Game of Burgers: Gastropub Gentry, First Round

This gastropub round fancies up the Weekly's Game of Burgers. At a gastropub, the stakes are raised from the fare you gladly accept and adore from a fast food restaurant. A frozen beef puck ain't gonna cut it. A gastropub burger calls for freshly-ground beef from the subprimal cuts of steer that delivers the chef's vision of beefy flavor and a blend of textures that promises to please the palate.

A standard sesame-seed bun? Oh, no. What you'll find at the restaurants I sampled are tall, soft egg buns. Or buttery brioche buns. Perhaps an herbed whole-wheat, or fresh pretzel, or Hawiian sweet roll bun. A slice of processed yellow cheese food product will not do. A carefully thought-out pallete of cheeses await in the kitchen to add ooey-gooey melty fat, and so too a selection of condiments and greens like arugula that you'll never see in a diner's larder.

The wide range of ingredients chefs use in a gastropub burger colored the approach I took in assessing this category. Where Edwin ordered a stripped-down basic burger at his diners to keep contestants on a level playing field, I ordered my burgers exactly as the chefs intended them to be served, with no changes to their visions of how a burger's components come together on the plate. The only consistent request? Make mine medium-rare. Other than that, I ordered up the best-sounding burger on the menu, and judged how well they balanced all their fancy ingredients into a cohesive whole.


The Playground vs. The Crosby

In what's the strongest jousting match in this bracket, the downtown Santa Ana neighbors squared off with two of the best burgers in the county. While The Playground's known for a menu that changes daily, they're equally known for an off-menu, “secret” burger that's not so secret. It's a thick, hand-formed beef patty topped with a balsamic-reduction caramelized onion jam, yellow mustard and shreds of iceberg lettuce. It takes a less-is-more, minimal approach to burger-building. 

The meat here was delivered medium-rare, as ordered, the blend of beef wasn't too fatty, and the outside of the patty was caramelized but not charred. I wasn't a fan of meek shreds of iceberg lettuce, which doesn't have the crunch of hand-leafed lettuce, nor do I love yellow mustard on my burger. Other than those personal nitpicks, it's a fine burger. Too bad it had to face the Smoked Angus Burger from The Crosby. 

Where The Playground's Chef Jason Quinn takes a mimimalist approach, Chef Aron Habiger makes a $15 behemoth made with local grass-fed wagyu beef, brandy apple cider mayonnaise, muenster cheese, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, spicy ketchup, fried egg all on a brioche bun. The ground beef patty is smoked first, picking up a backyard grill flavor that no other gastropub's burger has. 

The downside to the flavor boost is a slightly overcooked patty that's well past medium rare. Good thing it's made with the richly marbled wagyu beef, which still retained enough juice. If you prefer yours cooked medium-well, the massive premium-meat tower combines all those other assertive flavors and blends their juices with the oozing yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.

Side note: a fried egg option is also found at 320 Main, a gastropub that should have been in this bracket, but somehow slipped past all of usWeeklings as a candidate. I guess we needed to venture up to Seal Beach more often in recompense. Sorry about that oversight, 320 Main, you coulda been a contender…

Anyhow, the winner of this joust? The Crosby! The tall stack of super-ingredients elevated the superstar smoked beef patty to the win.
Red Table vs. JT Schmidt

Red Table is Chef Louie Jocson's place hidden in the belly of the obscure Huntington Harbour Mall. His Table Burger is listed on the menu as ground steak topped with aged cheddar, thinly shaved sweet onions, arugula , and a pile of thin-sliced, fully crisped bacon that shatters into shards the moment your teeth take a bite. Cooked a perfect medium-rare, the burger doesn't spill an oil slick on the plate, but still retains the moistness of whatever cut of beef they use. It gets so many things right with a modest and rather safe approach to burger-building that it's hard to fault Red Table's entry in any way.

JT Schimdt is more a brewpub than a gastropub, meaning its menu is far less ambitious in its reach. JT offers a full slate of burgers comparable to Edwin's beloved Red Robin. Faced with the problem of too many house-specialty burgers to choose, I went with the Farmhouse burger, which is hearty enough to keep a farmhand nourished with high-calorie, protein-heavy energy long into his workday. Two beef patties anchor a fried egg, cheddar cheese, bacon and mayo on a whole wheat bun with nothing green or leafy anywhere nearby. If you're really into the meat, starch, and fat, this is your burger right here.

Ultimately, the Farmhouse burger never left the starting gate. Unsalted, unpeppered beef patties mean a bland, flavorless meat made worse by the fact that you get two of them, overcooked to cardboard to boot. A perfectly cooked, runny yolk on the egg might have compensated for dry beef, but the egg was also cooked solid. In the hands of a more careful cook, the Farmhouse might have stood a chance, but not against the Table Burger, which exhibited careful preparation of every ingredient. Better luck next time, JT!
St. Roy Chef's Pub at Vine vs. Brü Grill & Market

The self-described “wine country” restaurant Vine has a doppelganger. Like a pop-up within its own high-end space, they also offer more modestly-priced entrees as well, ergo St. Roy's Chef's Pub. This split personality also manifests on the burger selection where you are faced with the Wine Country Burger, or the ill-named Redneck Burger. Faced with that choice, I asked our waiter which he'd recommend, and he heartily chose the Redneck. Luckily, I ate there with a friend and we sampled one of each.

The Redneck Burger is ill-named because it came out on two slices of dry, over-toasted brioche that crumbled the moment I picked up the burger. A redneck would have the good common sense to use two slices of squishy white bread straight outta the bag, and a soft, absorbent bread would have worked better to absorb the meat juices, grease and barbecue sauce. Had I only ordered the waiter's pick, St. Roy Chef's Pub would be out of the contest for serving a burger that became increasingly annoying to eat as the bread disintegrated.

Good for them that the Wine Country Burger came through. Dressed with a layer of sauteed minced shallot, melted Manchego cheese, roasted tomato and arugula. It used fancy ingredients properly as opposed to its Redneck cousin. I'm glad arugula's peppery bitterness was there to help cut the burger's overly greasy richness.

Excessive fat was the theme in this match-up. Lake Forest's Brü Grill & Market makes a fancy burger with local-as-possible, organic-as-possible ingredients, and for the most part, delivers on that promise. The problem with Brü is the rich ground porterhouse isn't cooked in a way that allows that fat to render out before it's placed on your plate. Also, porterhouse is part of the steer that's combines the loin strip and the tenderloin. Tenderloin is a lean, soft muscle wasted when it's ground into a burger. The result here is a patty with no toothy texture. It's more like red-meat baby food, and made me wish they'd ground up a cut with more texture and flavor, like chuck, brisket, or round.

Brü's bun is better than St. Roy's, but it can only absorb so much juice before the grease levee breaks. If you were to eat Brü's burger ouside of our head-to-head context, it would score ok. Within of our Game of Burgers, Brü's overly greasy burger falls noticeably short.

Winner: St. Roy's Pub at Vine

Crow Bar and Kitchen vs. Haven

This pairing pits two of Orange County's very first gastropubs against each other. In the years since they've opened, each one has sprouted second locations. In Crow Bar's case, their famous burgers spawned a Newport Beach restaurant called Crow Burger with a very narrow focus. Interestingly, their burger joint doesn't offer the original Crowburger, with Taleggio and Gorgonzola, house-made ketchup, wild rocket on a rosemary bun.

First: “wild rocket?” Although the word rocket might sound cool, the British name for arugula didn't make it taste any different than any old arugula you can purchase at the market. It just sounded pretentiously lame on a menu that's failed to keep up with other gastropubs that push adventurous eaters into new food territories.

Second: while I appreciated the small size of the Crow Burger after spending much of the previous week stuffing my maw with overly rich burgers, this thing's small patty made it easy to overcook past medium-rare, and it came out that way. The rosemary bun tasted fine, but it too had dried, and with not enough juice left in the patty to moisten it, no amount of Taleggio and Gorgonzola could save the sad little burger the night we went.

Faced with this competition, Haven had no problem trouncing Crow Bar with the eponymous Haven Burger. Its perfectly griddled meat came out nicely caramelized and lightly charred in spots. The pork fat they use in the blend rendered out enough so it stayed juicy, but not greasy. Picked red onions and arugula added pleasant acid and bitter flavor profiles to the rich St Agur cheese and sweet roasted red pepper.

My photo doesn't do justice to the how well-cooked and how balanced its components are. The Haven Burger is like a drop-dead gorgeous, popular, athletic, kind-hearted valedictorian in high school. What's not to like about it, especially when there's no such thing as a burger that's out of your league?

Winner: Haven Gastropub! They move into round two, where Anne Marie will continue where I left off.

First Round:

Fast Food Fiefdom
Dominion of Diners

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