My blogging colleague Daniel B had an interesting idea: a tasting tour of seasonal burgers served at the food stands of upstate New York’s Capital District. Winterizing is expensive in this harsh climate, so many food places open only from early May through Labor Day. They attract a crowd of outdoors lovers who mostly come for ice cream. But we had done ice cream on a couple of other tours, hence the burgers.
We were asked to come up with a tasting strategy so we could try an equivalent seasonal burger at each of five establishments, and judge them fairly at the end. My partner and I decided to taste cheeseburgers as the establishment serves them when you ask for a cheeseburger, period. Sounds simple enough. And it worked great at the first stand, Jack’s in Wyantskill, which is known for its intense, greasy grilled onions. Ask for the basic cheeseburger at Jack’s and you’ll get that condiment plus some ketchup which helps to lubricate the onion and distribute it across the patty. It’s a more feral version of the “dirty water” hot dog sauce served on Manhattan’s sidewalks.
But at the second stand, Mac’s in Watervliet, we ask what comes standard and they said “just the burger and cheese, but you can add whatever you want.” Oh crap. We did not want a bare burger so we added my favorite standard garnishes: mustard, lettuce, tomato, raw onion and pickle. The result is photographed for your inspection. It looks like a clown hat. The individual ingredients were fine but it broke apart when eaten.
On to On the Farm in Latham, where they not only feature a bare burger but will charge extra to put most garnishes on it. Is there ANYTHING we can add for free? Yes, pickles and raw onion. So that’s what we got, plus a squirt of mustard at the condiment counter. My tour buddies who ordered loaded burgers got the same treatment with the onions in the separate cup, and they were chopped rather than sliced which means they tumble off the burger when you eat it.
I had high hopes for Country Drive Inn in Clifton Park because I’ve sampled their stellar onion rings—in fact, CDI was my preseason pick for the eventual winner. But the burger was totally unremarkable. Again, it’s bare until you ask for condiments. Feeling a little desperate, at this place I requested grilled rather than raw onions, along with LTO, mustard and pickles. (I believe as at On The Farm one had to squirt on one’s own mustard.)
The final stop was Jumpin’ Jack’s in Scotia. This stand really is jumping. It’s several times as big as any of the others and was packed with kids in softball and baseball uniforms who had just come from the game. I had decided to go out in a blaze of glory with the Jack Burger, a cheeseburger+hamburger+extra bun layer+a scoop of cole slaw. And what else comes on the burger? You guessed it, nothing. But they had a felicitous condiment bar which included sliced onions and some really nice red hamburger relish.
Now, I know what you are thinking: by the end I had totally abandoned my original ordering and scoring strategy. However, I was able to give myself a mulligan. There was a blank line on the scorecard that allowed us to insert an X factor to compare across the seasonal stands. And I decided my X factor would be “choice”, as in how well does the place accommodate the customer’s desire for options. Mac’s and Jumpin’ Jack’s were tied for the broadest range of options and also tied for the highest (though not very high) score. The latter was my pick for winner, and also as the (only) place I’d return to, drawn by that Coney Island atmosphere.
So what do we learn from this experience? The same thing we learned when we explored why you don’t order steak in a seafood restaurant. In the absence of such curation, I realized how important it is to have my burger prepared by someone who knows the meat and bun the establishment uses, knows the griddle or grill, and knows (or has been trained) how to combine garnishes and serve customers a consistent and satisfying result.
I suspect the workmanlike nature of these burgers is accentuated by the necessity to rely on seasonal help. My burger assemblers, who will soon be back to school or off to the military, have little incentive to build me an exceptional ground meat sandwich. I will not ask them to do it again.