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all words: JEB Gavin, all photos: Farrah Skeiky

I can recall in my formative years as a glutton.  At nine I nearly choked to death after fitting an entire triple cheeseburger into my face.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, mostly because I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to eat another cheeseburger.  I wanted the salt, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami all at once, and it really didn’t matter the form it took.  As a kid I didn’t understand while food is ostensibly fuel, it can be an aesthetic experience, so long as you’re making choices in what you eat beyond deciding on “more” or in some cases, “more extravagant”.  If there was a program like Brainfood to teach me not to freebase butter, I’d be healthier today.  I’d also like to think I’d of been a more conscientious eater.

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Brainfood, sponsor of Sunday’s Burger Battle, is a DC based organization focused on teaching high school kids about food and nutrition, as well as providing an environment for them to learn cooking techniques.  Certainly one hopes a program like Brainfood would explain simple concepts like the need to salt meat before cooking it.  I even imagine a more advanced class teaching balance and proper composition of a plate- lessons seemingly lost in the courtyard of the Hotel Monaco.

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Perhaps this is just me griping.  When I think of a burger, I think of something basic: ground beef, properly seasoned, properly cooked, between two pieces of some kind of bread.  Everything else- the cheese, the veg, the sauce, it can all be well and good, but without a decent burger patty in there, and without a balance to the elements, it’s just an overdone sandwich.  Considering the number of overdone sandwiches that day, I would have gone to Shake Shack afterward if I could’ve stomached one more burger.

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Again, I’m being harsh.  My burger standards are ridiculously high.  I know not everyone analyzes their meals this carefully.  Further, it’s possible all my analysis is for not: I’m still a glutton, frequently unable to reconcile my need to continue eating with my intellectual disgust of eating indiscriminately.  Clearly people like burgers piled high with everything, up to and including the kitchen sink, even if it means the actual ground beef is lost in a sea of sauce, flavor blown out by bacon.  But I’m still confused as to how bigger and more complicated seems to qualify as better without the proper foundation.

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Take for example the chefs’ and judges’ choice for best burger from The Source.  On a potato bread bun crusted with Ruffles sour cream and onion potato chips rested a burger patty made of brisket, rib-eye cap, and oxtail, topped with cheese, coffee bacon chili, duck fat caramelized onions, mustard cured pickles, Heinz ketchup, and Duke’s mayonnaise.  To keep it all together it was skewered, and on top of the skewer was an Old Bay coated tater tot. 

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Every aspect of this burger SHOULD BE delicious.  Most elements were tasty on their own.  But in a single bite, the unctuousness of the chili and onions and mayo obliterated a really clever burger blend.  The salt from the tot, the chips, and ketchup kept it from tasting like a burger.  It was really a complicated sandwich with an inexplicably high protein content.

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Likewise, host restaurant Poste took the people’s choice award with their burger of chuck, short rib, rib eye, brisket, and beef cheek.  They opted to use the Modernist Cuisine recipe of first sous viding the patty (with bone marrow and thyme,) and finishing the burger in a cast iron skillet for a crust.  Except the burgers went past medium, so the crust ended up peeling off the outside of the burger like a parboiled potato (note: it was hot as blazes outside, and the humidity more than once pushed 100%.  Atmospheric conditions being what they were, it’s a wonder any burger present managed to keep a crust, but all that effort seemed for naught.)  This was set inside an onion rosemary bun, topped with Port City Porter mustard, a red onion marmalade, more braised beef cheek, a slide of cheddar, and sweet pickles.  That’s a hell of a lot of sweet, bitter, and sour obfuscating a burger which ended up tasting of nothing, because rosemary trumps thyme no matter how they’re introduced.  The frustrating thing is, the onion soup burger on their menu is damn tasty and really well balanced.  No need to wander so far out away from it.  One table over Birch and Barley put up a beef and pork burger, stuffed with butter topped with American cheese, pickles, and a 1000 island-like “fancy” sauce.  I like the twist on the butter burger, throwing it inside the patty almost like a jucy [sic] Lucy, but the butter cooked out completely, and neither pork nor beef was discernible in the grind.

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On the far side of the courtyard, Taco Bamba opted to try and smoke, burn, or char everything on their burger.  While I’m a fan of a runny egg on a burger, there was no way to detect the quail egg was smoked.  Likewise, burnt onion Russian dressing is a brilliant idea- if it’s not competing with thick cut smoked bacon and smoked avocado, both of which competed for most oleaginous mouth-feel.  Add to this a wind circling the courtyard smelling of coal and smoke (again, rather than cooking meat,) there was little chance of tasting any individual element, or tasting them building upon one another in support of the burger.

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Some chefs restrained themselves, and managed pretty tasty output, even if the burger still felt superfluous.  Mad Fox’s 100% short rib burger with beer cheese and arugula on a pretzel roll was OK, but I ended up drinking at least two of their beers for every one bite of their burger, and hoping for a surprise order of bitterballen and frickles.  Ripple put up a burger on brioche topped with chipotle bacon and Bibb lettuce, served with avocado sauce and smoked egg yolk for dipping.  Aside from the fact that I’d happily eat a spoonful of their smoked egg yolk with every meal right up until I died of gout, the burger itself doesn’t even appear in my notes.  Iron Gate opted for a Mediterranean burger, the patty full of garlic, mint, lemon, and oregano.  Tasty, but more gyro in ball form than burger.  The lemon-cucumber, tomato, and spicy feta tucked into a grilled pita came together pretty well, but it was tough to eat all the elements at once, shifting inside the thin pita.

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Perhaps the beefiest of all the beef burgers was Granville Moore’s bulgogi burger.  The Korean flavors were spot on, the sambal sauce heated it up gently, and the pickled slaw cooled it down without too much bitterness.  My biggest problem was the pretzel roll, explained, like the bulgogi, as an homage to street food.  If it’d been served between two griddled, pressed “buns” made of crisped up rice and served with an egg and some kimchi, it would’ve made the perfect bibimburger.  Come to think of it, I will probably try and do that myself.

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A few chefs artfully sidestepped the beef issue entirely.  Firefly and Proof opted for ground lamb burgers, though the former more successful than the latter.  Proof’s grilled lamb burger came on an olive oil sesame seed bun, slathered in a jalapeno and kaffir lime “cheese”- more of a yogurt sauce which slicked down the tongue like runway foam, making it impossible to get anything beyond the texture of meat.Firefly fared far better, a perfectly mid-rare lamb burger with a carefully restrained harissa butter and tzatziki sauce.  All things considered this was my favorite- despite an overwhelming preference for beef in a burger.  Yet walking around I still heard folks muttering about it being undercooked- because somehow an under-seasoned, lamb-based charcoal briquette slathered in everything under the sun would somehow be preferable.

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I can’t begin to describe how I was looking forward to this event; I love burgers and I wanted to eat great burgers with like-minded people, especially for a good cause.  But burger aficionados were wowed by beef cheek and pork belly and style without substance–substance in this case being a perfectly cooked beef patty.  Most people seemed pleased as they left, however–maybe I’m just a purist. I found myself sullen in a state of delirium, sitting in the lobby drunkenly asking of no one in particular Clara Peller’s once famous question, “Where’s the beef?”DCBurgerBattle2013_19DCBurgerBattle2013_18DCBurgerBattle2013_17DCBurgerBattle2013_16DCBurgerBattle2013_15DCBurgerBattle2013_14DCBurgerBattle2013_12DCBurgerBattle2013_06DCBurgerBattle2013_05DCBurgerBattle2013_03

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