Grilled: Tom McKern of Zombie Burger in Des Moines, IA


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

Editor's note: Grilled is our interview series where we get to know more about our favorite burger makers and burger lovers. The column has been dormant for too long—it's time for us to ramp it up! If there you have any suggestions for people we should grill, drop us a line at [email protected].


[Photograph courtesy of Tom McKern]

Since 2011, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab in Des Moines, Iowa, has been attracting hordes of diners hungry for a great burger. The concept is definitely a draw (and part of the restaurant's unique appeal), but executive chef Tom McKern backs that up with an inventive menu of 26 boundary-pushing burgers (plus a special burger of the week), topped with everything from fried bananas to green chile and cheese croquettes. Want something simple? He's got you covered there, too. The baseline cheeseburgers are awesome, according to this AHT review.

Ok, let's get started with the questions:

Name: Tom McKern
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Occupation: Executive Chef, Zombie Burger

What makes Zombie Burger a new different type of burger restaurant? We are the only zombie-themed restaurant in America. We work consistently to blend our love of bold flavors and great cuisine with pop culture, with a primary focus on the horror genre.

Zombie décor‎ at Zombie Burger [Photograph: Jennifer Kikoler]

How did you first come up with the idea for a restaurant like this? ZB is a brain-child of Chef George Formaro, one of the restaurant's owners. His lifelong love of both horror movies and classic roadside burgers of 1970s drove the concept. The original goal for Zombie Burger was specifically to provide the best burger possible. We started with classic flavors and combinations but soon expanded into some crazy flavor combos, which in turn led to our constant quest to out-do ourselves.

What's the craziest burger you've ever invented? This is a very hard question, I have asked every member of my staff and they all have answered differently. My personal favorite is "They're Coming to Get You, Bambino" which included two garlic bread grilled cheese buns filled with fresh mozzarella and basil, topped with house-made spaghetti-o croquette, red sauce and more fresh mozzarella.

Do you see your restaurant expanding? New locations? There are no current plans for expansion, but it's always a possibility for the future.

Walking Ched burger from Zombie Burger [Photograph: Jennifer Kikoler]

All right, let's talk burgers:

How often do you eat one? 1-2 per month.

Cheese: American, cheddar, other? American is my first choice, but any cheese with good flavor that melts well can work.

Ketchup or mustard? Mustard for a thick grilled patty, ketchup-mayo for a griddled patty. My biggest thing with condiments is the amount that is used—it should add a flavor, not change the sandwich. Too many restaurants use way too much sauce and ruin it for the rest of us.

Preferred bun type? Soft and squishy but with a bit of bite so it does not fall apart from a medium-rare patty.

Grilled, griddled, or broiled? Charcoal grilled for any thick burger (8-10 ounces); griddled in cast iron skillet for small burgers (4 ounces).

And how would you like that done, sir? Medium-rare thick patty, medium-well thin (otherwise you miss out on that nice Maillard crust).

Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger? Start with the bun I described up top, buttered and toasted. Thick patty, 8 to 10-ounce brisket/chuck blend, cooked on a screaming hot charcoal grill to almost burnt outside, but medium-rare in. A little yellow mustard, white onion and American cheese.

The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest encounter with this delicious dish? It was probably McDonald's, but there is no real memory there. The first burger I really remember was from a backyard barbecue. My step-father would grill these massive 10-ounce patties on the Weber. They were dressed with mustard and white onion on a cheap burger bun. Other than the bun, that changed what a burger was supposed to be for me.


Double Cheeseburger from B-Bop [Photograph:]

What's your favorite fast-food burger? My favorite is B-Bops—it's a local fast food chain that makes great burgers. They have been a staple of the Des Moines burger scene for 20+ years.

What topping or condiment, in your opinion, should never grace a burger? I don't really have an answer for this; before ZB, I would have a list a mile long, but I have learned that used with the right combination of ingredients, pretty much anything can work on a burger. Maybe durian fruit wouldn't, but with a coconut-red curry sauce to mellow the smell and maybe throw some pork adobo on it, it might work.

What are some cooking tips you can offer when preparing a burger? Crust is key. A good burger, no matter how it is cooked, will always taste better with a nice crust.

Thanks for sharing, Tom!

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