In times of stress we tend to turn to the familiar, the comforting, the tried and true. We tend to lose our sense of adventure and seek out convention. Think about that question we chefs love to toss around; what is your favorite meal from your youth?
For me it’s going to be my mom’s fried chicken with mashed potatoes and milk gravy. She tossed the cut pieces of chicken in a heavily seasoned paper bag full of flour, salt, and pepper, fried them in a cast iron skillet, finished them in the oven while she mashed the potatoes and stirred her milk gravy to life in the same skillet. Bits and pieces of crunchy flour, chicken skin and warm milk became a comforting balm that soothed the sting of childhood’s misdeed or blunder. Mom grew up in central Mexico and we lived in south Louisiana so her fried chicken was a rare and welcome treat in my culinary landscape.
Fried chicken aside, ask any American what their go to meal in a time of stress would be and I’ll bet a hefty percentage would say a cheeseburger and fries. Since first appearing at Wisconsin’s Seymour Fair in 1885 as a meatball squished between two slices of bread, we can’t seem to get enough burgers. From miniature fast food style that can be had for a couple dollars to luxurious burgers stuffed with foie gras and braised shortrib, the burger has fascinated us. And properly done it can be a thing of beauty. Which begs the question, where can one find the “best” burger in our fair city?
Well let’s think about this for a minute. Since it’s me, your quasi-famous professional chef/travel writer/author/james beard nominee yada, yada, yada there’s got to be some standards. And I’ve asked Greenville’s most loved (she does have more kids than our town’s second most loved food writer) food writer, Ariel Turner, to chime in with her opinion as well.
Now first let’s unpack the descriptive “best.” So much of a great food experience is contextual. Suppose you’re dining with great friends, folks you haven’t seen in a few years, you’re in a new town, sitting outside on a gorgeous day, plenty of time to enjoy food, wine and the company of your friends. At times like that, a simple meal with gracious hospitality may seem world class, even if you’re just enjoying a dish of spaghetti and meatballs. Likewise a great dish in a four star restaurant served impeccably can be remembered only for the discouraging event that occurred right before you sat down. With that in mind let’s say I went looking for the most ethereal example of the classic cheeseburger plate. Crunchy lettuce, a generous pickle, a lightly seasoned, hopefully hand-formed patty of fresh beef, cheese that doesn’t overpower the beef, and crisp fries. Why no tomato? Well unless it’s summer and there’s local tomato on the plate, I don’t bother.
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So. In order to qualify for my research the cheeseburger plate had to meet at least one of four criteria: house made bun, house ground beef, house made fries using the proper two-step method, wood or charcoal grill. And I thought this would narrow things down to a handful of places. It ended up being two handfuls, which is why this will be a two-part essay.
These guys get major points for an extensive craft beer selection and friendly, punctual service. As for the burger, their fries are delicious and properly crisp, their buns are toasted in the grill, and there’s a variety of toppings available such as fried onions. They grind their own beef from a mix of brisket, shortrib and chuck and the patties are a pleasing shape and texture. They serve a delicious burger with house ground beef and proper fries. At 8 ounces this is a hefty meal and suitable for your day off.
Oof! Lots of beef here. More than eight ounces? Maybe. Two patties of freshly ground beef fortified with Benton’s bacon, slices of American cheese, a bun baked locally and fries made from blanched Pontiac red potatoes. This burger isn’t for the faint of heart and I wouldn’t try to eat one of these by myself again, much less go to work after having one for lunch, because I did. That being said it’s also quite delicious and a perfect homage to the Krystal or Steak & Shake style burgers of yesterday.
Well what’s not to like here? Locally raised beef from Greenbrier Farms, a nice toasted bun, hand cut fries tossed in salt, pepper, and vinegar powder, excellent service, and an admirable selection of wine and crafty beers to go with that burger. On the downside they garnish their patty with aioli (a fancy term for mayonnaise with herbs mixed in) and Arugala and their menu asks you not to substitute. Hey I love arugala and also believe aioli has its place, however, when it comes to burgers I prefer a few leaves of crunchy iceberg or Boston lettuce to the assertiveness of arugala.
When you consider the proper placement of a cheeseburger in America, it really is a working lunch. It’s vegetables, starches and protein all in a self-contained vehicle that’s easily transported, all you need is a waxed sheet of paper. Add in a spritely pickle spear and a handful of fried potatoes and it’s a complete meal, practically enough to carry one through their day.
Alex George approaches his burger with the same sense of place. His burger is a perfect homage to our blue collar ethos, extrapolated out to the Nth degree. Would you expect anything less from GB & D? A luxurious bun produced in his kitchen, beef ground on premises, and crispy hand cut fries that equal those at Five Guys. Add in a slice of American cheese and a frothy craft brew from his neighbors at Community Tap and you’ve got an amazing, handcrafted meal of Americana. Is it the best, most authentic burger in Greenville?
Perhaps. Round Two, hopefully after this whole stress test from CV passes, will feature Kitchen Sync, Hip Burger, Woodside Bistro and Southern Growl.
This another in a new series of essays from our friend John Malik.
Extremely accomplished, John is a James Beard Society nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, has published a novel Doughnuts for Amy and you can find his essays on Food, Travel, and the culinary scene of the Southeast in the Huffington Post. John is currently Chef of the Loft at Soby’s.
We are extremely excited to have John contribute monthly essays for iOnGreenville!
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