Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Napa Burger Battle

One week ago today, a small cadre of expert eaters assembled on the west side of town for an epic battle of beef, bun, and cheddar.  With nine contenders and seven categories of scoring, this contest was an all-day affair, requiring exacting standards, keen attention to detail, and some serious eating stamina (I should confess here that we only made it through seven of the nine nominees, as our stomachs began to beg for some winnowing of the list after about 3:00pm.)

Each burger was to be ordered medium, topped with cheddar cheese, and any other items the restaurant normally presented with the burger by default.  Each burger was then rated by the panel of judges on Plate Appeal (up to 5 points), Bread (5 points), Cooking Temperature (0 or 1, depending on whether it made it to medium or not), Meat Texture (5 points), Meat Flavor (5 points), Overall Tastiness (up to 10 points), and Extra Credit (up to 5 points) for particularly great things like value for money, or special bonus features.  The most any burger could score was 36 points.  The nominees were all located in or around downtown Napa, with all but one located within walking distance of one another.

Our journey began at Andie's Cafe, the small shack next to the carwash just off 1st Street west of the 29 on/off ramps. Most people associate this place with frozen yogurt, but many know it for its extensive burger menu. The 1/3 pound basic cheeseburger here arrived promptly and colorfully, loaded with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup on a toasted potato bun for $6.29.

The veggies were remarkably fresh, but the judges found the overcooked patty texturally unimpressive and without beefy wow factor.  A decent start, but with plenty of room for other contenders to seize the lead.

Next up, we drove into Napa proper and ditched the cars to complete our burgerous trek on foot.  We headed to Alexis Baking Company (aka ABC Bakery) to taste a truly fresh ABC potato bun.  Tons of local restaurants use this bun for their own burgers and sandwiches, and for good reason.  It is soft but chewy, with a delightful tang and pleasing exterior texture even when untoasted. 

The $11.95 cheeseburger we ordered "with everything," however, arrived with mayonnaise and mayonnaise alone... for which several of the judges docked the burger a few extra credit points.  The burger did come with a fresh Caesar salad and medley of pickled peppers, etc. that proved able palate cleansers, so some of that may have been recouped.  But from the burger standpoint, the best thing about the one we received was the bun.  Well past medium, the patty's tasty factor edged past Andie's by a slight margin, but still left a lot of room at the top.  And because of the messed-up order, we had nothing else to go on.

With two non-revelatory burgers behind us, the judges seemed peevish and restless.  We beelined for Celadon to experience the first "restaurant-style" burger of the day... and naturally, a round of cocktails from their excellent full bar to wash it down:  Strawberry vodka lemonade made with local berries, a Spa-tini made with house-infused lemon-cucumber vodka and ginger, and the Treetini composed of Veev acai liquor, muddled basil leaves, and sweetened lime juice.  All peevishness melted away.

And then the burger arrived... a glorious 7-ounce patty of American style Kobe beef chuck from Masami Farms, topped with shredded cheddar (per our request), sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, mesclun lettuces, ripe tomato, red onion, and a side of tarragon shoestring fries.  Hello, lover. 

It was delectable, and--at last!--still pink and juicy.  So juicy in fact, that it juiced all over the bread, the plate, and the eaters' hands.  Chef-owner Greg Cole stopped by to explain the details of his burger masterpiece, including the provenance of the spectacularly good potato-pepper roll that soaked up the juice with such ease.  Panorama in San Francisco produces these wonders with their absorbent but light interior, perfect toasty textures, and enough heft to stand up to a nearly half-pound chunk of meat.  With the use of premium meat, creative mayonnaise, and the large fries portion, Celadon's burger racked up a slew of extra credit points on top of the high scores for flavor and presentation.  And all for $14.

Elated by this delicious discovery (new to all judges present), the burger posse moved the 100 yards to Angèle, which was in the throes of lunch rush.  Once installed on the shaded patio, we again ordered the house burger with cheddar cheese, which comes with Angèle's deservedly famous and beloved fries for $14.

As at Celadon, the burger arrived thick, pink and juicy.  The ABC potato bun was perfectly toasted on all sides, producing a textural variety that the untoasted version only hinted at.  The choice of white cheddar met with mixed success at the judging table--some thought it was too mild, others loved its subtlety. 

The fries, as expected, were a smash hit, and vanished quickly in between bites of the juicy burger (which for me scored a 5 for 5 on meat flavor, and 9 out of 10 for overall tastiness--on a par with Celadon's). 

Originally we had planned to take a wine break at Trahan and Olabisi's tasting room after this burger, but since we'd already started drinking and were feeling spry, we powered on to Norman Rose Tavern without a moment's hesitation.

Over a round of beers, we examined the Norman Rose Five Dot beef cheeseburger, loaded with four slices of cheddar cheese, and garnished with a thick slice of green tomato for $10.95.  Similar to the situation at Angèle, the cheese prompted some dissent among the learned judges.  Some rejoiced in the luxurious volume of gooey tangy goodness, while others (buzzkills) felt it overwhelmed the burger.  The bun also met with mixed reviews, with some liking the fluffy texture, and others not so much. 

It was a perfect illustration of the power and importance of subjective preference in the burger realm.

Moving past our differences, our team rounded the corner to Grace's Table for the "Hand formed Meyer's Ranch chuck, housemade pickles, fries, and whole-grain mustard aioli."  The menu did not mention that the pickles were actually a medley of cruciferous and non-cruciferous veggies grown at the chef's house, or the possibility of getting half fries and half onion rings, or all salad if such was your desire--but we figured that out with no problem thanks to our server.

For $12, this was an enormous mountain of food, overflowing the large plate on which it arrived.  We dove in to the sixth burger of the day with gusto.  Fresh veggies, homemade fries, nicely cooked beef, and lots of burger juice prompted positives from all the judges.  The mustard sauce added a pleasant tang to the mix, and the pickled veggies refreshed our beef-bloated palates.

But then we hit the wall.  Six burgers in five hours, sweltering heat outside, and bellies full of beef and booze conspired to bring us down.  We resolved to eliminate a few stops from our remaining hitlist: Cuvee, which didn't open until 5pm (still over an hour away), and Bounty Hunter, which only serves its cheeseburger once a week and thus should not perhaps get to be included in this roundup.  We piled into an air-conditioned car to drive the half mile to the Oxbow Public Market for our final cheeseburger of the day at Gott's Roadside.

The place was cool and quiet, a welcome haven from the inferno outside.  One judge bravely ordered a chocolate shake to wash down the burger, but after a few sips the scope of our overgluttedness became clear.  "I've never wanted a cheeseburger less," said another judge.  A sad and shameful moment for all the members of the panel.

With stamina taxed beyond human limits, the judges could not see past their personal peculiarities with the Gott's cheeseburger ($7.99).  The Niman Ranch beef chuck patty is topped by default with American cheese, which dismayed some who had grown accustomed to the cheddar topping of the day.  The iceberg lettuce on the bottom of the bun brought structural integrity and textural variety to the burger, but some disliked the warm lettuce factor.  The presence of homegrown homemade pickles and secret sauce (which contains relish) pushed the pickle limit for certain judges, while others enjoyed the vinegar and salt.  The seventh cheeseburger of the day was not the favorite, but I can't help but think it would have done better had it been consumed earlier in the day.

Lessons learned: (1) eating back to back burgers is a great way to compare beef texture, flavor, bun quality, and value for money; (2) eating more than five burgers back to back is a hideously bad idea; and (3) the company you keep during a burger orgy is critical to your ultimate enjoyment of the experience.

Thank you to my phenomenal fellow judges for an awesome day of unbridled gluttony in the name of science, and thank you to all the nominees for indulging our little contest with grace and hospitality. 

Can't wait for the Pizza Battle.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! It was so fun gorging with you.