A burger at a barbecue place? Really?
Okay, hear me out.
Years ago, I was part of a panel tasked with naming the best burger in the Charlottesville area. A top chef, a beef industry insider, and I each spent months sampling dozens of burgers around town, in search of the best. But, we never finished – in part because of an editor change at the publication behind the competition, but also because our search bore such little fruit. Sure, there were a handful of decent burgers. For the most part, though, the burgers were of a quality that my strict focus on the positive forbids me from describing. At few restaurants did the burger seem to be much more than an afterthought. “Where is the love?” I wondered.
Enter Smoked Kitchen & Tap. Justin van der Linde is such a wizard in the barbecue pit that it can be difficult to order anything but barbecue. But, if you do manage to resist the ‘cue, and opt for a burger instead, you will be rewarded. Co-owner Kelley Tripp has nailed it.
Sure, 2017 brought plenty of outstanding dishes more complex than a burger. Charlottesville cooking has never been better. Like 2014, 2015, 2016, the year was full of inspired creations. Lampo dazzled me almost weekly. Jose de Brito brought his magic back to Fleurie. Dishes from Brasserie Saison, Oakhart Social, and Cote Rotie are all etched in my memory. And, at Ivy Inn Angelo Vangelopolous still wows. But, among the many masterpieces, the dish that stood out most was one in which a chef took a simple dish, which can sometimes be ordinary, and applied the attention to detail necessary to make it extraordinary. He made it with love. Given the choice among: (i) fancy ingredients, (ii) culinary brilliance, or (iii) food made with love, I’ll choose the latter every time.
It’s in the Details: The Burger at Smoked
It seems simple. Grind meat. Apply heat. Put it on a bun. From the first time I tasted a burger at Smoked, though, I could tell that a lot more goes into it than that. You can taste the love. When I later asked Tripp about the burger’s preparation, I was not at all surprised to learn the care that goes into each step. With help from photographer Tom McGovern, witness below the attention to detail behind the 2017 Dish of the Year: the burger at Smoked Kitchen & Tap.
Tripp starts with an 80-20 lean-to-fat blend of the best ground beef he can find, which he portions loosely into spheres. “We don’t bind them up, which is crucial for them texturally,” Tripp says.
Tripp places the spheres directly onto an extremely hot grill. “A searing hot grill makes all the difference,” says Tripp. “No oil or butter needed since the fat resides in the meat.”
Next comes the smash, a la Riverside. “Getting the perfect sear and maximizing the Maillard reaction is what we are looking for,” Tripp says. “We utilize the sear and smash method for this very reason, and press our burgers only once to ensure no additional loss of the goodness inside.”
Seasoning is kept simple, so the burgers taste like meat, not seasoning. “Each patty is individually seasoned on front and back with just kosher salt and fresh black pepper,” says Tripp.
Bread matters too. “We only use Martin’s potato buns and we special order an over-sized bun which is 4″ in diameter,” says Tripp. “We lightly butter it, and it also hits the grill with a steam lid to sear the inside while slightly warming the middle for maximum softness and subtle snap.”
“We cover each patty with the cheese of your liking,” says Tripp, “making sure that we melt it perfectly until it is almost fallen off the burger.” Briefly covering the burger creates steam to yield that result.
“Then it’s time to top it the way you want it,” says Tripp. “We have all the basics, plus a couple interesting additions like our house brown sugar bacon, smoked jalapeños, and our own comeback sauce.”
“After it’s built,” Tripp says, “we wrap each burger in butcher paper and get it right out to the customer. We take pride in our timing of all of our food but we especially ensure that our burgers get plated and delivered within seconds.”
It might seem like a lot of effort and for a simple dish. But, as culinary legend Joel Robuchon says: “the simpler the food, the harder it is to prepare it well.” That difficulty is evident form the burgers that can emerge from kitchens that fail to take the care that Tripp’s does. At Smoked, with all the care that goes into it, the burger spawns drive-worthy cravings.
The Smoked Burger
I’m a burger minimalist. When trying a restaurant’s burger for the first time, I order it the same way I eat it at home: with just cheese (usually American), and nothing else. Only after tasting it do I decide whether it needs any additions – e.g. mustard, mayo, salt, pepper, etc. If I find myself halfway through a burger before I’ve even thought to reach for condiments, I know it’s a good one.
At Smoked, I have never reached for a condiment.
Not everyone likes their burger as simple as I do. And, for those who prefer adornments, Smoked’s attention to detail extends to those as well, with many made in-house, some even in the smoker. The “Smoked Stack’d,” for example, is a triple cheeseburger with house bacon, cheddar cheese sauce, American cheese, smoked jalapeño, comeback sauce, bbq sauce, lettuce and tomato. My fondness for a plain cheeseburger has never allowed me to try it, but it looks good:
Where the Love Is
Tripp is not the only one in the area cooking with love. All over the region, chefs and artisans devote similar care to their craft – from the humblest morsel to the most lavish feast. They make not just our meals, but our bread, our cheese, our chocolate, our pastries, our bagels, our gelato, our charcuterie, our beer, our wine, our spirits, our produce, and more. The 2017 Dish of the Year is a tribute not just to Tripp, but to everyone in the Charlottesville area who wakes up each day and cooks with love. For your efforts, we are blessed.
Here’s to lots more love in 2018.