Just what is a ‘good burger’ anyway?
Is it the beef? The fat ratio or the size of the grind? Charcoal, gas or a dirty-in-a-good-way diner griddle? It could quite possibly be all about the bun. Kaiser or Dutch crunch? An English muffin is always a fine idea. Dire decisions such as to toast or not to toast, soft or crisp. Is cheese a must or — the horror! — a must not? For burger bliss shall there be a plethora of toppings… say, a sauté of mushrooms spilling out, or porky strips of bacon hanging dramatically over each side? Possibly, the most crucial choice: iceberg or romaine, bib or red leaf. The lettuce could simply make it or break it.
And one couldn’t judge a burger without first considering the condiment. Classic catsup, flavored mayonnaise, and a gazillion varieties of mustard are merely the beginning. The burger, a dish rooted so deep in our American beings, is easily more personal to each of us than any other.
The burger in my own life has been an ongoing evolution. I remember first favoring a thin patty, heavy on the gooey deli Swiss, plain except for a big squirt of Heinz, leaning this side of greasy. A kid sort of burger. By my teens, my mom’s funky raw green bell pepper burger became mine as well. It was more than likely due to the requisite pile of stinky blue cheese melting, last minute like, on top. The burgers of my twenties were hazy, typically gobbled down in a hungover haze, nothing more important than the necessity of grease and carbs.
I can’t remember when I stopped craving a burger regularly. Stopped wanting bite after big bite of beef. Now, I only want one, possibly two perfect bites; I want a slider. A tiny patty charred ever so briefly. Rare on the inside, but hot enough to melt the cheese. I need the cheese. A big grinding of black pepper, a slathering of homemade mayo. Nothing fancy. A nice little slice of juicy tomato, if it so happens to be the season, and always a heavy-handed sprinkling of good, thick salt.
Don’t even think about adding shredded lettuce.
It is now burger time. Summer is practically upon us. Memorial Day is right around the corner. I have heard the first rumblings of group barbecues, of cleaning up the grill. I have caught myself lingering over those itsy bitsy slider paddies in the case at Sonoma Market, plotting summer grill competitions. I have burgers on the brain. But, maybe not as much as my very good friend, Sonoma resident, and blogger Mike Clouse. Mike lives, breathes, possibly dreams of the burger. Although, perhaps not as much as he does beer. Over burgers (and beer, of course) we recently talked about, what else, burgers and beer.
Kristin: Hey Mike, your blog is really great! Tell me about it,
Mike: In Jan 2011, I decided I wanted to start a blog and was told to pick a topic that I am passionate about, a topic that I would love to talk about. I thought for, like five-seconds, it was like BAM! Great burgers, craft beer, and my favorite bike rides. My blog hubsandhops.com is a place where I can share my passion for those things as well as a place for me to just write and share my ideas and thoughts about my life and my family as well.
Kristin: I bet you have a favorite Sonoma Valley burger! Where do you go out for one around town?
Mike: Without a doubt, the Fremont Diner has the most kick ass burger in town… bacon, just say’n! Runners up would definitely be the girl and the fig burger with a big slab of brie and a farm egg on top. The Hopmonk burger is a good one. It’s simple, but with a cold IPA, yes please!
Kristin: Oh my gosh, I do love the Fremont’s burger. Those fries are definitely my ‘fry ideal!‘ I recently heard that Restaurant Rudy makes a really great burger… so juicy you truly cannot put it down. For me, juiciness is a burger requirement. What makes a burger good, in your opinion?
Mike: Freshness and quality of ingredients for sure. Organic, local produce and beef is a great start. A bun can make or break a burger, too — big and over the top is just as bad as wimpy and plain. It just needs work. Another big component to a great burger is the joint that serves it up. To me, the atmosphere matters. Clean, fun, and high energy works every time, and of course a huge element is the beer on tap. You just have to have some great beer to go with the burger. Like a pint of Lil Chief from our local Sonoma Springs Brewing, which pairs great with a burger.
Kristin: The bun just might be the most important factor in my burger-building. The English muffin from the Model Bakery is the bomb. I also adore the soft, beautiful potato buns from A.B.C Baking in downtown Napa. They make the best tiny slider buns! I rarely order a burger out, I’m more a ‘grill them at the park’ sort of gal. Do you make your burgers at home?
Mike: Not often really. I like so many special ingredients and sides that it ends up costing me like forty dollars for my burger, ha-ha! It is fun to do with a group though, having some friends over and coming up with some fun burger ideas is great. Sonoma Market is my first place to shop for sure. Their meat department is amazing and they have slider buns, too, which is cool for a party.
Kristin: I just cut a tasty looking recipe from a magazine for quinoa burgers! I bet you are not an ‘alternative burger’ type of guy!
Mike: Yah, not so much. I mean a tuna or veggie ‘burger’ may be good, but in my mind they are just a different food. A burger is beef.
Kristin: What has been your most memorable burger experience?
Mike: The famous ‘Sonoma Burger Cook Off’ without a doubt. That was the most burger fun I have ever had, even if I did get robbed of the championship title!
Kristin: Ha-ha! Well, I am sure that the best burger won fair and square! What is on your burger bucket list?”
Mike: Locally, I need to get over to the Hot Box for Norm’s killer burger and duck fat fries. I just got hungry saying that, true story. Also the burger on Glen Ellen Star’s new lunch menu is on my radar for sure. To be honest there are a lot of great burgers out there and, in their own unique way, are awesome and worth checking out. For me, at the end of the day, a good burger is really about the people I’m enjoying that burger with that makes all the difference. Having great food and a cold beer with my wife or with friends really makes the burger that much better!
Kristin: I couldn’t have said it better,
Check out Mike’s charming blog at hubsandhops.com.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at firstname.lastname@example.org.