Proposing The Burger Cognition Theory

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Big Bob from Bob's in Brazil. [Photographs: Kenji Lopez-Alt]

While the Pizza Cognition Theory might state that "the first slice of pizza a child eats becomes, for him, pizza," I propose a similar but distinct Burger Cognition Theory: "The best burger a person eats becomes, for him, the burger." Let me explain.

It seems like no matter what country you go to, there's a McDonald's clone waiting for you—France has got its Quick, Colombia's got Presto and El Corral, Japan's got Lotteria—and it's always a gamble. At least with McDonald's, you know what you're going to get, no matter where in the world you are (in fact, I've found McDonald's outside the U.S. to be significantly better than in the U.S.). With a local chain, you might luck out, or you might totally bomb.

The latter is what happened when I decided to try the Big Bob from Bob's, a Brazilian burger chain founded by Brazilian American Wimbledon champ Robert Falkenburg. Despite a superficial cosmetic similarity to the Big Mac, complete with shredded lettuce, center bun, and special sauce, that's where the similarities ended. Limp, brown lettuce, a sauce that tasted of rancid oil, unmelted cheese, and a cold bun weren't a good start, and that was before my tongue hit the meat.

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I don't need to go into details, but I have no idea how those sear patterns were developed on that patty, which I easily would have believed was made of protein grown in a laboratory. Perhaps I'm being unfair here—after all, I was eating this at an airport location, which tend to be worse than regular franchises. But at the moment, all I could think of was how much it was failing to live up to this:

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The cheeseburger from Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena—a burger I've only had once, but has come to loom quite large in my legend. It's the burger I try to make when I'm cooking at home. It's the burger I compare all other diner-style burgers to. It's the burger in my mind, if you know what I mean.

It's an unassuming sandwich, sitting there wrapped in its parchment paper sheath: There's nothing too special about it. It's made of very loosely packed ground beef (unspecified cut, not ground in-house, no famous butcher behind the label) cooked on a griddle with a slice of American cheese. The bottom of a toasted bun gets slathered thick with Thousand Island-style spread with a few pickle slices and a slab of onion, and the whole thing is topped with crisp iceberg and a toasted top bun. That's it.

But a bite reveals its secrets: This is a perfectly balanced burger. Biting into it, you get the soft give of the pillowy bun followed by a touch of creamy richness from the sauce on your tongue cut with the fresh crunch of iceberg from the top. Next, the textures reverse themselves, the tang of pickles and hot bite of onion slashing through the richness of the sauce while your top teeth meet the hot, rich lavaburst of melted cheese. Finally, upper jaw and lower strike the beef, itself an exercise in textural contrast, the crisply seared crust giving way to juicy pockets of melted fat and gooey cheese that have managed to find their way into the welcomingly open-textured patty. Your teeth meet in the tender, beefy, ever-so-slightly pink center. It's glorious.

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Hyperbole? Perhaps. Like I said, I've only had this burger once, but it's left a huge impression on me.

So I repeat the Burger Cognition Theory: "The best burger a person eats becomes, for him, the burger."

Why this is true of burgers and not of pizza, I don't know, but I do know that whenever I think of pizza, I think of my first (the old Pizza Town location in Morningside Heights). Whenever I think of a burger, I think of Pie 'n Burger.

Anyone else with me on this? What's the burger that defines burgers for you? The burger you think of when someone tells you to think of a burger?

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