It’s been a while since the word “burger” meant a ground beef patty, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on a bun, with maybe a slice or two of cheese and/or bacon. Now, the premium burger category is thriving, but needs constant innovation to continue to enthrall modern diners.
Today, a burger might mean Texas Akaushi beef, Brie, arugula, caramelized onions, truffle aïoli and steak sauce, menued at Hopdoddy Burger Bar. It might be a turkey patty on a brioche bun with avocado, pea shoots, Asian coleslaw and sesame-ponzu dressing, found at Pono Burger. Or it could be a tempura-fried lobster patty, green onion, lime zest, tomato, iceberg and lemon aïoli, at The Royale.
Such is the state of the market in 2016, an age when demand for burgers keeps growing. “You can never have enough burgers,” says Rachel Kalt, senior strategist for The Culinary Edge, a food and restaurant consultancy based in San Francisco. “Burgers are a multisensory, multi-emotional food that appeals to virtually everyone, and that means there’s lots of room for innovation.” Their versatility and popularity also mean that burgers can be differentiated in a variety of ways, adds Kalt, including higher-quality ingredients, new and different flavor combinations, and better-for-you iterations. “The idea of a burger means even more than the food itself.”
Emerging Fast-Casual Values
As an indicator of this trend, it’s important to take a look at what successful fast-casual burger joints are doing—and what their consumers are responding to. Pono Burger, located in Santa Monica, Calif., menus locally sourced organic produce, organic grass-fed beef, non-GMO fries and many housemade products. Windy “Makani” Gerardi conceived of Pono (which means “to do things the right way” in her native Hawaii) as a chef’s way to do burgers.
This concept’s burger builds tell a flavor story, illustrating the popularity and interest in an elevated burger experience. The Kuawa Crunch is topped with cheddar, russet potato chips, green leaf lettuce, coleslaw and spicy guava rum sauce. The Piku “Fig” sports drunken caramelized fig jam, Brie, bacon, toasted hazelnuts and arugula drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. And the Palahu “Turkey” stars a free-range, antibiotic-free turkey patty, Asian coleslaw, avocado, pea shoots, sesame-ponzu dressing and almond-ginger sauce, topped with wonton chips.
Gerardi also capitalizes on the idea that “burger” means different things to different people, so the repurposed Quonset hut that houses Pono does its biggest business in The Classic, a build-your-own burger that includes upgraded versions of standards like lettuce, tomato and special sauce, as well as an array of cheeses and such toppings as wood-smoked and caramelized onions and wood-roasted Anaheim chiles. In all cases, the beef is treated to a simple but flavorful dry rub of paprika, garlic, sea salt and pepper, then cooked to a recommended medium rare over a live oak fire. “The rub and the wood add nuances of flavor, but are neutral enough not to interfere with any other directions the burger goes in,” says Gerardi.
The Meat Matters
Even the smallest, simplest burger menu can sustain an upgrade that sets a place apart. That’s the case with Thurston’s Wicked Good Burgers, located in a former KFC franchise in Portland, Maine. With only four burgers in the array—the eponymous Thurston Burger, a house turkey burger, and both a vegetarian House Veggie Chix Pea Burger and vegan black bean burger—chef Eric Schildroth has taken extraordinary care with the formulations.
The Thurston Burger is 5.3 oz. of a “wicked good” blend of sirloin, brisket and short rib that resulted from repeated sampling and is now produced to Schildroth’s specifications by a local meat purveyor. “Each component adds its own characteristics in terms of flavor and texture,” says Schildroth of the 80/20 blend that includes both grass- and grain-fed Angus beef. Remarkably, the burger sells for just $3.99. “I tried raising the price to $5.75, but customers complained, so I figured out ways to improve costs and consolidate staff instead.”
The turkey burger is equally well-considered: all white meat, ground in-house with onions, pepper, garlic, jalapeño, honey, and bread crumbs to pull it together. The combination has worked so well that Schildroth is considering launching the patties at retail or wholesale. “I hit on a recipe that has the right flavor, texture and juiciness, and is more forgiving about overcooking than you’d expect.” The turkey burger captures about 8 percent of sales, and the two meatless burgers, which incorporate abundant vegetables and seasonings to make them more appealing, capture about 10 percent of sales combined.
Culinary Skill Stands Out
The Royale, located in Plano, Texas, promises “everything ground on a bun,” and it more than satisfies with ground beef as well as Wagyu, bison, lamb, turkey, chicken, king salmon, shrimp, crab and lobster. There’s also a Veggie Spectacle made with toasted almonds, raisins, curry powder, orzo, wild mushrooms, lentils, porcini powder and sautéed mushrooms—proving that burgers can stretch their component mix—as long as they’re loaded with other umami ingredients.
“The burger market in this country is saturated,” says John Tesar, executive chef and co-founder of the six-month-old concept, confirming his belief and that of his partners, Apheleia Restaurant Group and Plan B Group, that there is still plenty of room when the menu reveals the hand of a trained chef.
“For such a simple idea, a good burger can be pretty complicated,” continues Tesar, a three-time James Beard semifinalist who trained at La Varenne. Every burger is all protein, with no fillers, instead using sophisticated culinary techniques for texture as well as flavor-building. For instance, his favorite Gulf Shrimp Showcase consists of hand-chopped shrimp mixed with shrimp forcemeat and scallions, lemon zest, and extra-virgin olive oil with butter lettuce and curry aïoli on a whole wheat, potato or gluten-free bun.
“You need to replicate that 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio that creates a good burger, but since most seafood has no fat, you can whip part of the lean to make a ‘glue’ with the collagen in the flesh,” he explains.
The chicken burger, a notoriously difficult product to pull off, illustrates the same deft approach. Through abundant trial-and-error, Tesar discovered that an organic, free-range bird in the 3- to 3½-lb. range works best for his technique of boning out and grinding the entire thing, skin and all, twice through a commercial grinder (the bones and some trim are used for stock and other items). “Using the whole bird gives it the right 60/40 ratio of dark to white meat for flavor, with collagen to stand in for fat, and the skin gives it the nooks and crannies that make a burger so great.”
Like a deconstructed Southern fried chicken on a roll, this patty for The Chicken Fried Chicken Apex is then marinated in buttermilk, garlic, thyme and bay leaf for 24 hours, treated to a standard breading, then deep-fried and served with country-style, black pepper-jalapeño gravy and fresh arugula leaves.
Tweaking the Specs
The word “burger” may not be in the name, but burgers still constitute a huge part of the menu mix for the 32-unit Ram Restaurant & Brewery, based in Lakewood, Wash. Its core burger blend of 100 percent USDA natural, all-bull beef is custom ground to spec with a proprietary combination of cuts for full, beefy flavor.
According to chef James Cassidy, culinary and purchasing director at Ram Restaurant Group, the meat also gets a unique “weave” that more evenly distributes the fat (at 20 percent of the total), making the patty sturdier and allowing it to cook 20 percent faster, without pressing. “We’ve refined this process over the years as tastes have changed and as we’ve learned through experimentation,” says the 32-year Ram veteran. The blend of cuts works for a more pronounced flavor, along with a fairly simple seasoning blend, and the weave means that the patty doesn’t seal itself as a pressed burger would, keeping the final product juicier.
The build is equally deliberate in order to balance flavor. “The order of the toppings affects how the different components hit the mouth, and that affects the flavor,” explains Cassidy. Rigorously trained “grill masters” cook the beef-based burgers to customers’ specifications—no rules about cooking burgers to medium-well for this dying breed, says the chef—on an open gas broiler with covers over the jets so that grease drips to create flavorful smoke. The ground turkey, chicken breast, veggie and portobello burgers, meanwhile, are cooked on a flat grill.
Although each location may offer different regional favorites—particularly now that the chain is pursuing a strategy of local sourcing and menuing—LTOs and core items rotate in and out throughout the year. The Big Porter Blue, which plays to the concept’s brewery origins, is a constant: porter-glazed onions, chipotle-garlic bacon, crumbled blue cheese, Roma tomato jam and arugula on a Parmesan-peppercorn bun. Another favorite is the Mushroom Burger Melt on grilled marbled rye with Wisconsin mozzarella, garlic-roasted mixed mushrooms and truffle mayonnaise. “We’ve found that the bun is just as important as the burger,” adds Cassidy, reeling off a selection that also includes a brioche, pretzel bun, Kaiser and sourdough bun, depending on the market.
Where there’s a great premium burger, there are usually delicious sauces and toppings as well. The menu at Hopdoddy Burger Bar features no fewer than a dozen different sauces—from salsa roja to basil pesto to tzatziki—on as many individual selections, plus additional choices for a robust rotation of specials. Toppings are equally ambitious: nori chips, goat cheese, field mushrooms, pickled red onions and sliced prosciutto.
“When we looked at the market prior to first launching six years ago, there was already plenty of competition,” says Larry Perdido, chef and co-founder. “We knew we’d have to turn the burger concept on its head and redefine the genre.”
That meant better beef, including not only Angus and grass-fed but also Akaushi, a breed originally from Japan that’s similar to Wagyu in its marbling, tenderness and flavor. Additional protein options are bison, lamb, turkey, chicken and tuna, as well as a black bean burger. Combined with a strategy of attentive sourcing and offering imaginative ingredients and flavor combinations, this provided a point of difference that has allowed Hopdoddy to grow to 16 locations from its home base in Austin, Texas. (The name Hopdoddy is a combination of the beer essential plus “doddy,” which is Scottish slang for the local Angus cattle.)
“There were very few chef-driven concepts back then,” notes Perdido. “But we’ve found that as time passed and we’ve grown, we’ve had to up the ante.” Hopdoddy’s “Crafted Burgers” are designed to capture attention, as in the ultra-indulgent Primetime and the unusual K-town Belly (grass-fed beef, braised pork belly, kimchi, housemade gochujang, Korean Rice Krispies, mayonnaise and fresh basil leaves). Specials come and go every few weeks, serving as a sort of “burger lab” for new menu additions.
All this has necessitated closer focus on hiring kitchen personnel that have both culinary chops and passion for food. The fact that Hopdoddy butchers from primals, grinds its own meats, makes all its own sauces and bakes all its own breadstuffs means that the company is able to attract culinary-school grads who might not otherwise give a burger joint a second look.
This will become increasingly important as Hopdoddy expands to new markets and pushes the culinary envelope ever more. Already, Perdido is experimenting with blends of different meats, such as a “Jackalope” that incorporates both antelope and rabbit meat, with a bit of rich Akaushi beef to bolster the two leaner meats. In fact, the chef sees the future of burgers as encompassing all sorts of creative, flavor-forward grinds of not only different meats, but also cheeses, herbs, condiments and more. “Why not a salmon and dill pesto blend?” he asks. “This gourmet burger field still has a lot of ground to cover.”