I'm officially on record as being leery of the recent gourmet burger craze — the tendency to pile huge patties high with all sorts of high-falutin' toppings, like pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes and shove them into buns made of pretzel dough or studded with poppy seeds.
This isn't a matter of religious conviction, though, and it's important to test one's theories periodically and make sure they hold up to empirical scrutiny. The Charleston Burger Co., a small independent joint in the Bees Ferry Shopping Center way out toward the Ashley River plantations, is the kind of place where one can do just that. In fact, it might be more appropriate to call it the Charleston Burger Lab, for the format is set up perfectly for in-depth burger experimentation.
What makes for a good burger? Is it the way the patty is cooked? The bun on which it's served? The condiments and dressings piled on top? The extras served alongside? At Charleston Burger Co., you can control each variable in the equation.
Start with a basic burger ($7.50) and one of two bun choices: a hefty sesame kaiser or soft, seedless brioche. You can have the patty (7-oz. Angus beef) cooked on an open grill or "smashed" on a flat top griddle. There are 30 toppings to choose from, mix-and-match style at 75 cents apiece, ranging from the traditional (American cheese, bacon, chili) to the way-out-there (pickled okra, sour cream, pulled pork, habañero salsa). On the side, there's a choice of fries or housemade potato chips or, for an extra $1.50, onion rings.
For those of a less creative bent there are 14 pre-defined combinations. Some won't raise any eyebrows, like the Classic ($7.50) with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles or the Texan ($9.50), with chili, coleslaw, diced onion, and cheddar. Others seem brash double-dog-dares. The Mikey Likes It ($9) has coleslaw, thin-sliced pastrami, and Swiss. The Mac Attack layers on homemade mac-n-cheese and applewood bacon ($8.50). The Kitchen Sink ($10.50) has everything but ... well, you get it: fried egg, griddled ham, sautéed onions and mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon, and three kinds of cheese.
The Charleston Burger Co.'s motto is "bigger better burgers," and that can easily be transformed into a hypothesis that you can test through rigid application of the scientific method: bigger burgers are better.
Experiment No. 1: the Killer Beehive ($9.50), an outright monstrosity. The patty is placed on the bottom bun then topped with American cheese, several slices of bacon, and four gigantic thick-battered onion rings, each at least two inches tall and stacked one on top of the other to create a soaring tower, held in place by two long wooden skewers. The whole assemblage is drizzled with rivulets of bright-red honey barbecue sauce, giving it the appearance of an erupting volcano rather than a beehive. The damn thing is well over a foot tall, even without the top bun, which is served off to the side.
Let's admit it: this is a stunt burger, one that seems calculated to make diners gasp when it arrives and declare, "How on earth am I going to eat that thing?"
The truth of the matter is that you really can't, even if you had special tools or the freakish ability to unhinge your jaw. Our best solution was to remove the top three onion rings and put them to the side in the basket, then place the top bun over the one remaining ring and mash the whole thing together. Even then, it left a gigantic orb of a burger as tall as it was wide and a chore to eat, but the crispy onion rings do merge together with the meat and bacon and cheese and make for a tasty enough burger to pass muster.
Experiment No. 2: a slider ($4). A little round roll holding a thin 3-oz. patty topped with cheese, lettuce, and tomato. My older son gave it a big thumbs up. "I think it was awesome" was the exact quote. To a grown-up palate, the sliders are perfectly acceptable, but far inferior to the big beefy bite you get from a full-sized burger. So, there is a lower boundary below which things can be too small.
Far more experimentation ensued, but let's cut to the final analysis.
Taken in isolation, the char-grilled patty has a leg up on the "smashed" griddled variety, especially if you like a little red in your meat. It's much thicker when cooked, and it stays juicy and pink in the middle if you order it medium-rare, whereas the much thinner smashed patty has, at best, just a trace of color.
The sesame kaiser looks fancier, but in practice it's not as pliable and tends to collapse to pieces and leave you with a fork burger. Not so the softer brioche, which holds together better as all the other ingredients ooze into it and things get messy.
Ultimately, you must judge the totality of the final package, not the individual elements. The top results were produced with an All-American ($8) topped with a generous slice of white American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions, and pickles. Patty griddled. Brioche bun. There was one necessary adjustment: the removal of the thicker of the two tomato slices, which added too much heft. Once it was expelled, the whole thing smooshed down nicely and adhered into a single consolidated whole that was delightful to consume.
In the end, the trial results seem to call into question the Charleston Burger Co.'s own motto: bigger isn't necessarily better. For me, it reaffirms my conviction that the burger world needs to get back to the simple roots of a good old-fashioned cheeseburger, like a smashed Classic on a brioche bun.
That conclusion is supported by other details. Charleston Burger Co.'s onion rings are as outsized as the Killer Beehive. The big discs of white onion are a good two inches thick, and they're soaked in buttermilk and tossed with flour right before hitting the hot oil. The resulting fried rings are encased in a fluffy, crisp shell — the sort of light, crisp batter you associate with fried fish. The eight or so that you get with a side order look really impressive when they first arrive at the table, and the first bite is pretty good, too.
But when you subject them to a longitudinal study, the more mundane-looking French fries win out. When they first arrive they are blazing hot from the fryer, sprinkled with a sharp celery-tinged seasoning salt, and you tend to ignore them in favor of the big burger alongside.. As they cool, though, the two or three fries you purloin from your dining companions really grow on you, and by the end of the basket you find yourself horse-trading a couple of those massive onion rings for a handful of seductive fries.
My findings definitely need to be peer reviewed, but the mix-n-match menu makes it easy for interested students to replicate my tests and come up with their own burger experiments.