Chef John Amato of Little Jack's Tavern on Upper King Street didn't show up on his first day of work with a preconceived notion of what his signature burger would be. The vision actually came from co-owners Tim Mink and Brooks Reitz, who told Amato that they wanted an old-school burger, something evocative of the car hops and mom and pops' of yore ... but classed up to meet the upscale feel of the joint. "They came to me and said they wanted a simple approach to classic dishes, food that was fresh and modern without over thinking it," Amato says. "And every good American tavern should have a good burger — it's the most iconic dish there is. So we started testing things out."
Little Jack's really is it's own thing — green checkered tablecloths, upholstered banquettes, and kitschy magnetic salt-and-pepper shakers combine with old photos of pug-faced boxers and horse paintings — and the nebula of details has such a timeless Rat-Pack vibe that just walking through the door will make you thirsty for a martini. The relatively small food menu packs in some steaks, caviar, and a few throwback sandwiches, all with modern flourishes. But what gets 'em there in the first place is usually the burger.
Little Jack's has been lauded as one of 2016's and 2017's best restaurants by Southern Living and Bon Appétit, respectively, and the burger won top prize at this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash — a contest that doesn't mess around. Yes, there's a double-pattied version on the menu, but Amato likes the perfect formula behind the regular burger so much, he suggests you order two of those instead, or maybe try one as a digestif. (After all, the signature tavern burger appears on the appetizer, entree, and dessert sections of the menu.)
With its small stature and short list of ingredients, it's an endearing little sandwich. But it's also a killer. Let's dissect:
"We wanted something a little bigger than a slider, but something you could easily hold in your hands," Amato says, "something to remind you of a classic diner burger." Amato knows that if you can hold your sandwich instead of wrestling with it, you can reflect on it and appreciate its wholeness. "It's a cheeseburger," he says. "That's what it is. We don't add bacon, or a fried egg, or even lettuce and tomato. We want the textures and flavors to come through in each bite, and that translates in a burger this size."
These deliciously squishy rolls were specially designed for the Little Jack's burger by Chip Plaistowe of Pane Di Vita in West Ashley. The texture was especially important to Amato. "You don't need to fight it to get to your meat, and it has to be tender with just a little chew to it," he says. "Plus, we developed a size for the perfect bun-to-meat ratio for our patties." The sesame seeds that stud the buns were a given, too — no classic burger would be complete without them. The buns are delivered fresh daily. Just before serving, they're buttered and seared on the flat top next to the burger to toast and caramelize the inside of the bun without drying it out or sacrificing that satisfying squishiness.
"With the flat top, you get that smashed, crispy, crusty patty that's really what this burger's all about," Amato says. The thin, 4-ounce round of certified Angus beef is a 50/50 blend of chuck and brisket, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Though they don't grind the meat in-house, Amato says they experimented with lots of different blends and ratios before settling on something that has enough fat to keep the meat tender but is lean enough so that there's not a bunch of juice running down and sogging the bottom bun.
It's American cheese — and strictly speaking, no, it's not government cheese. "The slice is a little thicker than a Kraft Single," says Amato. During development, the crew never even considered topping the burger with swiss or cheddar. "American was the only choice," he says. "Not everyone will admit it, because it's considered inferior to other cheeses, but almost everyone loves a slice of American cheese from time to time." The slice is slightly oversized so that it melts down and cloaks most of the exposed patty in velvety cheese.
Once they'd nailed down the most pressing variables, Amato and company looked to the special sauce department. "We wanted to have a hallmark sauce that was more than just mixing together ketchup and mayonnaise or slathering on some thousand island dressing," Amato says. "So instead of the traditional dill or pickle relish that goes in a Thousand Island-style sauce, I played around with sunchokes and pickled them."
He added that relish to a mixture of garlic, ketchup, mayonnaise, and a special hot sauce, and the earthiness and depth of the sunchokes took the sauce to new heights. "We knew it was good," Amato says. "It's nutty, sweet, tangy — everything you could want in a burger sauce. It stuck." Now people order sides of the sauce with pretty much everything on the menu.
Informal crews, like the guys from Edmund's Oast, sometimes come in and throw their own private burger-eating contests. "I think the most eaten in 10 minutes was eight," says Amato, who occasionally hosts some little eat-offs among his staff after work, just for fun. But you don't have to stuff them in to do it right; Amato says people split burgers all the time as an appetizer. No matter how you do it, he hopes you'll come in to check it out yourself. "Plus," he points out, "we're not just a burger joint. We do have this whole other menu ..."