Eating nearly a dozen burgers at eleven different Tampa/St. Pete spots to find a champion may sound like fun, gut busting task…and it is. The thought of us ingesting such a large amount of 80/20 blend was a concern for our loved ones, but we assure you, this piece has not been written posthumously. All four coursemen of the Apocalypse who participated in Hamburgeddon are alive and well. As you read this we’re all eating breakfast burgers with sausage patties and gravy aioli.
Food competitions are not like regular crawls. All we need is a taste. On the other hand, if you leave one solitary milligram of pan seared foie gras on your plate, you’ll be banished and exiled much like Corey Feldman and Christian Jacobs (aka MC Bat Commander of Aquabats fame) were in the 1990 made for Disney Sunday at the Movies on ABC cult classic, “Exile.”
Before we begin, allow us to give an overview of this competition.
We’re demanding folks, but we’re not out to bash anyone Pete Wells style. We respect any locally owned business trying to put out a superior product. Whether you’re out to be progressive with your fare, or just keeping an American classic relevant through perfect execution. However we get a little annoyed when you don’t live up to the high standards we know you’re capable of.
We chose each restaurant based on specific criteria. Either readers of Tasting Tampa and/or Eat a Duck gave it a strong recommendation, or they had won similar contests in the past which warranted a spot. The one requirement was that they had to be local, no chains. Keep in mind we are judging based on the burgers we sampled. Of course, as with any competition, for every Kristi Yamaguchi there are 11 Midori Ito’s. Even second and third place can be a bitter Cuban sandwich to swallow. Let’s not even start with all those “Honorable Mention” people out there. Yes, we know, you’re special too!!
This culling process made for stiff competition, as each spot had something special to offer. However they had to deliver an above average product to reach the top spots. For those who didn’t rank higher, it wasn’t from any glaring shortcoming, it was typically because we found your burger to be lacking slightly in certain areas compared to the top group. It’s important for us to mention this because there isn’t a single restaurant in the bunch we wouldn’t go back to. All of us want to improve the food in our community, so we’re not out simply to find the best, but also to lend some constructive criticism when we found missteps. We hope you take our comments with a grain of salt (something some of your burgers would have benefited from, hint, hint).
12. Council Oak Steakhouse
If you’ve been here before you know this place is good. It was strongly suggested by the spirit of Tasting Tampa old to put these guys on the list. However, for some reason, the good people at Council Oak decided not to sell burgers on Friday and Saturday nights. This fun fact isn’t mentioned anywhere on their website. I guess our $72 for a foie gras, shaved truffle and butter poached lobster tail topped burger will stay firmly in our pockets. We really wanted to try this excessively decadent creation, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately, without a last-minute replacement, that means an automatic last place. Please change your policy to receive a score.
11. Élevage – Domonic’s Burger
J: With competition this tight, it’s the little things that can knock you out of contention. Conceptually, this burger is fantastic, a jalapeño bbq sauce was a standout component for me, bringing a tang that most places often overlook. Sadly the patty was woefully underseasoned and slightly overcooked which did nothing to highlight the high quality beef.
K: Bring back the Duck, Duck, Goose Burger. This burger came out more medium then medium rare. Needed way more flavor. Still better than most burgers out there.
L: I feel we all went in with really high expectations because of their association with the Bern’s name. When you’re using Bern’s trimmings for your burger, you’re already ahead of the curve. In all fairness they were closing down their lunch service for the day and probably didn’t expect any more orders to come in. I don’t fault that but I don’t give them a pass for our timing either. We asked for medium-rare and it came out pretty much medium with just a touch of pink in the center. For me, the more important issue was that I can no longer get the incredibly edible duck, duck, goose burger that used to be on the menu. That’s the real crime in all of this.
10. Burger Culture
J: This was a case of wrong place, wrong time. We had agreed to let each place tell us what they thought was their favorite burger, but as soon as we heard it was the Waffle Burger, we should have vetoed. It’s not that it’s a bad burger, it just faltered in a couple of areas. The blueberry compote was slightly out of place and the waffles were a bit too soft for the deluge of beef fat. The patty itself was delicious and perfectly cooked, which leads me to believe that one of their more savory choices would have been a real contender.
K: They sold themselves short by giving us the waffle burger. It’s interesting, but not what we wanted. The burger had great flavor, but the concept was off.
L: I felt bad that we happened to visit Burger Culture when they had employees out sick. It left one person to run the window and the grill. When asked what burger they think is the best, the grill master offered the “Waffle Burger.” So that’s what we ordered. I’ve had other things from B.C and they absolutely blew me away burgerwise, such as the “Mustard Burger.” No one else does what they do with the selection of varieties. We simply got a poor representation of what makes them good. The Waffle Burger didn’t work for this contest, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeking them out next time they’re in our neighborhood.
9. The Refinery
J: There’s an inherent risk involved with switching your burger up from week to week. Sometimes an idea needs some time to get fully developed, and seven days isn’t always enough. That’s exactly what happened at The Refinery. The idea sounds great, a creamy red bean hummus with tart pickled jalapeños, cotija cheese and sour cream and onion chips. Unfortunately the hummus turned out to be their undoing. I think a touch more oil would have kept it from drying out your mouth and hiding the other flavors. They can’t all be winners, but I applaud the courage it takes to come up with a new dish week in and week out.
K: I love the Refinery’s experimentation and weekly changes to the American classic. Unfortunately, this weeks burger left me wanting something different.
L: This is another burger that did not work conceptually. Our trepidations rang true as the red bean hummus dried out the entire thing. The sour cream chips, pickled jalapeño and cotija were all great condiments, but there really was no sauce to speak of, which didn’t help the lack of moisture. The Refinery changes their menu every single week, and with that the burger accoutrements. They were going for an ode to the torta, which is a fantastic idea if executed properly. We just hit them on a bad week, even though they cooked the burger perfectly. This makes me want to go back for a redo.
8. El Cap
J: El Cap is one of those places that’s been around so long they can do no wrong. They’re the best at what they do, taking people back to the burgers of their childhood, and I respect that, but for me, in this competition, you’ve got to do better. When I see Iceberg lettuce on a burger, I immediately temper my expectations. Just because something’s been done a certain way for 100 years doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with improving on a classic, maybe use some local beef, aged sharp cheddar and a nice fresh leaf of bibb lettuce. Take off your burger colored glasses people, because if you truly want the best burger in the Bay area, keep looking.
K: The most perfect simple burger. All taste, no flash. Wish we had gotten the double.
L: The burger at El Cap is a slice of St Petersburg’s rich food history. They do them darn well. I feel that they scored lower due to the inclusion of American cheese in the burger they chose to serve us. I find it to be an absolute dish destroyer. I’ve ordered many hamburgers from El Cap with the classic condiments of lettuce, tomato, white onion and mayo in between a squishy bun, and have gone home very happy. I just personally don’t like plasticky food by-product under the bun. That’s all.
7. Pané Rustica
J: Here’s where we start getting to the good stuff. The wood fired cooking, cured tomatoes and onion foccacia immediately made me think of pizza. It was an unexpected flavor but a welcome one. They kept the trend of perfectly cooked burgers going, however it also fell to the evils of blandness. A shame, because this was a real contender, but #7 is no slouch, this is definitely worth a visit.
K: One of the best looking burgers I’ve ever seen. Char-grilled, wood fired, just a little under seasoned today.
L: This is the third burger in the contest that cannot be faulted by the actual preparation, but only because of the choice in condiments. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say it was the best cooked burger in the competition. Whatever they are doing to sling those burgers in that white-hot wood fired oven, worked like a charm. The condiments just didn’t add anything to the overall product. First of all, I love avocado on my burger. However, the aioli which was spiked with lots of avocado added richness sure, but it was a fairly bland offering. Just a touch more seasoning and this would have cracked the top 5.
6. Engine No. 9
J: Ah the first of our foie spiked burgers. Toppings of brie, foie and caramelized onions sounded odd at first. I was worried the brie would get lost, but they chose a nice ripe version that stood up to the other assertive flavors. The one piece that kept this burger out of the top five was the bun. Logan hit the nail on the head below.
K: This one would have been a killer if the bun hadn’t been so dried out.
L: This is where things get tough because we start having to nitpick the little things. Let me say I find no fault in the flavor of this burger. It had some of the best grilled onions I ever had, a nice funky slice of brie and a sliver of seared foie gras just to give your heart a little wake up call. The only issue and I mean only is that the bun was literally untouched save for it being sliced in half. I think it might have been saved with a schmear of butter and a quick trip to the flat top. It’s a lesson in treating every component with tender loving care. Even the bun.