What will judges be looking for at tonight's fourth annual Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale Burger Battle?
Some people call it nirvana.
"The judges have a very definitive set of criteria," says Genia Duncan Ellis, president and CEO of Riverwalk Fort Lauderdale, which presents the event. "The one line that I'm told by the judges is that there always seems to be one bite of one particular burger that they call burger nirvana. Taste, texture, smell and presentation — it hits every chord."
The Burger Battle started small, on the lawn of the Riverside Hotel. The event has sold out every year, and attendance is now capped at 1,500 people. This year, 16 of Broward County's best restaurants will bring their creations to downtown Fort Lauderdale's Huizenga Plaza. Ticket buyers will stroll among the restaurants' booths, sampling each of the contenders and voting for what's known as the fan favorite.
A professional judging panel, made up mostly of chefs, will choose the best burger after a blind tasting of all 16. The Capital Grill will set up its French Fry Bar, featuring homemade condiments. Craft beer and Jack Daniel's whiskey will help lubricate the crowd.
Burgers will no doubt be topped with everything from fried eggs to onion rings. But it's all about the beef, says Mike Saperstein, the chef at Charm City Burger Company in Deerfield Beach and last year's Burger Battle winner.
"When you eat a burger, there's a certain flavor that you're looking for," he says. "It's that kind of rich, sweet, charred meat candy."
"Meat candy" is Saperstein's term to describe the flavor of fat when it meets heat. His winning burger was a blend of brisket, chuck and short rib. It was stacked with white American cheese, pickled tomatoes, crispy shallots and smeared with smoked-peppercorn Dijonnaise. Those toppings covered all the chef's burger basics: texture, cheese, sauce and a pickled ingredient.
"But we never overpower the meat," Saperstein says. "Let the meat do the trick."
Saperstein doesn't offer his winner on Charm City's menu, but it's very similar to a menu staple called the Good Ole, a basic cheeseburger minus the winning toppings.
Burger Beast blogger Sef Gonzalez, who will join the judges' panel for a fourth time, says he'll be looking for perfectly seared meat in the competitors' samples. He says toasted buns and melted cheese are necessary for a champion burger, but badly cooked beef is a deal breaker.
"At the end of the day, I really think it needs to be cooked properly, with salt and pepper," Gonzalez says. "My favorite part when I get the burger is to take the top part off and check out the sear on the side of the beef. I like it to have a little crust."
He's not concerned with patty blends or cooking temperatures. Gonzalez says chuck, sirloin, brisket or braised ribs can win, as long as the meat is juicy and not overcooked.
Recalling the first Burger Battle, when Georgie's Alibi in Wilton Manors took its first of two best-burger awards, Gonzalez says the judges don't favor any particular restaurant.
"Nobody was expecting [the Alibi] to win. It's about who puts out the best burger that day," he says. "You know when you bite into that particular burger. You can tell it's just going to stand out from the rest, and everything's going to be in place."
Chef Ron Kerr, a two-time Burger Battle winner from 2010 and 2011, won't be at this year's event. He left the Alibi last November to spend more time on his 2-year-old food truck called Bite Gastrotruck. The Alibi will be represented by its new chef.
On Kerr's food truck, he serves not only burgers, but also hand-cut fries, sweet-potato fries and hand-crafted milkshakes in such flavors as Krispy Kreme and apple bacon.
What advice would he give to Burger Battle contestants?
"I think it's pretty much all about seasoning," he says. "We keep it pretty simple."
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Riverwalk Burger Battle IV
When: 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 31
Where: Huizenga Plaza, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cost: $40 general, $125 VIP
Contact: 954-468-1541 or GoRiverwalk.com
Where to find winning burgers
2010: The Champ, $11 with fries
This was the Alibi's regular burger before its big win, after which owners changed its name. It's a ground-chuck patty on a challah bun with chipotle aioli, caramelized onions and American cheese. It's juicy, and the onions are cooked in bacon fat.
2011: The Knockout, $12 with fries
Chef Ron Kerr outdid his first winner by subbing garlic aioli, cheddar-jalapeno cream cheese, and caramelized onion and bacon jam onto the Champ's Black Angus patty.
Georgie's Alibi, 2266 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors, 954-565-2526 or AlibiWiltonManors.com.
2012: Good Ole, $5.25 without side
While not exactly the winning burger, the Good Ole cheeseburger is similar — minus pickled tomatoes, crispy shallots and smoked-peppercorn Dijonnaise.
Charm City Burger Company, 1136 E. Hillsboro Blvd., Deerfield Beach, 954-531-0300 or CharmCityBurgers.com.