Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. In the Big Mac jingle, the American burger sounds simple enough, but look under the hood of this cultural archetype and be prepared to gaze into the abyss. Although the fundamental ingredients of a burger are fairly standardized, the seemingly infinite possibility within those categories proves otherwise. And nowhere is the debate stronger than in patty construction. Fat and juicy? Flat-top grilled? Angus or grass-fed beef? Proponents of each have their reasons, so we decided to ask a few — Ho¯M's head chef Shay MacDonald, Moe's Crosstown Tavern cook Mike Tronoski, and Summerville Triangle Char & Bar chef Billy Condon.
Let's begin at the beginning: all-beef patties. When cross-examined about the components of the "perfect" burger, Tronoski says, "The meat? I like an Angus-based 80/20 ground chuck. I don't really like the flavor of grass-fed beef." A bold statement in today's sustainable food economy. But you might be surprised that other burger aficionados aren't sold on it either.
"Grass-fed doesn't do anything for me," says MacDonald. "I want my patty juicy and dripping with fatty goodness." At Ho¯M on King, his team cooks up roughly 200 pounds of beef a week and serves over 600 burgers that range from beef, turkey, and veggie. But the chef's ultimate burger execution is prepared on the griddle. "The Max Burger, on our current menu, is the best cheeseburger I've ever had in my life, hands down. It's 80/20 ground chuck and two thin patties are griddle-fried and cooked just until the cheese melts," he says.
That doesn't mean grass-fed beef doesn't have its followers, however. The local Triangle Char & Bar franchise has made grass-fed fans in West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant, and Summerville. Condon of the Summerville location chalks it up to the earthy flavor of his patty's meat, sourced from a Pee Dee farm. Unlike traditional beef, grass-fed imparts a chewier texture due to the fact that unlike wet-aged beef, grass-fed is dry-aged. A grass diet also means leaner meat, which reveals a more intense flavor.
"My perfect burger would definitely be made from grass-fed beef," Condon says. "I love Hill Creek Farms. Cattle Farmer John Rodgers' beef is all natural and lean with a 90/10 ratio, and I cook it like we do at the restaurant: hand patty, season with special spices, and char grill."
That said, Condon can get nostalgic when it comes to burgers of his youth. "I also have a special place in my heart for the burger from the kitchen of my late Cuban grandmother, Cuqui`," he says. "The beef patties were fried in rendered bacon fat from the morning breakfast and stuffed in a folded slice of white bread. I can still smell the aromatics of roasted garlic, toasted cumin, and fresh oregano."
Speaking of bacon, Charleston's most cultish burger has got to be Sean Brock's Husk cheeseburger. The double-patty dagger to the heart is constructed of ground boneless chuck roast, flank steak, and, of course, Benton's bacon. "Mine was inspired by the drive-in that my family used to take me to when I was young," Brock told Food Republic last year. According to the chef, his beast of a burger is an homage to California's In-and-Out burger and made best at home when charred in a cast-iron skillet.
But if you're avoiding packaged meats such as bacon due to the World Health Organizations new warning about them being a carcinogen, best look to the sauce and spice rack for additional flavor.
Tronoski says he uses a Moe's specialty dry rub on his while MacDonald says it's all about the sauce. "It's made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, red chili flakes, bread and butter pickle juice, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, and honey — among other things — and really complements the other flavors in each bite. Oh, and bacon jam. Can't go wrong there."
Condon, however, takes an a-typical approach when it comes to seasoning Triangle's Ojo Rojo burger — he rubs the patties with coffee to add another depth of flavor. "The coffee-rubbed grass-fed patties are topped with red-eye gravy mayo, melted pepper jack queso, and caramelized onions," he says.
However, you prep it, one thing is abundantly clear: The perfect burger patty is uniquely personal. In 2012, food critic Robert Moss declared barbecue headquarters Bessinger's the keeper of the best burger. And it's arguably one of the simplest. For Moss, the key to a perfect patty was the old school-style of a "quarter to a third of a pound of beef pressed into a wide, flat patty ... guaranteeing a flat, hot burger with a slightly toasty top and bottom and fully melted cheese inside." Simple. Sinful.
Although the quality and freshness of the ingredients is clearly important, how those items are prepared and assembled seems to be as varied as the individuals themselves.
"There is a huge culture when it comes to burgers," MacDonald says. "There are a lot of people in the culinary world that might just have a burger on their menu as a cheaper option to their fine-dining choices, and then their are people that are 100 percent steeped in the burger world and hyper-focused on the minor differences between ingredients, but at the end of the day pretty much everyone loves a burger no matter what's on it or where it's from. It's like the old saying about pizza and sex — even if it's bad it's still good."