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What Makes a Good Burger?
Musings from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash
The South Beach Wine & Food Festival opened the past Friday with its annual Burger Bash. Thousands of people attended the sold-out affair, chowing down on burgers and quaffing beer, wine, and tequila cocktails.
The event, hosted by iconic chef (and Bam!-er) Emeril Lagasse, featured chefs from around the world vying for the bragging rights of winning one of two awards: the “Very Best Burger,” voted on by a panel of judges that included Ming Tsi, Robert Irvine, Phil Rosenthal, and Dave Portnoy; and the “People’s Choice” award, where ticketholders get to have a say in their best bite.
Burger Bash is part foodie event, part campaign with restaurateurs holding signs, ringing cowbells, and bartering extra fries for votes. The burgers, themselves, come in all forms and with all manner of toppings: cheese, fried onions, truffle shavings, bacon jam, pork belly — you name it. Every once in a while there’s a plant-based burger or a fishburger. They don’t go over well.
BurgerFi, a Fort Lauderdale-based burger chain won the title of “Very Best Burger” for its new BBQ Rodeo Burger with charred jalapenos, crispy haystack onions, and sweet Memphis BBQ sauce. A local Miami restaurant called Motek Cafe won the hearts of the everyman with its Arayes burger, a lamb/beef patty on a pita, topped with harissa aioli and tahini.
I’ve been thinking about burgers a lot lately. Last week, I went to a Jimmy Buffett concert.: The entire arena sang along with Jimmy as he listed his requirements for the perfect burger: “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57, and French fried potatoes.” Anthony Bourdain had an opinion on what makes the perfect burger: Good meat (fresh, never frozen, and on the fatty side), a squishy bun that has the right meat-to-bread ratio, meltable cheese, and ketchup (or other sauce you can justify). No leaning tower of burger for Bourdain. Ralph Pagano agrees. The owner of Naked Taco restaurants in Miami, Pagano has a strong opinion on what constitutes the perfect burger. “Everyone wants to tell you the secret to a good burger is the meat. They are incorrect,” he shares.
So what is the secret?
“The bread,” he adds. “Doesn’t matter how good the meat is. Doesn’t matter how cheesy the cheese is. It needs a bread delivery system to put it in your mouth. The bread must hold up to the juices of the meat and ketchup. It has to be firm to the tooth but soft to the chew.”
The ideal bun?
“A potato bun,” adds Pagano. “All these chefs like a brioche because they think they’re fancy. The only bread to be used on a burger is Martin’s potato roll.”
Pagano is also from the less-is-more school of burgers. “Processed American cheese, raw onion, bread-and-butter pickles, and ketchup are the only things I want on a burger,” says the chef, who controversially adds that Coca-Cola is not the beverage of choice for a burger: “If you’re not drinking a beer, a burger should be paired with root beer.”
Pagano then shares why burgers are so loved they get their own festivals and songs. “They’re comforting. They’re family, and they’re the all-American food,” says the chef.
In 2017, Pagano was involved in an explosion at a restaurant he was about to open in Bimini, Bahamas. The chef pushed an employee to safety and was engulfed in flames. He was airlifted to Miami and spent 59 days at Ryder Trauma Center.
The chef confides what he wished for those two months.
“When I was in the hospital, I craved many things. I craved for my hands to work. I wanted to walk. I wanted to see my family. But what I craved that I could actually obtain is a burger,” Pagano says. “Raw onions, American cheese, pickles, on a potato bun, with ketchup. And I felt safe.”
Pagano is not only safe, but the chef is also in the process of opening several new restaurants, after making a remarkable recovery from the accident.
In the end, however you like your burger — cheese, no cheese, with avocado or guava jelly it doesn’t matter as long as that burger brings you comfort and joy.