Having been challenged (some might even say slandered) into a burger throwdown for my poor review of R.F. O’Sullivan’s, one of Boston’s most beloved burger joints, I readily accepted, eager to defend my burger-tasting title, and also hoping that perhaps against all odds, the last couple times I've been to R.F.’s have been extraordinarily rare flukes.
I entered the bar at around 1 p.m. where I met millions, who had just arrived on an overnight from Los Angeles (the land of good burger). I had to admit, there is a good vibe about R.F. O'Sully's: It's the kind of place that makes you feel nostalgic from the moment you walk in—even if it’s your first time there. If we are to follow the Motz theory that a good burger is more than just a sandwich, but rather a sum of the experiences around eating it, then perhaps R.F.'s has a few redeeming characteristics.
I, however, am not one for sentiment, and I judge a burger first and foremost on flavor. If it tastes great, then other factors can only further improve it, but a bad burger is a lost cause, no matter where you eat it.
I bear photographic evidence of the experience.
Exhibit (a): Intense Flame Grilling
If one thing can be said for Sully's, it’s that their grillmen have no fear of the flame. The massive balls of beef are literally engulfed in flames the entire time they are cooking (a good 20 minutes for medium rare). I believe that this is the reason the insist on using "lean ground sirloin." Even the smallest amount of fat in these things would cause them to burn beyond repair. Unfortunately, as any burgerman worth his salt knows, "lean" and "sirloin" are two things that should never appear anywhere near a quality hamburger. Perhaps they work some sort of alchemical magic. I'll judge when I taste.
Exhibit (b): Cold Cheese
Before I even get to the meat, there's an obvious problem, and one that I've noted on two previous occasions: between the cheese and the burger is a fat slice of cold, underripe tomato. The obvious consequence is that the cheese completely fails to melt, giving it a disagreeable plasti-like texture, and robbing the burger of and vital gooey fat that the cheese might have added to it.
Exhibit (c): Leathery Crust
Biting into the burger only confirms my belief that lean sirloin is just about the worst cut of meat you can choose. The interior is medium rare alright, but the texture is wet and mushy, not juicy the way a burger made from fatty chuck or a custom blend would be. Even worse, there is a full half-inch of desiccated, leathery meat surrounding that mushy center. It’s so tough that you can literally peel it off the burger in a single piece, like an orange rind.
As for seasoning, I am well aware that my personal tastes run towards the salty side, but I insist that tasted on its own, this patty has exactly zero salt and pepper added to it. Millions (whose leathery crust looks slightly smaller than mine) insists that the beef has been properly seasoned, but I maintain that the only seasoning in the sandwich comes from the cheese and pickle (which are nicely crunchy and tangy). Observing the cooks as they throw naked balls of beef onto the grill confirms what my tongue has already told me: salt and pepper are unheard of at R.F. O's.
All that being said, the burger is not totally without merit. The smokiness of the char is unparalleled—this is a heavily grilled burger, and I can understand how many people might find this appealing. For a gigantic burger such as this one, the bun holds up surprisingly well, and disappears along with the last bit of beef. They also wisely put a few layers of iceberg lettuce underneath the burger, protecting the bun from the hot patty, and ensuring that it doesn't disintegrate as you eat it.
On to the sides
Exhibit (d): Bad Fries
Their "handcut fries" are truly horrendous. Wedges of potato that are simply dumped into used oil. No double frying, no clean fat, and once again, absolutely no salt or pepper. Without a proper double fry, you can't even begin to hope for a bit of crispiness. These "fries" are greasy and limp, with a golden brown exterior that has the texture of wet paper. Do yourself one better by ordering the onion rings, which happen to be the only properly seasoned items in the house, and it's because they come pre-seasoned and frozen.
If you are one for sentiment, then the authentic townie appeal of R.F.’s might charm you more than the sterility of Flat Patties or the mod-euro feel of Middlesex (yes, the bar was surrounded by regulars, and everyone seemed to know everyone’s name), but do not confuse a burger served in a great atmosphere for a good burger served in a great atmosphere.
The defense rests its case.
After flying through the night from Los Angeles to Boston (as I slept, I had nightmares about being embarrassed by an overcooked hockey puck at RF’s), I hopped a taxi directly to R.F. O'Sullivan's. After a brief staredown with Kenji, we weighed in and took our respective corners to prepare for the bout. Actually, we both went to the same corner, at the end of the bar near the flaming grill where the cooks drop their massive half-pound balls of ground sirloin.
Kenji and I each ordered an adult beverage. I chose a beer named after the famous Bostonian patriot and brewer, and Kenji went with the favorite brew of hipsters and David Lynch fans everywhere. On to the menu: R.F.'s has a variety of option with numerous sauces, cheeses, and vegetables available, but we agreed to keep it simple. We each ordered the regular cheeseburger (mine with cheddar, Kenji's with American) which comes with lettuce, tomato, sliced onion and pickles. Kenji took some photos of the grillmen, and we discussed some of our favorite burgers from around the country while we waited for our burgers.
Bad sign number one: I started to get a little worried about the time it was taking for our orders to appear. R.F.’s is up-front about the fact that their burgers take around 20 minutes to prepare because of the sheer mass of the meat, which they don’t flatten on the grill, but as we had each ordered our burgers medium-rare, I was worried that my bad airplane dreams might be realized and we might get an overcooked burger.
Early shot to the body: Kenji had me on the ropes as soon as the bell rang and the waiter brought our burgers. Each of us had a piece of unmelted cheese ON TOP of our tomato and onions. I tried to explain that this never happened on my prior visits, but since Kenji had experienced the same offense before, my claims were unpersuasive. We speculated that this heinous practice was instituted for ease of expediting the high-volume of burgers that come off of R.F.’s grill during peak times. Whatever the reason, it's unappealing and unacceptable. The people deserve melted cheese.
The extras: As I explained to Kenji, I am not a huge fan of accoutrements piled high on my burger. I found the tomato to be sliced a bit too thick, so I left it out. I thought the onions, pickles, and crisp lettuce added a nice amount of cool crunch to the burger.
The flavor: I didn’t agree with Kenji’s assertion yesterday that the R.F. burger was bland or underseasoned. I felt my burger today exhibited very strong beefiness and seasoning. Despite the use of lean beef, and being grill-cooked rather than on a flat-top, the burger retained its juices, which were absorbed by the sesame-seed bun.
The knockdown punch: I noticed Kenji taking pictures of his burger, and I could tell what he was thinking. The center of his burger was indeed medium-rare as ordered, but the top and bottom, long-exposed to the fiery grill, had the sad pallor of a beast cooked to medium-well. My burger actually was closer to a properly-cooked medium-rare throughout, but Kenji’s point was valid, and I can see why his burger was disappointing. We agreed that this effect is likely part and parcel of the extremely hot and fiery grill R.F.’s uses in order to impart the char on its very thick burger. Kenji and I have a somewhat different idea about the perfect style of burger: He prefers a thinner griddled patty, while I also like a flat-top griddle, but a thicker patty. What we do agree on is that a burger that is partly medium-well, and partly medium-rare does not demonstrate that its maker’s cooking method is superior.
The decision: I had to agree that R.F.’s burger is not on the same level as the finest burgers in New York and Los Angeles. I still think it’s one of the better burger options in a city which, while it has surpassed its big brother to the south in Major League Baseball, has a way to go before it can claim the World Series of Burger title.