With but two moving parts, the basic hamburger is one of the simplest foods around, on a par with the hot dog, and simpler than the dough-sauce-cheese triad of plain pizza. Still, identifying the best hamburger in New Jersey is no simple task, especially because chefs have come to treat the premium burger as blank canvas—or as upwardly mobile missile, deploying its payload of exotic beef blends, caramelized onions, aged cheeses and farmstead bacons into the culinary blue yonder.
We considered fanning teams of tasters across the state to report on state of the art bur-gers. Such sampling is essential with pizza (see NJM cover story, February 2010), brunch (February 2009), diners (February 2008) and the cornucopia of cheap eats (February 2007), because those are not readily moveable feasts. Meaning you can’t easily bring them to one location for a cook-off to determine the best.
The hamburger, though, is a free spirit. Even in its most elaborate form, the ingredients are easily transported, and the three main ways of cooking it—on a griddle, over a flame grill or in a pan on a stove—require only standard equipment found in most professional kitchens. So the idea began to take shape: Hold a one-day battle for bragging rights among some of the best burgers in New Jersey.
The first requirement was a central location. New Brunswick made sense. Then we needed a partner. We lucked out with the people from the Heldrich Hotel. The Heldrich is new and handsome, and the dining facilities are first-rate, with a huge behind-the-scenes prep area, an attractive open kitchen and a private dining room where we could sequester the judges for what would be a blind tasting.
We recruited an expert panel of five tasters—Time.com food columnist Josh Ozersky, author of three books, including The Hamburger; NJM’s in-the-know Table Hopping with Rosie blogger, Rosie Saferstein; NJM restaurant reviewer and veteran food writer Pat Tanner; George Faison, one of the founders of the specialty meat company D’Artagnan and partner and chief operating officer of the premium meat purveyor DeBragga & Spitler; and NJM editor Ken Schlager, a dedicated fresser with a picky palate. [Here, meat maven Ozersky sings the praises of the simplest, humblest and most affordable burger, the White (Castle-Rose-Diamond-Manna-Mana) slider.]
Next came the toughest part—deciding which rest-aurants to invite, and how many. After talking with the judges and other foodies, we decided 10 hamburgers was the most that could humanely be fed to sentient beings in a single seating before palates pooped out and tummys trembled.
So which ten? We wanted, first of all, a geographical mix of North, Central and South. We wanted a range of restaurants, from crowd-pleasing pubs to fine-dining establishments, with maybe a diner or specialty joint thrown in. We wanted places that pride themselves on their burgers, that sell a lot of them, that have won praise and maybe even awards for their burgers. We wanted some from among perennial winners in our annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant and Best Of Jersey polls.
At last the competitors were chosen and the day of the Great Burger Showdown arrived—a Monday, when many restaurants are closed, making it easier for chefs to spend half a day in transit and competition (all except the crew at Christopher’s, who would be competing in their home kitchen at the Heldrich, and Stage Left in New Brunswick, who merely had to cross the street). Furthest South: Lucky Bones, Cape May. Furthest North: The Iron Horse, Westwood. Furthest East: Frankie’s, Point Pleasant Beach. Furthest West: Vincentown Diner, Vincentown.
The call was for 11:30 am. Pulling wheeled coolers, chefs began arriving an hour before that. Each was allowed to bring a helper or two. Owners could tag along; some made themselves useful slicing tomatoes and toasting buns, while others paced. In two instances—Zod Arifai of Next Door in Montclair and Evan Blomgren of Rocky Hill Inn in Rocky Hill—the owner is the chef. In one case, the owner, Lee Tremble of Iron Horse, is father of the chef, Sean Tremble. Pop, who is white-bearded and burly and wore a pink baseball cap, kept up a cheerful patter.
First order of business was drawing lots to determine in which order the chefs would cook. The Christopher’s kitchen supplied an iron pot into which 10 numbered, sealed chits were tossed, and chefs took turns plucking one out. As it happened, Christopher’s drew number 1. Whether that was an advantage (judges would be fresh) or a disadvantage (by the time nine more burgers were tasted, how much would be remembered about number 1?) nobody could say. Copeland drew number 10 (palette fatigue or the power of the last word?). Would the middle contestants get lost in the shuffle?
There was no chance of that. Not with these judges. Saferstein may be small (4 feet 10 inches) but, she said, only half joking, “They call me Big Mouth.” Tanner eats about 130 restaurant meals a year, plus cooks at home. Faison can discuss flavor and marbling of every cut of meat, characteristics of different cattle breeds and finishing diets, and aging and curing methods until, so to speak, the cows come home. Ozersky is a carnivore’s carnivore, built like a linebacker and blessed with a palate as decisive as the swing of a butcher’s cleaver. One bite, maybe two, and he pronounces judgment. Schlager is Everyman, but with an editor’s eyeshade.
As soon as the judges arrived they were whisked into the private dining room, where they remained, except for bathroom breaks. Their places were set with knives and forks, linen napkins and glasses of sparkling water for palate cleansing. They weren’t told who the competitors were. Burgers were identified for them only by number on information sheets that listed each burger’s ingredients.
The cooking was set up so that each chef’s five burgers would be tasted at their peak, within seconds of coming off the grill. Once lots were drawn, the chefs repaired to the rear kitchen to prep. As soon as number 1 (Jason Zimmerman of Christopher’s) was ready, he took to the grill and started cooking. The minute his burgers were plated, placed on a tray and carried to the judges by Heldrich food and beverage director Gershon, the next chef took his place in the open kitchen at his choice of stove, griddle or grill.
Most of the entries were proven crowd-pleasers leaping directly from the menus of their respective restaurants. The Christopher’s team, however, had brainstormed, inventing new burgers just for the contest. “We did a six-burger tasting on Friday,” declared one of the team. “The winner was incredibly juicy.”
It was also incredibly complex, involving a Texas toast (aka thick-sliced) brioche bun with toppings of caramelized shallots, oven-dried “teardrop” tomatoes, bone marrow aioli, braised short rib meat and fried parsley. Nonetheless, it made a strong first impression. “I would take a trip to eat this burger,” said Ozersky, who in fact had done just that. (An Atlantic City native, he now lives in Brooklyn.) “I would be surprised if this burger is not in my top three.”
Entry number 2 was the signature burger of the Rocky Hill Inn, topped with cheddar, grilled onions, bacon and the surprise of a sunnyside-up egg. “The yolk gets all gooey and that’s what makes the burger good,” explained chef/owner Evan Blomgren, expertly cracking eggs onto the griddle with one hand. The burger was served open-face, top bun on the side.
In the judges’ room, Faison clapped the lid on and lifted it to his lips. “A breakfast burger!” he enthused. “Here we go.” It was big, and Saferstein had trouble getting her hands around it. The judges did like its looks. “Maybe there is something to be said for appearance scores,” said Ozersky. Still, he jotted down on his score sheet, “Hard to eat.”
Third up were the road warriors of Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, who had driven more than 120 miles to set before the judges a blend of ground chuck, short rib and skirt steak. “People want something new,” said chef Sean McCullough, “and I think we’re giving that to them with this blend.” Like all the chefs, McCullough had to get the feel of the flame broiler, which he estimated to be running at 350 to 400 degrees. “It’s hot!” he said. At that temperature, all six burgers (one in each batch was sent to the photographers for a portrait, followed by freelance nibbling) cooked in about eight minutes or less. Schlager, lifting his top bun, examined the patty and said, “I like the char.”
The panel’s Burger number 4 was dubbed the “French Onion” by its makers from Burger Deluxe in Wayne. “We get the idea from the French onion soup,” said partner Zeki Yesilyurt. “We caramelize our onions with the white wine and thyme and then we add some nice beef broth in there. And then we simmer the onions slowly until real nice.” The French onions were slipped underneath the patty, which was topped with Gruyere cheese and a crispy/tangy parmesan crust. The judges thought there was too much beef stock in the onions, which made for a wet bottom.
Coincidentally, the French onion theme returned in Burger number 5 (chef Oleg Zelenko and the Vincentown Diner). The burger had crispy, deep-fried frizzled onions instead of simmered French ones, but each came with what looked like a cup of soup—actually beef and chicken stock jus. Zelenko declared it “my little secret, French onion soup minus onions.” The burger had other talking points: all the competitors’ rolls were toasted, Zelenko’s were buttered as well; the patties were topped with melted Swiss cheese and a squiggle of creamy horseradish sauce; the patty was of 100 percent Jersey-raised grass-fed beef, which is naturally leaner than grain-finished beef.
“It’s a very original concept,” Ozersky said. “And the chef has avoided the folly of lettuce and tomato.” One judge cut his in half and dipped an end into the steaming jus. But after taking a bite his comment concerned the patty. “It’s a bit too lean,” he said. “It needs more fat.” “I’m sorry,” Tanner countered. “This chef knew what he was doing. He has exactly the right proportions of everything.”
To help the judges keep track, one of each sampled burger was lined up along the edge of the long table when the other plates were removed. We were now halfway through. Five partly consumed bur-gers formed a disheveled chorus line. The judges were wisely pacing themselves, resisting the urge to take extra bites of the ones they liked best.
In came number 6. Compared to the teetering towers that had preceded it, this one, from chef Zod Arifai’s Next Door, was broad but compact. Ozersky, showing his expertise, seized on a truth about Arifai’s burger. “This is from a black pan,” he announced. “Whoever made this used clarified butter in a hot pan.” Topped just with partly melted cheddar (partial melting retains more cheese flavor, Arifai later explained) and caramelized onions, this burger, declared Saferstein, “isn’t overwhelming. You can enjoy it. I love the bun. These onions are really good.” Faison noted, “the cheese has a more pronounced flavor than what we’ve been having.”
Ozersky was the most enthusiastic. “This is a perfectly constructed burger,” he said. “We haven’t had one where the cheese and bun just perfectly complement the burger and create a transparency. Not only that, but look at the crust. It’s perfect mahogany from edge to edge.” Mr. One Bite then gave the ultimate compliment: “I ate more than I needed to. It’s just so easy going down.”
Unknown to the judges, burger number 7—at 11 ounces the biggest of the day—was at a slight disadvantage. Coming from Stage Left, which is across the street from the Heldrich, it is normally cooked over an applewood fire, which produces a lot of smoke when the fat drips down, imparting a smoky taste to the meat. For the competition, chef J.R. Belt started the patties on the wood fire, “marking” them, before bringing them across the street to be finished on the Heldrich’s gas grill. One of the judges declared it “the best beef I’ve had yet today, but it’s not cooked properly. It’s nearly raw inside. There is a certain temperature you have to hit.” Dressed with thick slices of tomato and red onion, plus lettuce, plus that thick patty, the burger was one of the tallest of the day. Commented another judge, “This is like the new building they just put up in Abu Dhabi.”
The judges faulted burger number 8, from Frankie’s in Point Pleasant Beach, for being overcooked, though it did have a beautiful char and mouth-watering lava flows of glossy cheddar. One judge didn’t care for the kaiser roll.
The ninth, from the Iron Horse, was given points for “the great aroma from the fresh basil,” two judges noted. But the panel didn’t care for the mozzarella with which the patty was stuffed, deeming it “gummy.”
The final burger, with its beautiful dark char and glistening toasted bun, was judged perhaps the most attractive of the day. Hopes ran high that it would be a grand slam. Instead, as the panelists bit into it, number 10 (from Copeland in Morristown) struck out. The patty was nearly raw inside. “That’s not what I wanted for the last one,” a judge said reprovingly.
The judges had been giving each burger point scores in five categories: bun, patty, toppings, appearance and overall edibility. Now they totalled up the scores, then assigned each burger a final rank, from one to ten. The results were tallied and the burgers were ranked accordingly.
Rocky Hill Inn took fourth place with a score of 25 points. Three other burgers tied with the day’s best scores, so the judges used first-place votes as tie-breakers. Burgers 1 (Christopher’s in the Heldrich) and 7 (Stage Left) each had one first-place vote. The judges—still not knowing the identities of the contestants—held a run-off vote between the two, which resulted in Stage Left finishing third and Christopher’s second. A strong performance by the two New Brunswick restaurants.
There was no doubt about the overall winner. Burger number 6 (Zod Arifai’s Next Door) got three first-place votes.
It was the simplest burger of the day. Just the patty, caramelized onions and aged Vermont cheddar. Actually, there was one other ingredient, which Arifai called critical—salt.
“Salting is the most important element in any cooking,” he said. “You can have the best meat, best fish, best vegetables, but if you don’t salt properly it won’t taste good. And,” he added, “it’s just as important not to oversalt as not to undersalt.”
After the four winners were announced to good-natured applause, the chefs, NJM staffers, photographers and videographers dispersed. The judges went on their way. My competition organizer duties done, I had a strange hankering for a hamburger.