Grilled: Jennifer Deseo of The Silver Spring Penguin


Burger-centric interviews with chefs, writers, and other food lovers.

Note: Today we're interviewing Jennifer Deseo of The Silver Spring Penguin, a blog dedicated to news and events in Silver Spring, Maryland. Over the summer we enjoyed following her burger escapades in her 2009 Burger Quest series. She'll return to above-average burger consumption next summer; until then, get to know her in our Q&A.

Name: Jennifer Deseo
Location: Silver Spring, MD (a suburb of Washington, D.C.)
Occupation: Editor, food critic and seasonal "Burger Quest" pilgrim for The Silver Spring Penguin

How often do you eat burgers? I'll have a burger maybe once a month—and that's a big maybe. But during Burger Quest season, I can down three or more burgers per week. And I'm not talking about those itty-bitty belly bombers, either.

Where did you eat your most recent one? At the Shake Shack in New York City's Madison Square Park. The Shackburger was incredibly juicy, and it was tough to beat al fresco dining with Manhattan's Flatiron building as a backdrop.

Cheese: American, cheddar, other? Cheddar is perfect on top of a burger, like it was invented for that sole purpose. American works too, and Swiss goes well with bacon and sautéed mushrooms.

Ketchup or mustard? I prefer ketchup over mustard, but if a burger's good, it won't need any condiments.

Sesame-seed or plain? Actually, I like my hamburger rolls with a little bit of cornmeal dusted on top. It adds texture to the bread without giving a nutty flavor like sesame seeds do.

Grilled, griddled, or broiled? Griddled. It's the best way to preserve the patty's juices (read: fat).

And how would you like that done? Medium or medium well, depending on the restaurant. I like my patties pink but not mooing.

Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger? My dream burger would have a quarter-pound beef patty seasoned lightly with salt, pepper and garlic powder, grilled to medium, then topped with a slab of cheddar, crisp romaine lettuce, slivers of red Bermuda onion, a sweet pickle medallion, and a slice of ripe tomato (but only if it's in season). Drop all of that on a warm kaiser roll shmeared with a little mayo, and that's good eats.

The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest encounter with this delicious dish? Like lots of kids, my earliest experiences with the hamburger came by way of fast-food chains (Burger King, specifically). I wasn't a fan of tomatoes back then, so I always made it a point to peel them off. And it was ALWAYS a cheeseburger. Plain burgers didn't do it for me then, don't do it for me now.

What's your favorite fast-food burger? I'm really impressed with the burgers at New York's Shake Shack, and it's all about In-N-Out Burgers when I'm on the West Coast. In a pinch, Burger King does a body good.

What topping or condiment, in your opinion, should never grace a burger? Fish. Recently, I visited a restaurant that offered grilled tuna (maybe it was salmon) as a topping. No, no, NO. (Editor's Note: Jennifer requested I use big, bold letters. She means business.) That kind of action is just wrong. If Nature intended fish and beef to be served on the same bun, then cow ancestors would never have crawled out of the sea millions of years ago.

What's the most unusual burger you've ever eaten? During one camping trip to Florida, my family bought frozen burger patties to cook in our rented Winnebago. When we couldn't get the portable stove going, we microwaved the patties instead. It was definitely not the best burger experience: I spent the following day retching my guts out at the water park.

What's the most overrated burger you've tried? Most underrated? Can't say that I've experienced an overrated burger, but Wendy's burgers definitely deserve more love than they get. They've got a freshness to them that fast foodies tend to overlook.

What are your top three burgers in Silver Spring? The Quarry House Tavern and McGinty's Pub rated tops during my 2009 Burger Quest. Both bars serve succulent burgers, so when choosing between the two, it comes down to whether I want tater tots or steak fries on the side. (The Quarry House serves the former, McGinty's goes with the latter.) The Parkway Deli also does decadent burgers. Best part: The place has an awesome "all you can eat" pickle bar.

Imagine that for some crazy reason, you're going vegetarian. Where do you go for your final burger? Funny that this question should come up, as I shift towards a vegetarian diet during the off-season. It's like detox before my next Burger Quest in 2010.

But if I had to name my last meal as a carnivore, I'd call it Burger King's Whopper with cheese. The Whopper's shredded lettuce, tomato and mayo work so well with the grilled (albeit thin) patty—I'd enjoy it even without the meat. And Burger King's burgers remind me of my childhood.

How did you decide to start writing about burgers? It was the summer of 2009 in Silver Spring, but as an apartment dweller, I had no access to a backyard grill. Furthermore, I refused to go through barbecue season without enjoying a decent burger.

Thus my quest to find Silver Spring's best burgers began. (Cue the theme song from Lord of the Rings.) I reviewed burgers at six independently owned restaurants in the neighborhood, and will pick up where I left off in summer 2010.