I have taken on a quest. It’s not something I take lightly, either. I looking for the best hamburger in Birmingham and beyond. Why?
Why is the sky blue or the grass green? These are questions that don’t have answers, but there is a convoluted answer about me and this quest. The Birmingham News once offended my culinary sensibilities, and a hamburger has, for as long as I can remember, been my personal comfort food. Some people love fried chicken, or a casserole, or fatty Mexican food. But the ultimate comfort food for me has always been a hamburger.
In May 2011, The Birmingham News posted a list of the best burgers in Birmingham in its “City Scene.” The winner, crowned by a cast of celebrity judges, was Chez Fon Fon’s signature burger.
Now, I like Frank Stitt, the proprietor of that establishment. He’s a good guy and been a great ambassador for the city, for slow food and is an amazing chef. Chez Fon Fon is a wonderful French provincial restaurant located next to his signature location – Highlands Bar and Grill.
But a burger is more than high quality meat and an artisan bun. Consider barbeque, for a moment. Barbeque, for those who love that divine stuff, is not just about meat and bun, either. Sauce or a good piece of pie can make or break a barbeque joint. The place has to have a certain barbeque look, smell and feel about it. You need to leave smelling of smoke, having communed with pictures of college football coaches and carried on some type of banter with a cook, waitress or fellow passenger on the barbeque highway of life.
You can get barbeque – if my fingers will allow me to type it – from Cracker Barrel. But why the hell would you want to get it from there? I can also eat in my car, but that doesn’t make it a meal. So while you might get amazing food at Chez Fon Fon, Highlands, Cracker Barrel (God forbid!) or McDonalds, you don’t get the experience of eating barbeque.
Where the nation as a whole can’t claim barbeque in the way the South can, it can claim the burger. And an exceptional burger is just as much of an experience, more than the sum of meat (or veggies) and bun. It’s Americana, in the vein of baseball, apple pie, revival meetings and pro wrestlin’.
Without the proper atmosphere and experience, you might as well eat a Big Mac in your Subaru or Honda Accord, and call it the best burger experience. The same people who think they’ve been to burger nirvana in the back seat of a car probably think that the pinnacle of love life can be accomplished in the back seat of a Chevy Lumina with the melodious sounds of Air Supply/R Kelly/Slipknot echoing around them.
To put it another way: For edibility, you need credibility.
A French provincial restaurant may have a great burger, but it will never have complete burger credibility, because it never will be a burger from a burger joint. The burger may get an A+, but the atmosphere is wrong … and burgers come with fries, not pomme frites.
So, now I’m off … with a direction and some criteria to help judge:
- Meat – the quality and construction is important. If you use a pre-made patty, you’ll have a big ole hill to climb.
- Bun and fixins’ – Think fresh, complimentary, the whole is more than the sum of these parts.
- Sides – Fries obviously. Frozen from a bag won’t win you points in my book, but I’m more interested in what you do with them. Full disclosure: I’m a sucka for homemade fries.
- Presentation and service – Consider this more of an opportunity to lose points. Presentation should be appropriate to the locale
- Ambiance – Completely subjective, but it should scream “joint” or “institution” or “place the locals love.” Points may be deducted for pretension and unnecessary gourmet aspirations applied to a proletarian food. When you visit, you’ll likely run into someone who has eaten there … well, you can fill in the blank with something like, “since 1973” or “ever since I was paroled” or “after they closed up the Tastee Freez.”
- Bonus X – A great shake, warm banana pudding or a real Vanilla Coke might not make or break a burger place, but it’s worth noting. This could include a lot of stuff. I’m open to the adventure, you know.
So, let the fun begin …