The Hot Wes ($6 for a whole burger)
The winner of the day, the Hot Wes, was a flavor-packed gut bomb of a burger. A fresh-ground brisket patty was topped with Wes's special chili con queso sauce, pickled jalapeños, and crispy fried onions, all served up on a fresh-baked, buttered and toasted brioche bun. I'll start with my one quibble: the meat could have had some more pink in the center. But this was a minor deterrent considering the intensely addictive blend of flavors: the salty, creamy queso harkened back to the best flavors of childhood indulgences; the sweet fried onions maintained their crisp exteriors and countered the queso's saltiness; and the pickled jalapeños added a necessary vinegar-laced heat to each bite.
But most importantly, the beef and bun lent both flavor and texture to each bite. The ground brisket, featuring a healthy crust from its time on the flattop, was well salted and rife with rich beef flavor. The brioche bun, buttered and toasted to an almost-charred crisp, provided both the smokey flavor from the grill and a wonderful, soft-crisp vehicle for the burger innards. For a burger that's tongue-in-cheek in concept, the Hot Wes crossed the line into being an order-again (and again, and again) burger by virtue of the balance of its big flavors and the deftness with which its ingredients were prepared.
Deep-fried onion strings for Hot Wes burgers.
The Corner Store Sliders (1 for $6, 3 for $12)
A slider version of their deeply excellent burger, The Corner Store's entry took a close second for me in the Brawl. Niman Ranch chuck maintained some pink (despite the slider size), and was topped with aged cheddar, pickled red onion, housemade bread and butter pickles and bacon jam, and aioli on a pan de mie bun. The flavors, as with the restaurant's full-sized burger, were spot on—the rich heartiness of the beef, the onion-sweet richness of the bacon jam, and the crisp tang of pickles and pickled red onions formed a perfect, balanced union, cut by the bitter freshness of arugula and the rich swath of aioli.
The one downfall of these sliders was the lack of crust on the patties and the resulting lack of textural contrast between beef and bun. I wonder if a full-sized version would have fared better and better showcased the stellar ingredients.
Stock In Trade's Tavern Burger ($6 for half)
The Tavern Burger started with a half-pound of Angus beef and was topped with aged Grafton cheddar, caramelized onions, iceberg lettuce, and Tavern "fancy sauce" (aioli, mustard, spices, herbs, and pickles). While the halved burger had a nice suggestion of pink, the meat was ultimately undersalted and dry. The stiff, cold Acme bun didn't help, either. Still, the char on the burger's exterior lent a nice grilled flavor, and the aged cheddar provided a great, sharp salty punch of flavor.
Sauce's Devil Burger ($3 per quarter burger)
The Devil Burger included two nicely pink, thin beef patties (cuts/beef source were not specified), two slices of American cheese, brown sugar bacon, and "deviled egg spread" on a fresh baked bun. In short, appearances can be deceiving: the beef quickly took on a grayish hue, and it barely made an appearance flavor-wise. The bacon dominated this show, masking the beef, cheese, and flavorless deviled egg spread.
Brass Knuckle's Metallica Burger ($9 for a whole burger)
The Metallica, featuring Niman Ranch beef, ham, Swiss, aioli, and a bacon crisp (supposedly) similarly suffered from the good-flavor/bad-texture problem of The Corner Store. The beef, while juicy, lacked flavor and had an almost mushy texture; the burger's salt primarily came from the ham and Swiss (a fine sandwich in and of itself, but we're talking burgers here). There was no sign of the promised bacon crisp, which may have lent some very necessary crunch. But Brass Knuckle's bun was standout. Sweet, squishy, and buttery in appearance, the bun was the best-looking and best-tasting component of this bad boy.
Belly Burger's All-American Slider ($6)
One of two options offered by Belly Burger, the All-American started with a patty of "100% ground pork belly," topped with thin-sliced Granny Smith apple, sharp cheddar cheese, and rosemary aioli on a sesame seed bun. The burger wasn't...bad...but it wasn't great, either. The rich, fatty, salty-sweet ground pork belly definitely tasted more like breakfast sausage than anything, and was nicely countered by the sweet, crisp apple. But that was about all that was going on. The unmelted sheet of sharp cheddar added no flavor, and there was no hint of rosemary from the aioli. A fine breakfast sandwich, but definitely not a stand-out burger.
The Boardroom, Slider and Bacon-Wrapped Tater Tots ($6 for slider and tots)
The Boardroom Burger, in slider and whole burger form, was the barest of the bunch. Fresh top-ground sirloin was ground with bacon, and (supposedly) served with homemade pickle relish and mustard. Well, there was no evidence of pickle relish, and I'll be damned if the mustard in the squeeze bottle was anything other than your basic yellow variety. That said, the patty in both slider and larger form was solid. Beefy, salty, and smokey, it had a decided backyard barbecue taste (the ground-in bacon wasn't so evident, though, a first in my experience with bacon burgers). But while the beef did a decent job standing alone flavor-wise, the patty lacked moisture and fat, an area where some cheese or even some fresh vegetables may have come in handy.
The included bacon-wrapped tots, while nothing revolutionary, couldn't not be good. I mean, we're talking about tater tots wrapped in bacon. What's bad about that?
The Boardroom Burger (whole burger, $9 with tots)
In both the slider and whole burger, an almost stale-tasting bun added to the dryness factor.
A La Carte's Bacon Maple Waffle Sausage Slider ($6)
My face said it all when I tried this breakfast-centric slider—I was told there was some nose wrinkling and disdain involved. I mean, I get the salty-sweet thing. I get why using waffles as sandwich bread is fun. But this was just kind of gross. The sausage was dry and tasted like salty, standard grocery store fare. A topping of white cheddar was half-congealed and flavorless. And the waffle had a weird, fake syrup flavor. Just, no.
Burger Bar's Pinot Noir Slow-Braised Short Rib Slider ($3 each)
This cute little guy from Burger Bar definitely fell under the "This is tasty but it's also not really a burger" category. A tender, fall-apart piece of short rib was juicy and flavorful; it had the melty consistency of the best fatty examples of the cut. The slider was nicely accentuated with a dollop of horseradish mayo and a sweet-crunchy bread and butter pickle. Tasty, yes. But a burger? Not really.
BACA Sauce's BACA Burger ($9 for a five-ounce "slider portion" and fries)
The BACA burger won for the longest list of ingredients: "A custom blend of short rib, brisket, and ground chuck, New York white cheddar, caramelized Maui onions, red wine vinegar marinated red bell peppers, slow roasted vine ripe tomatoes, crispy butter lettuce, BACA's New Mexico green chile BBQ sauce, BACA's New Mexico green chile aioli, served on Le Boulanger's specialty ciabatta bun."
And, exhale! But a whole lot of toppings does not a great burger make. Mostly, the BACA burger was a big mess. Totally unwieldy, it fell apart instantly, with bites dominated by one topping or another (a bite of pepper here, one of tomato there. I didn't taste any distinctive evidence of the two sauces). The beef had a fine color and flavor, if no texture, and the sharp cheddar was solid, too. "It tastes like pizza?" one friend said, with another instantly agreeing. Sure. I'll go with that.
The "parmesan and herb infused yukon gold matchstick fries" were more successful—crispy, salty, and generously laced with parmesan, they were refreshingly simple in the face of a confusing burger.
Brass Knuckle's Massive Attack Bacon Jalapeno Mac 'n' Cheese ($3)
A disappointing side, this mac 'n' cheese was, simply, undersalted (despite the strips of bacon...which were kind of limp, anyway). Texture-wise, it was declared to be similar to "cafeteria food."
Sauce's Seasoned Fries ($3)
While somewhat soft and lacking in crispness, Sauce's seasoned fries were salty and satisfying. Not the best iteration I've had, but tasty and certainly worth the $3.
Digging into a Hot Wes
Wes Rowe, with trophy, motorcycle, and burger shirt.