Opinion: In search of the best burger in Atlanta

What’s a great burger to you? Uber juicy patty? Maybe even make it a double. Melty cheese. Tangy, crunchy B&B pickles. Perhaps it needs the works: lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard.

Ah, but let’s not forget the all-important bun. Mine must be toasted, yet still airy, then again, hefty enough to handle the pile on. That’s a lot to ask of a burger.

And now, some folk are asking for more, because that patty might just need tweaking.

The James Beard Foundation is now in its third year with its Blended Burger Project, a challenge to chefs around the country to make a more sustainable burger by blending meat with at least 25 percent mushroom.

The foundation holds blended burger “battles” in various U.S. cities, and the Atlanta burger fight took place at Smoke Ring in the Castleberry Hills neighborhood on May 4.

Three chefs responded to the call:

» Luis Damian of Big Sky Buckhead

» Livington Bedminster of Druid Hills Country Club

» Marc Taft of Southern Fried Hospitality restaurant group (Chicken & The Egg in Marietta, the recently opened Brine Seafood Shack in Alpharetta, and forthcoming concepts FEED, CO-OP Community Table + Bar and an unnamed burger concept).

Taft won the burger battle, at least by the scores of local judges who rated them on the creative use of mushrooms, flavor profile and appearance.

But you can decide for yourself. The chefs are featuring their blended burger at their restaurants (find Taft’s at Chicken & The Egg) from Memorial Day through July 31.

If you find yourself in Athens, stop in at 5 & 10 to check out Hugh Acheson’s Cremini-Lamb Burger with charred scallions, boursin cheese, pickles and tomato on a potato roll.

During this two-month time frame, you can also cast a vote for the best blended burger at jamesbeard.org/blendedburgerproject/vote. The chef with the most votes will win a trip to New York City to cook at the James Beard House. Voters are entered to win an expenses-paid trip for two to the 2018 Blended Burger event at the Beard House.

I was curious about the composition of these beef-shroom creations. Which mushrooms did they use and why? Were the chefs masking the mushrooms or highlighting them? What were their thought processes?

“We wanted to highlight the mushroom flavor,” said Taft, whose double stack Green Eggs & Lamb burger showcases a trio of mushrooms: Portobello, cremini and maitake. It actually gets a double dose of fungi, since the burger is topped with a grilled Portobello cap.

A leaner blend can result in a tough, dry puck of a patty. So Taft’s choice of cremini and maitake was less due to their flavor profile and more for moisture content. “We wanted to make sure that we did not dry out the burger,” he said. Sautéeing the chopped mushrooms with mesquite seasoning and garlic gave them the needed flavor boost.

Taft’s Green Eggs & Lamb blended burger also aligns with the modern farmstead fare he serves at Chicken & The Egg. There’s cured lamb belly cooked like bacon, melted pepper jack cheese, a fried egg, smashed avocado and smears of green tabasco-poblano mayo on a toasted bun. It’s a whopper that you can barely fit your mouth around. And when you bite into it, that runny yolk oozes out. Juices from the patty and Portobello run down your fingers. It explodes with flavor.

“I’m not a big mushroom fan,” admitted Taft. “But I like this burger. The flavor is so good.”

While Taft’s creation is a mushroom celebration, Damian’s shows what a mushroom can do for texture while also paying homage to his Mexican heritage.

For his blended burger, Damian used dehydrated shiitakes. “They are so meaty once you rehydrate them,” he said. Considering that his blend is 30 percent mushroom instead of the minimum requirement of 25 percent, the texture is remarkably akin to that of a thick, all-beef patty. What’s more, the mushroom averse might like it; earthy notes are barely present. “You can’t even tell it’s mushroom,” said Damian of the patty.

What you can tell is that this is a Mexican-inspired burger. It features a cemita roll, a brioche-like bun with origins in his hometown of Puebla, located about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. The bread has a very slight sourdough tang and is covered with sesame seeds. In Puebla, they use cemita to make any number of sandwiches, aka tortas. As Damian proved, it also makes for a killer burger bun. (He purchased his from Tropical Corner at Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway.)

The Cemita Burger gets topped with rajas con queso, essentially a mix of charred, skinned poblano peppers, caramelized onions and Oaxaca cheese, a great melting cheese that Damian selected for its mozzarella-like stretchiness. A hefty layer of sliced avocado brings big creaminess to this bad hombre.

Damian wasn’t going for an all-American burger. So when it came to condiments, he turned his thoughts from Heinz to his mom’s mole poblano, a spicy puree of mulato, guajillo and ancho chile peppers, chocolate, roasted plantains, garlic, chicken stock and peanuts.

“I think it will be a little bit of a challenge to introduce mole to people,” he said.

Oh, I’m not so sure about that. While he chatted about the makings of his hamburguesa con hongos, I inhaled half the burger in about five minutes and left him with a pile of napkins, all streaked with a mess of mole. When you order the Cemita Burger at Big Sky, get fries, too. Once you start dipping them into that extra mole served on the side there’s no stopping.

(As for North Druid Hills Country Club, I left a message but they never responded. So I can’t share with you the thought processes or flavor notes on Bedminster’s number. Unless you have cred with this club and have paid your membership dues, you’ll have to stick with Big Sky, and Chicken & The Egg.)

The Blended Burger Project challenges chefs, but what these pros create can serve as inspiration for home cooks seeking ideas for lightening up on meat and finding favor and fat solutions somewhere besides beef. Like the avocado that both Taft and Damian put to work.

Flip Burger has been offering its blended burger, dubbed Earth + Turf, since 2014. It features basic button mushrooms in the beef blend and also sautéed and piled atop the patty, along with caramelized onions, Gruyere cheese, bread and butter pickles, and a house mushroom mayonnaise. After tasting that mayo, it dawned on me that I could do a quick cheat by mixing mayo with a dash of porcini powder — perhaps with a drop of truffle oil, too, come to think of it — next time I cook up a mushroom burger.

While researching past Blended Burger Project entries, I read that when chef Tom Hall represented Publik Draft House in the 2016 Atlanta competition, he made his with bison, shiitake and maitake mushrooms, fish sauce, gorgonzola, pickled watermelon rind, bacon and red onion. Bison: A leaner alternative to beef. Fish sauce: Curious. I want to try that.

PeachDish culinary director Seth Freedman also participated last year. For his patty, he combined grass-fed ground beef, finely chopped oyster and shiitake mushrooms, and seasoned it with Magic Unicorn Salt from local small-batch spice company Beautiful Briny Sea. Freedman's recipe was published in the AJC and you can find it online.

Compared to other blended burgers, Freedman’s is pretty simple: just the patty, melted Parmesan, arugula and Dijon mustard smeared on the bun — but this specific salt, flavored as it is with celery seed, rosemary, granulated garlic and smoked paprika — seems to be the magic.

Grilling season is kicking into high gear. Why not try your hand at making a magical blended burger?