don’t know . . .” When I arrived in Los Angeles some 20 years ago I tried In-N-Out and just never got what all the fuss was about. But now, 8 months removed from a 20 year sentence in Southern California, I look back with fondness on the style, and in the case of Burgerlords, I have my own version of In-N-Out that is worthy of some pontification. And pontificate I shall.
the burger: 7oz ground chuck, soft spread cheddar , green leaf lettuce, thick cut tomato, onion and pickle
the bucks: $7.45
the coordinates: St. Louis, MO
Like great barbecue, great burgers stir our emotions. Unlike exquisite nigiri sushi or a three hour tasting menu that moves at the elegant pace of a ballet, many great burgers do not receive Michelin stars. Rather they are satisfied with lifelong customers, some who may even consider taking their progeny to these hallowed establishments as a rite of passage. Blueberry Hill in St. Louis is very much that type of burger establishment, though for me it might just fall short of the whole “rite of passage” part. Still, when it comes to Bang for your Burger Buck and being a local burger treasure, I feel compelled to include their 7oz of ground chuck into this collection. And frankly after almost 15 years of overcooked burgers in Los Angeles(Umami Burger really changed the game), I will always tip my cap to a Midwest joint that has been nailing medium rare the whole damn time.
the burger: Double w/ Cheese: Two 100% all-natural black angus beef patties, two slices American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion(upon request)
the bucks: $3.95
the coordinates: Austin, TX
Burgers can be many many things. Like all food should be, burgers live in a dynamic state. Some appear in formal dining halls worthy of rap moguls or royalty, some are served on street carts. Some cross culinary genres like a Bulgogi topped burger or a burger conceived to taste like carnitas. Few burgers can be called “authentic”, a term not universally embraced as a good thing but a powerful one regardless. P. Terry’s, the celebrated burger chain in Austin whose reverence to quality ingredients frankly belies every negative connotation one could have to that dirty “C-word”, serves up a burger that can simply be described as authentic. And that summation conveys the very best that word has to offer. At $4 for a cheeseburger of this caliber – it’s a slam dunk when it comes to Bang for your Burger Buck – but more importantly it is a slam dunk because of the quality first and foremost. The price point just happens to be the cherry on the sundae. And a cheap cherry at that.