A few years ago, Charleston witnessed a small trend of classically trained chefs taking up the traditional art of barbecue. In some instances it was just the installation of a smoker in upscale kitchens; in others, it meant cooks leaving the lines at some of the city's more prestigious restaurants to open their own barbecue joints.
Now, that same sort of high culinary approach to once-humble food seems to have made its way to the world of the cheeseburger — an item once relegated to the bar menu in most white tablecloth joints, an afterthought put there to satisfy the occasional philistine who would wander in and not want to eat something he didn't recognize.
These days, burgers are front and center, sharing the stage with filet mignon and lamb chops. Chefs are grinding their patties from blends of choice steak, topping them with foie gras, and roasting them in wood-fired ovens — and charging double digits for what was once a cheap eat. We've also begun seeing more and more chefs devoting their careers to the all-American sandwich and opening their own burger joints dedicated to elevating the art of the American hamburger.
One of the newest of these is Big Gun Burger Shop, which recently opened in a small space on Calhoun Street across from Marion Square. It's the creation of owner Austin Kirkland, who has been running the successful Gourmet Bay catering firm for years.
From a decor perspective, it's pretty much a straight-up watering hole, with exposed brick walls and a short bar and a couple tables up front with a few more in back, tucked behind a big brick column among a few beer shelves and reach-in coolers.
But don't be fooled: Big Gun serves some really good beef burgers — seven of them, to be precise, with a nice range of creative toppings. They also have a selection of five non-beef burgers, which range from chorizo and duck to turkey and veggie.
The Southern Hospitality ($11) beef burger has bacon, two thin-sliced disks of fried green tomatoes, and a scoop of chow chow on top. In case it wasn't stereotypically Southern enough, there's a generous slather of sharp, creamy pimento cheese too. This down-home combo is balanced out by the Breakfast Burger ($10), a post-modern take on the Egg McMuffin (which is itself a take on the good old eggs benedict), boasting Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise atop a burger. No reliable reports yet on the Breakfast Burger's effect on a hangover, but you gotta figure it's pretty substantial.
Such combinations seem intentionally edgy and cute, but that doesn't mean they don't taste really, really good. The Porker ($10) piles pulled pork, pink pickled onions, barbecue sauce, and braised collard greens on top of a big beef patty. Collards on a burger sounds like an ironic stunt that couldn't possibly work, but surprisingly enough they round out a brilliant combination. Against such drama, the relatively staid blue burger ($10), with its now-common combination of blue cheese, bacon, and caramelized onions, still manages to come off properly. It's a big, meaty burger with an enjoyable blend of sweet and savory on top.
As any serious burger aficionado will attest, the bun on which the patty is served is just as important as the meat and the condiments. It's a complementary dance, and if any one of the elements is out of balance, it ruins the whole assembly.
There has been some experimentation with the Big Gun buns, and early reports from the shop not long after it opened complained of thick, "too bready" buns that the chef admitted he was looking to replace. They seem to have gotten it right now, for the buns on the burgers I sampled were soft and chewy, with just the right amount of bread to complement but not get in the way of all the meatiness and flavor going on inside.
Each burger comes with a couple of delicious, savory housemade pickle slices and an order of fries. They're cut from fresh potatoes, of course — de rigueur for any serious burger bar — but they're a little different from everyone else's hand-cut fries. Long and thin and laden with seasoning salt, their crispy texture grows on you and holds up even as you get to the end of the meal and they've cooled. And, in case you're wondering, they're served, not with bearnaise or mayo, but good old American ketchup, in properly sophisticated stainless steel sauce cups.
No burger and fries combo would be complete without a milkshake, and Big Gun has upped the ante there, too, with its Twinkie Milkshake. It's a vanilla shake served in a tall fluted glass with a yellow Twinkie half submerged in the creamy shake and the straw inserted right down the middle of the Twinkie — a stunt that's more for effect than function, since the cake clogs the straw and you can't really drink from it. Not only is it a great effect, but the ice-cream-sogged Twinkie is a pure treat.
Burgers are front and center at Big Gun, but there is a short list of appetizers that blends popular foods and haute cuisine twists. Macaroni and cheese is tucked inside a fritter and served with green tomato jam ($5), while the Deep South Eggroll ($6) wraps pulled pork, black-eyed peas, and collards with a side of barbecue sauce. Plenty of Southern grills will deep fry anything from dill pickles to corn on the cob, but Big Gun gives the hot oil treatment to Brussels sprouts ($6), which turn out to be surprisingly delicious, with a dark, slightly meaty flavor and a little crispy crust from the fryer.
My favorite is the trio of deviled eggs ($5), which surround a small pile of mesclun on a concave white plate. Their pale yellow filling, piped into gentle swirls, is smooth, creamy, and slightly tangy, but what puts them over the top are the strips of fried pork fat served over the top of the greens. Crispy and sinfully tasty, the strips are perfect for scooping up any straggling bits of yellow yolk that fall from the eggs.
Midway through a big Porker burger, a thought struck me: Are we really making too much ado about burgers? Does a humble sandwich really deserve such lavish attention, from the eccentric toppings to housemade pickles and hand-cut fries? Shouldn't we be satisfied pressing them out of whatever old food-service ground beef is cheapest and sandwiching them between Sunbeam buns and being done with it?
Part of me says yes, particularly because I have a deep-rooted fondness for the old-school burger joints of earlier decades, typified by thin, griddle-fried patties and toasted buns and crispy crinkle-cut fires.
In the end, though, I must admit that the big burgers from Big Gun — decked out as they are with pulled pork and collards or tarted up with poached eggs and hollandaise — are just plain good, and if we see a few more ambitious high-end burger joints like this opening up around town, well, that would be just fine with me.