It happened a few weeks ago when I stopped in to check out the gourmet burgers at Pawley's Front Porch, which just opened in Mt. Pleasant's Belle Hall shopping center. I ordered a beer and scanned the menu, considering first a basic Front Porch burger with just cheese ($9.50) or the daring Beaufort ($10) with a fried egg, apple-cured ham, and onion rings on top. I ended up going with the Caw Caw Creek burger ($10), which the menu declares in red letters to be "Chef's Kyle Favorite."
It arrived at my table in dramatic fashion, a huge steak knife plunged square into the heart of the massive burger, as if it had done a grave wrong to someone in the kitchen. I picked up the ciabatta bun with both hands and rotated it, surveying its circumference and planning my angle of assault.
And suddenly I felt compelled to stand up, cast down my massive burger, and yell, "Enough!"
I didn't actually do that, mind you, but I thought hard about it as I dug in and began working my way through the meaty patty and the tangy disks of pickled green tomatoes and the thick layer of jalapeño pimento cheese. The reaction had nothing to do with the quality of Pawley's burgers. They are quite tasty, and it's not just me saying it. Just last month Southern Living named the Wadmalaw, with chipotle barbecue sauce, fried pickles, bacon, and cheddar, one of South Carolina's top 10 burgers.
But when you get right down to it, how many more gourmet burger joints does our city really need?
Not all gourmet burgers are created equally. There's the unalloyed rich bastard version, a bizarre fusion that takes the modest hamburger sandwich and drives it uptown in a stretch limo. The most infamous example was once the $32 "db Burger" from Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne in New York City — a towering monstrosity of a ground sirloin patty stuffed with braised short rib, foie gras, and black truffles. Last fall, though, Los Angeles' Umami Burger upped the ante with its "Money is No Object" burger, which tops single-cow Wagyu beef with foie gras and a 1977 Croft Port reduction that will run you a cool C-note.
Charleston has a few conspicuous consumption burgers of its own, like the $18 Kobe beef burger at Grill 225, which is topped with sautéed Vidalias and sherried parmesan mushrooms. Not to be outdone, Oak Steakhouse puts arugula and fontina cheese on a brioche bun for their $17 Oak Burger, and for an extra three bucks they'll slather on foie gras butter for that added touch of luxury.
These are the sorts of things that I suppose appeal to men who drive $200,000 Maseratis with vanity plates that say "My Toy" and consider running up a restaurant tab to be a form of competitive sport. Way down on the other end of the spectrum, there's the poor schmuck's version, which takes things to similar extremes but in a much coarser sort of way. These are typified by Wendy's Baconator, an 820-calorie beast loaded with six slices of bacon, and Hardee's Southwest Patty Melt, which is buried under a zillion slices of jalapeños and hawked on TV by scantily clad women jawing them down in a most unsettlingly provocative way. It's a burger with all the class and sophistication of an all-male freshmen dorm.
The "Money is No Object" burger and the Baconator are the two extreme poles. In the middle is something more nuanced — a burger that aims at quality and not just wanton excess. I think it's time we gave it a name: the Serious Burger.
Some of city's most noted chefs have created their own Serious Burgers. At Husk, Sean Brock serves his lardcore homage to California's In-N-Out Burger, two thin patties of local grass-fed beef with Benton's bacon ground into it, cooked in a wood-fired oven and layered with American cheese, pickles, and a secret special sauce. Over at the Macintosh, a permanent spot on Jeremiah Bacon's ever-rotating menu is reserved for "The Mac," a half-pound in-house ground burger with aged cheddar and Nueske's bacon on top. On Mondays at Cypress, charcuterie-master Craig Diehl pauses his pig butchery to knock out a few burgers for his $5 Burger Night on the bar menu, including one topped with pimento cheese and bacon jam.
But the most serious of the Serious Burger joints are the ones that build their entire menus around gourmet cheeseburgers. Sesame got the ball rolling in 2006 with a passionate made-in-house aesthetic in a modest restaurant just off North Charleston's Park Circle, and they've since added two more locations. I'm partial to Poe's Tavern, the beachfront burger shack whose Hop Frog burger (with barbecue sauce, applewood bacon, and Monterey Jack) is a nap-inducing work of genius.
In 2009, Rita's Seaside Grille on Folly brought the Serious Burger to the Edge of America, and around the same time, Triangle Char & Bar jettisoned its old steak- and pasta-centric menu in favor of a slate of burgers made with local grass-fed beef. Last year, a trio of new entrants — Ho¯M, Burger Babies, and Big Gun Burger Shop — opened in quick succession, blanketing the King Street area with Serious Burgers, too.
The phenomenon reached its northernmost outpost when Vino Burgerz in Mt. Pleasant started not just grilling up big fat burgers but also suggesting wine pairings for them, and it made its way as far west as Bees Ferry Road when the Charleston Burger Company opened earlier this year. Their "killer beehive" cheeseburger, topped with a tower of three huge onion rings drizzled in barbecue sauce, is over a foot tall, making it (for the time being, at least) the tallest burger in town. And, no, I have no idea how you manage to get the thing in your mouth, though I suspect it involves quite a lot of smooshing.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of Serious Burger joints occurred fast on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis and the economic downturn that followed. Once we figured out our houses would no longer function as mortgage-powered ATMs, those massive steak dinners with $80 bottles of red wine were suddenly out of reach. But we could still splurge in a more modest way with a massive burger and a mug of good beer.
The trend also coincided with a wider backlash against the nannying nabobs of nutrition. I suppose we could eat so many bowls of oat bran and sensible four-ounce portions of fish and lean chicken breast, and when we fell off the wagon we did so with a glorious bender. Want to really wallow in nutritional sin? Take a half-pound or more of hand-ground beef, cook it rare so it's really juicy (e coli be damned!), and top it with thick slices of bacon and a whole damn fried egg. Cook that egg over-easy so the yolk oozes over everything (salmonella be damned!), and if those bacon strips taste good, why not dial it up one more level and throw on a big slab of fatty pork belly?
If you want to get serious about your burgers, you have to get serious about every element. Like the meat — HoM grinds theirs from a custom blend of brisket, chuck, and short rib. And the bun — Liberty Tap Room bakes their brioche in-house. And the condiments — Sesame makes its own mustard, ketchup, and mayo, and Big Gun Burger Shop makes its own savory pickles.
The rise of the Serious Burger coincided with the craft beer boom, and no new Serious Burger shop is complete without a deep selection of high-gravity brews on tap. As a result, your typical night out for a burger and a couple of beers will now leave you stuffed to the gills and slightly schnockered.
And this brings us back to Pawley's Front Porch. The restaurant grinds its own beef each day, of course, using Angus chuck. The fries are hand-cut with little bits of crispy brown skin clinging to them, and even more impressive are their onion rings, which are ensconced in a wonderfully light and crisp batter that's slightly tinged with Frank's Red Hot sauce.
As the restaurant's name implies, there's a beach theme at play, and most of the burgers bear the names of coastal islands. There's the Fripp ($10) with salsa, Boursin cheese, and a fried green tomato, and the Kiawah ($10.50) with portobello, roasted peppers, and brie. Sullivan's Island (with grilled pineapple and guacamole, $10) and Isle of Palms (pimento cheese and jalapeño bacon, $10.50) are represented, but, curiously, there is no Folly Beach. If there were, of course, it would need to be topped with American cheese and Heinz 57, but such a poor schmuck version could never grace the menu at a properly serious Serious Burger joint.
Chef Kyle's favorite, the Caw Caw Creek, is the perfect embodiment of the reigning burger philosophy, which one might term "onemorism." This is the notion that if two or three things go well together, then adding one more must make it even better. If pimento cheese is good, then why not jalapeño pimento cheese? If bacon appeals, why not step it up to applewood-smoked bacon? Pickles and tomatoes are classics, so why not roll them together and create bread-and-butter green tomato pickles? This is a burger that goes up to 11.
But it doesn't quite work, and the reason, I think, reflects the fundamental flaw of the Serious Burger. It's a problem of proportion. "Gourmet" cheeseburgers tend to have upwards of eight ounces of beef in a patty that, depending upon the diameter, can range from an inch-thick disc to a fist-sized sphere. Most are served on thick, substantial buns. The accoutrements are piled high — fat tomato slices (sometimes green and fried), ropes of sautéed onions, handfuls of alfalfa sprouts — and the resulting sandwich is one that is usually quite a bit taller than it is wide
Individually, each of the ingredients composing the burger are excellent. Put together, they fight like cats and dogs. Perhaps it's because you have to work too hard to get the full assembly into your mouth, squeezing the bun and stretching your jaws as wide as possible. The cheese never seems to be melted all the way through, and toppings are always falling off left and right. Even with the moistness of medium-rare ground beef, such burgers can often seem dry, perhaps due to the excessive amount of bun that gets in the way.
And oh, those buns. At Pawley's Front Porch, you can choose among multi-grain, ciabatta, pretzel roll, or a "traditional sesame Kaiser." In a world where a sesame Kaiser is the "traditional" hamburger bun, you know something has gone awry.
In my book, the true cheeseburger experience is not about piling on the most exotic toppings nor even using the very best ingredients. Instead, it's all about taking basic, mundane components and putting them together in the proper balance.
You need a thick enough patty for a meaty bite, but not one so thick that you have to work to chew it. The bun should be fairly thin, too, so that you don't have to gnaw through three inches of bread to get to substance. The cheese needs to be melted — very melted — so that it fuses with the bun and the patty into a single consistent whole with each and every bite.
My favorite burgers are the 1960s drive-in style. These typically start with a quarter to a third of a pound of beef pressed into a wide, flat patty. The cooks use a sandwich press or a griddle to toast the bun after the burger has been assembled, guaranteeing a flat, hot burger with a slightly toasty top and bottom and fully melted cheese inside.
Maybe this is a matter of upbringing. I was raised in Greenville, home to some of the country's finest old-school cheeseburger joints, all of which for some reason seem to be named Pete's. There's Como's Pete's on Augusta Road, Pete's Number 7 on Wade Hampton Boulevard, Spero's Original Pete's on Pendleton Street (which isn't the original Pete's), and Pete's on Poinsett, which is about a mile from my old college apartment and kept me alive through several years of undergraduate study. It seems anyone named Pete will naturally know how to make great cheeseburgers — wide, flat, and toasted on a press — and his onion rings, chili dogs, and milkshakes will be pretty good, too.
Charleston, sadly, doesn't seem to have too many places like these. Johnny's in North Charleston's Park Circle is an old-school contender, while I'm still trying to get out to Summerville to check out Matt's Burgers, about which I've heard good reports.
Oddly enough, the best old-school burgers in town may be the ones made by the Bessinger brothers of barbecue fame. In 1999, Emeril Lagasse declared Melvin's version to be America's Best Cheeseburger, but I suspect he didn't stop by brother Thomas' place on Savannah Highway, whose burger is just a smidge superior. Sure, barbecue is front and center today, but inside the sandwich shop the burgers remain the same as they were back in the 1960s, when the place was called the Piggy Park Drive-In and offered curb service.
No, they don't grind their own custom blend of certified-fancy beef. The cheese is the humble yellow American variety, and the bun is probably made by Sunbeam or Merita. But that bun is toasted till it's flat and slightly crispy around the edges, and the one-third pound patty is thin and wide and enrobed in a smooth yellow jacket of melted cheese. It's served atop a bed of fries in a little red-and-white paper basket with a single massive golden-brown onion ring balanced on top. When you bite into the sandwich, all the elements merge together into a unified whole, fusing into that quintessential combination of beef and cheese and bread. And that's what a burger is meant to be.
The Serious Burger will, like all trends, run its course eventually. Some joints will close their doors once diners tire of the sheer carnal thrill of sinking their incisors into hunks of juicy beef. Others will adjust their format to adopt whatever the next new thing will be. Perhaps a few will manage to stick around long enough to age gracefully and grow worn around the edges and become my kids' idea of a classic old-school burger joint.
But I hold out hope for a full-on reformation, a casting off of extravagant gourmet trappings and a return to a simpler, more fundamental cheeseburger. And it starts with all of us.
The next time you dine at the newest burger joint to hang out its shingle, abjure the sultry lure of fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms and bacon jam. Order a plain burger, and skip right past the brie and fontina and insist on good old-fashioned American cheese. If the chef can't press it on the griddle for you before sending it out, make do with your own palm and give it a good solid squish. It'll do you and your burger a world of good.