Chapel Hill, N.C. — The four most renowned palates in burgiatry are gathered at the table.
They are at Al’s Burger Shack, a newly opened counter service and takeout restaurant in Chapel Hill. The interior is tiny, with seating for fewer than 10 patrons. There are picnic tables outside with propane heaters to hold back the cool night air. The burgiatrists opt for outdoor seating. It is chilly but conducive to discussions on the arcana of burger reviewing, far from the prying ears of the public—and without the risk of revealing themselves to their unwitting host.
The owner, Al, is warm and knowledgeable. The restaurant is busy, but he remembers each name and order. He prides himself on local, pasture-raised beef, local craft beers, cheeses from area creameries, and locally made (or homemade) condiments.
The Straight Beef is here to put his hamburgers to the test.
The four burgiatrists are relaxed. The celebrated experts share surprisingly—sometimes shockingly—ribald humor between erudite observations. Dr. Michael Marino is the master of condiments. Dr. Scott Blumenthal is the esteemed burger historian. Reverend Donald Corey is the fiery orator and founder of spiritual burgiatry. Chad Ward is the former international outlaw burgiatrist who joined legitimate academia. They are gods in the burgiatric world. Bad burger joints worldwide speak of them in hushed tones as The Four Horsemen of the Burgocalypse. They are The Straight Beef. It was this reporter’s privilege to join them at one of their outings to observe their methods.
The laughter dies as their names are called and their hamburgers arrive. Good humor shifts to steely-eyed analysis. As though an unseen conductor has tapped his baton on the podium, the four bow over their burgers and begin prodding, sniffing, deconstructing, and, finally, tasting.
Mr. Ward and Dr. Marino lock eyes in a moment of surprise, chewing slowly. Dr. Blumenthal, enjoying his crinkle-cut fries with sea salt and rosemary before committing to his main course, notes his colleagues’ reaction and makes a more careful observation of his patty. Reverend Corey’s eyes are hooded, giving nothing away. One senses that he is skeptical, cynical, not ready to bestow honor before giving it deep thought.
“This is a perfectly cooked hamburger,” says Mr. Ward. Dr. Marino nods. “The first bite is exceptional,” he says.
The burgiatrists examine the interior of the patty. “Textbook,” says Dr. Marino. “I would use this to show my students what a flawless medium to medium rare burger looked like.”
Dr. Blumenthal takes his first bite and sits bolt upright, all outward movement stilled, his exterior awareness shutting down so that he can properly focus on his burger. “Wow,” he whispers. “Just wow.” He takes another bite, and then another. “This is a very good hamburger. An excellent hamburger.”
Reverend Corey does not bend. “It’s good. It’s very good. It may even be great. But there are…flaws.”
This is where the years of experience, the hours of trial and error, the thousands of experiments come into play as the members of the Straight Beef note their initial impressions and consult their internal grading scale. A good hamburger is easy to score. A great hamburger is trickier, but nothing to world-class burgiatrists such as these. Only when one encounters a truly exceptional hamburger do the fine gradations—and their associated agonies—come into play.
At the outer edges of the bell curve the atmosphere becomes rarified, the data points farther apart. It is but a modest jump from a 3.0 on their five-point scale to a 3.5. The leap to a 4.0 is longer but manageable. The distance between a 4.0 and a 4.5 is longer still, and the quarter point between 4.5 and 4.75 is as vast as a burgiatric Sahara. The gulf between a 4.75 to a 5.0 is nearly incalculable.
It is there that the minutiae reign.
Is the bun properly toasted? Is the patty cooked evenly from edge to edge, or is there a grey ring surrounding a pink center? Are the condiments properly applied, or are they too sloppy, perhaps contributing to a ramshackle architecture that causes the bun to slide? Is the bacon crisp? Was it cooked to order? Does the cheese contribute to the flavor, blending harmoniously as it should, or does it stand uncomfortably apart, undermined by its separateness?
“The shredded lettuce is a nice touch,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “You see that far too little. It makes a difference. I’m impressed.”
“The bacon is crisp and flavorful,” Reverend Corey adds, “but I’m not sure I taste ‘grass-fed’ beef. This is an excellent hamburger, but it isn’t significantly different from corn-fed beef in my mind.”
A discussion ensues. It is a fundamental question, and the discourse is heated. Does one judge a hamburger against a Platonic ideal, the perfect hamburger? Or does one judge the hamburger based on the restaurant’s intent? Does “grass fed” play into the equation, or should the hamburger be judged as a hamburger, regardless of modifiers?
“It’s also a little heavy,” Reverend Corey continues, inviting a chorus of disagreement, most notably from Dr. Marino, whose indignation outshines the others’.
“You ordered the 9-ounce burger. You had the option of the 6-ounce burger. You can’t blame that on the hamburger. If you feel that the burger is heavy, you have only yourself to blame. You cannot fault the burger for that.”
The burger experts continue to eat, evaluating every nuance, until Dr. Marino calls for consensus. “Gentlemen, it is time. Your verdict?”
“Five,” says Dr. Blumenthal. “Yes, the bun got a little squishy at the end. I don’t care. This was an amazing hamburger.”
“Four point seven five,” says Ward. “The beef was rich and perfectly cooked, the accoutrements were exceptional. Even the ‘Al’s Sauce’ was head and shoulders above any house specialty sauce we’ve tried.”
“Four point five,” says Reverend Corey. “It was an excellent hamburger, one of the best around, and the bacon was excellent, but I had those minor issues, which I voiced.”
“Four point seven five,” says Dr. Marino. “The level of care, the attention to detail, the quality of ingredients—nearly perfect.”
The Straight Beef discussed and bickered a bit longer, but the outcome was clear from the first or second bite. Al’s Burger Shack, a restaurant only open for a short period of time, had vaulted into the group’s top five hamburgers of all time.
Scott Blumenthal, Michael Marino, Chad Ward and Donald Corey are The Straight Beef, professional burgiatrists who review, rate and rank Triangle-area burgers on their award-winning blog. You can read more about The Straight Beef, including their education and scholarship, ratings system, and burger categorization method here.