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They may have done away with the flair, but Charleston restaurants can't quit the burger

The Rise of the Ubiquitous Burger

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Way back in June 2012, I wrote a piece for the City Paper examining what I termed "Serious Burgers." At the time, Charleston was gripped by full-on burger mania. At the high end, downtown restaurants like Oak Steakhouse were topping custom-grind patties with fontina and foie gras. On the low, fast food chains vied to cram the most slices of commodity bacon possible between beef and bun.

But the Serious Burger was something different. Hovering between the two poles, it tried to elevate the humble burger without resorting to Gilded Age excess. A parade of burger-centric restaurants had just opened, boasting a dozen or more specialty creations. Chefs obsessed over beef grinds and custom-baked buns threw everything but the kitchen sink at them, producing towering monstrosities loaded down with previously unimaginable toppings like onion rings and crab cakes.

Ever the contrarian, I aired my beef with the Serious Burger and demanded a reformation, "a casting off of extravagant gourmet trappings and a return to a simpler, more fundamental cheeseburger."

And guess what? People actually listened.

Well, maybe they didn't actually listen to me. I can't claim to have launched a movement, but I was hardly alone in my growing Serious Burger fatigue. A burger reformation was brewing.

The wave crests

Serious Burgers kept surging through 2012. That fall, Umami Burger — a much-praised West Coast pioneer — opened its first outlet in New York. Gothamites went ape shit for it. Frank Bruni of the New York Times explained the appeal, noting that: For many years you could get "venerated burgers" in fast-food joints and "fancy riffs" in upscale restaurants, but it had been hard to find "a carefully made, determinedly original burger at a casual place."

It wasn't limited to culinary hotspots like Charleston and New York, either. Gourmet burger chains — BurgerFi, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Bobby's Burger Place from TV chef Bobby Flay — were sprouting like mushrooms across the country ("It's not fast food," Flay insisted. "It's fast casual.") American-inspired burger bars were even popping up in distant backwaters like Milan and Paris.

Here in Charleston, our beefy passions only grew. In November 2015, the City Paper published its inaugural Burger Week issue. "You can't throw a pickle in this town without hitting a burger," then-editor Kinsey Gidick observed. "The classic beef sandwich is on nearly every menu in Charleston, from dive bars to fine-dining restaurants." CP writers probed burger-making theory, surveyed super-sized fast food obscenities, and catalogued proper wine and cocktail pairings for Charleston's favorite sandwich.

Burger Week came back the following year, and every year since. When Geoff Yost tallied the numbers for the 2016 issue, he fingered the $29 "Surf & Turf" burger at Charleston Place's Palmetto Cafe, topped with lobster and Bearnaise, as the city's most expensive (and, I might add, most ridiculous.)

At 492, Josh Keeler was turning heads with the 492 Burger — two dense patties of local beef and crisp bacon on fresh-baked milk buns with a river of gooey mornay sauce cascading down the sides. The Tavern Burger at McCrady's Tavern debuted in 2016, too — a secret blend of beef dry-aged for 45 to 60 days, doused in aged smoked beef fat, and topped with a blend of homemade "American" cheese and Béarnaise.

But the foundation was beginning to crack.

The Serious Burger craze has been replaced by less frou frou renditions, like the Little Jack’s Tavern Burger - RUTA SMITH FILE PHOTO
  • Ruta Smith file photo
  • The Serious Burger craze has been replaced by less frou frou renditions, like the Little Jack’s Tavern Burger

The backlash

The year 2016 was also when Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink opened Little Jack's Tavern, and they insisted upon serving "an old-school burger," albeit a gussied up one. Their chef, John Amato, created something that was small in size — a four-ounce patty made from a 50/50 blend of chuck and brisket — and abjured frilly trappings like bacon and eggs. It didn't even have lettuce and tomato, just a soft, squishy bun — custom-baked and sized for optimal bread-to-beef ratio — topped with an oversized slice of American cheese and homemade "special sauce."

Reitz and Mink were hardly alone in the turn toward simplicity. Four of the 11 chefs CP surveyed in 2017 named Little Jack's their favorite burger in town. The other picks were decidedly downscale, too: the $4 foil-wrapped cheeseburger at Torres Superette, the old school burger at Melvin's Barbecue. Not even FIG's Jason Stanhope, a freaking James Beard Award winner, would endorse putting foie gras and truffles on a burger. His pick: the classic version at the now-defunct Blues Cajun Kitchen, which he declared "an unpretentious back porch style burger on an awesome sourdough bun."

McCrady's Tavern and 492 are now sadly departed, their mornay- and Béarnaise-draped burgers relics of an overly indulgent past. But the Tavern Burger at Little Jack's is still going strong.

Local burgermeisters have also retreated from excessive choice. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when my wife and I sat down at the bar at Sesame Burgers & Beer in Mt. Pleasant and contemplated their burger menu, which now seems like a throwback to an earlier era.

It's an impressive matrix of options, with five columns of patties (cow, elk, chicken, turkey, black bean) and 16 rows of pre-selected topping combinations, like the Park Circle with cheddar, coleslaw, chipotle BBQ, and tomatoes. Along the bottom there's a choice of four buns: brioche, whole wheat, ciabatta, and gluten-free.

By my math, that's 320 different burgers to choose from, not counting the daily special and the build-your-own-burger wildcard with 33 different toppings. I finally set the menu aside, my brain reeling with permutations and combinations.

"How about this," I asked the bartender. "A medium-rare burger — cow — with American cheese, red onion, tomato, mayo, and mustard on a regular bun."

"You mean the brioche bun?" she asked.

"Yes, brioche," I said. Only a sociopath would put a burger on ciabatta.

The sandwich that arrived on my plate was absolutely delicious, and it got me thinking. Sesame is one of Charleston's OG Serious Burger joints — one of only a handful of the burger-centric restaurants that I name checked in my 2012 article that are still in business.

It's doesn't harm anyone for Sesame to offer hundreds of combinations, and as far as I'm concerned they're welcome to keep fig-and-bacon jam and goat cheese boursin in the cooler on the off chance that a guest might want to slather them on a burger. But it's far more the norm these days for a restaurant to offer just a couple of burger choices — and maybe even just one.

The now gone-but-not-forgotten burgers of Blues Cajun Kitchen - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo
  • The now gone-but-not-forgotten burgers of Blues Cajun Kitchen

The ubiquitous burger

This doesn't mean that we are eating fewer burgers in Charleston these days. Quite the opposite. The bells and whistles may have been tamped down, but there are now more good burgers available than ever before. In fact, I would argue that we have entered the age of the Ubiquitous Burger.

Back in 2012, eating a Serious Burger was something of a transgressive act, especially when said burger was cooked rare and loaded up with gooey cheese, fatty bacon, and yolk-oozing eggs — everything the nutritional nabobs had been scolding us about for decades. But such things quickly became normalized, and what once was a novel thrill ride has now become an obligatory menu staple.

Rare is a brunch menu that doesn't feature a burger, topped with an egg, of course, but only to check the breakfast box. Last fall, Minero — the epitome of the Serious Taco joint — declared Wednesday to be burger night, featuring two thin patties (a blend of beef and chorizo) with Hatch chile-laced special sauce and white American cheese on a Brown's Court brioche bun.

At the Darling Oyster Bar, a burger (single or double patty, cheddar) lurks amid the raw bivalves and lobster rolls. If you grow weary of pulled pork or slow-smoked brisket, Home Team BBQ and Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint can hook you up with a tasty burger, too. (As can Bessinger's and Melvin's, though those half-century-old establishments had old-school burgers on the menu back when they were new-school.)

Even our French-inspired restaurants are not averse to le cheeseburger. The Fat Hen on Johns Island serves grilled hamburgers with pommes frites. You can snag a gooey raclette burger at Félix or a Brasserie Burger with roquefort or gruyère at 39 Rue de Jean. Sacré bleau!

The upside to the Ubiquitous Burger is clear: more burgers in more places. They're likely to be really tasty, too — a far cry from the upsized versions of a kid's menu hamburger that far too many sit-down restaurants tended to serve just a decade ago.

But I see a downside, too. The Ubiquitous Burger is always there, tempting us with its carefully executed ratio of fresh-ground beef, melty cheese, and smooshy roll. Confronted with a selection of unfamiliar preparations and ingredients from around the globe, it's all too easy to fall back to the familiar. "Screw it. I'll just have the burger."

More and more, I feel that pull myself. I travel all over for work, and I try to make the most of my dining opportunities on the road: checking out the local barbecue joints, hitting a high-end bistro or two, sampling whatever specialties the town is famous for.

But, like many travelers, my adventurousness has its limits. We all need a fallback meal, the default you turn to when you're tired and dispirited and not up to tracking down the latest entry on the local Eater Heat Map. My fallback used to be Buffalo chicken wings, which can be found in hotel bars from Boston to San Diego. Even if they aren't great (and, be honest, when have you ever had a great chicken wing?) they're at least reliably good.

Not anymore. These days, when those dark, lonely nights descend, I'll retreat back to my hotel, grab a seat at the bar, and order a burger. You won't see it pop up in my Instagram feed — hotel burgers are hardly FOMO-inspiring — but I'm rarely disappointed.

I guess I have all those Serious Burgers to thank for it.

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