Talking with the Burger Geeks
1. Can you tell us about your BLOG?
It's called Burger Geeks (burgergeeks.blogspot.com). We're also on Twitter (@burgergeeks). We're 4 guys, with guest appearances from Becky, who like good burgers. We used to just go out for burgers and then we thought we should start writing about what we found. When we started the BLOG we looked at a lot of other sites and saw that they would go into a lot of detail about the ingredients, how things were prepared and so on. We just wanted to know: where can you get a good burger? And tell me about why it's good or not. That's how the BLOG started.
2. Do any of you have culinary backgrounds?
No. We all appreciate good food. Life is too short for bad food. Some of us like cooking, but we're not chefs.
3. How do you rate the burgers?
Mike B. - I give 3 points each for the burger, bun, and the toppings. I reserve the final point for the "wow!" factor.
Mike R. - I look for a unique burger that you can't find somewhere else. So, tonight I'm ordering the burger with the egg on it. If they have snails, bring it to me.
Robert - I look for a solid burger and get close to the same thing every place we go - it allows for more consistency in how I compare burgers. I just look at the overall burger in my rating.
Brian - Another thing we have is - "would I drive out of my way to get this burger?" and "would I recommend this to someone else?" That's the end result of the rating.
4. Have your ratings been consistent over time?
We're probably a little more discriminating now. With so many middle of the road places we're now looking for more "wow!" to set them apart.
When we started we all just thought: do I like this burger or not? Now we're looking for more to help separate out the ones in the middle. We spend more time looking at all the elements of a burger - is it cooked the way I asked it to be cooked? Are the ingredients fresh or wilted? How's the flavor? And so on.
5. When the BLOG assigns a rating for a burger, is that an average of all your ratings?
No, it's the rating of the person who does the write up. If multiple people contribute to a review we'll indicate what each person thought but the overall score is from the one who does the writing.
Mike R. - I write up a lot of the reviews and for my rating I do take into consideration whether or not the other guys would drive to a place just for the burger.
6. Do you ever really disagree about a rating?
Oh yeah. Bubba Burger is an example. Mike B. and Mike R. gave it a 10, and that's how it was scored on the BLOG, but Brian and Robert weren't as impressed.
Cruiser's Grill is another example. Mike R. is always swinging for the fences and trying really different things. So he ordered the weekly special, which was a deep fried burger, and it was awful. It's been our only 1 rating so far. And the thing about Cruiser's is they're known for their burgers and so we went there expecting a little more. If we go to a wing joint and find a great burger, that's a pleasant surprise and can contribute to the "wow!" effect. But if we go to a place that's known for its burgers and get something that's really average then it can have the opposite effect to "wow!"
7. Does price influence your rating?
A little, but not mainly. If it's a $20 burger then it better be good, but otherwise we don't really look at the price in the rating.
8. What about things like service, ambience and so forth?
It can have an influence but it's mostly secondary. And it mostly matters when it's really bad or really good.
Mike R. - I do mention service and ambience in the BLOG. I think they matter. When I enjoy a burger I want to enjoy it in a nice place and with good service. That's part of what influences me to want to recommend a place, or not.
9. What makes a good burger?
One of the things we've all learned is that how a burger is cooked can make all the difference in the world. If you're going to make all your burgers well-done, that's fine, just don't ask me how I want mine cooked. If you ask me, and I want it medium, or even medium-rare, don't bring it well done.
Mike B. - that's a good point. Kickbacks makes great burgers, but the first time I went they burned my burger and that ruined it.
Robert - for me what really brought this home was the burger I had at The Loop. I wasn't even sure why we were going to The Loop because we've all been a million times. But when we went my burger was cooked perfectly. It was an awesome burger. I go to another Loop near my house all the time and I've never been able to duplicate how well that one burger was cooked. So the person doing the cooking can have a big impact.
A lot of places just get line cooks who are pumping the burgers out. It's just a job. But you can really tell when a place takes their burgers seriously, because it shows in the quality of the end product. The stand-out places like Olio must have a real cook making things because the quality of the cooking itself is always so high.
Robert - how it's cooked is important but the bun is critical too. It needs to hold everything together, have some flavor, and not be mushy or dry or falling apart.
10. What about the quality of the meat - is there a big difference?
Absolutely. It's something that jumps out right away now. It's how you can really tell if a place cares about its burger. The meat needs to be juicy but not greasy. It needs flavor, which not every burger has. Some places use heavy sauces to hide the fact that their burgers are tasteless.
We all taste the burger by itself to judge the quality of the meat. We're also looking to see if it's cooked right, is seasoned properly and has a good flavor.
For the places that really put their burgers front and center you can just tell the meat is high quality and the patty is made with care. At Kickbacks and Olio for example, you can see that they're using a hand-pattied burger.
Mike R. - Dave and Busters was for me the perfect example of a burger that looks like it came straight from the freezer to the pan. It looked no different from what I could do at home. All of our burgers looked exactly the same. To me that's not good. Olio was a good example for me where I could tell that someone was in the kitchen making each burger with care.
11. What about non-beef burgers; do you ever have those?
Not really. We mostly stick to regular burgers.
Mike R. - I'm pretty adventurous and would try any type of meat. The Hunt Club has yak burgers and antelope. Unfortunately when we went there they were out of antelope and the waiter wasn't recommending the yak. We reviewed it based on their burger but I do want to go back and try the antelope.
Ted's is known for its bison burger, but it was a big disappointment for all of us.
12. So what's the most important thing overall?
Mike B. - we're looking for a balance. I had a burger at Cheesecake Factory that came with two thick slices of American cheese. I like cheese, but that overwhelmed the burger - it was too much. I never thought I'd ever say "there's too much cheese on my burger," but I felt like I was eating a grilled cheese. The burger was a Kobe burger but I couldn't taste it.
Brian - the burger itself has to stand out.
Mike R. - I ordered a burger from Wild Wing Cafe. The burger was huge. It had chili on it, an egg, and a beautiful onion ring on top. It was packed and it looked awesome. But when I started eating it, everything was bland. The chili was bland, the burger was bland. The presentation was a 10 but it got a low rating because it didn't come through in the taste.
13. Does the size of the burger matter? There are some places that emphasize huge burgers?
No, as long as it's good. Kickbacks was almost too big. That's a hard burger to finish. It was excellent, but it was big.
Mike R. - a big burger can have a "wow!" factor that does influence me. But the burger needs to be good.
14. Does the cooking method matter?
The cooking method does make a difference. We're not fans of microwaves.
…someone microwaves their burgers?
We were at The Edge and saw them put the burger in the microwave to reheat it. It was busy and that was to speed things up. But we're still not fans.
15. Have you ever returned a burger?
Mike R. - No, but I should have. I had one that was horrible, way over cooked … but I ate the whole thing.
16. How do you pick a restaurant to rate?
We pick by recommendation mostly. Sometimes if one of us has been there before and thinks the place is worth considering, then we'll go there.
Also, when we started we were picking local restaurants, but a lot of them were just average. So we switched to chains and a lot of them were even more average, even though some of the chains like Bubba Burger and Longhorn's were really good. Lately we've been looking for the even smaller, more local places where they pay special attention to the food. Part of our reason for focusing on local places too is to tie into our theme of whether or not we'd recommend a place to someone. If I have a visitor from out of town I'm not going to send them to a chain - I'm going to send them somewhere that's distinctive to Jacksonville.
We will cover the chains over time but they're a lower priority. We want to find places we can send people to and that tends to be the local places not the chains. Some of the chains like Five Guys and Hardees are good for what they are, but they're not the best burgers.
Mike B. - I even like McDonald's. They have a solid burger with a unique taste. I've been eating them since I was a kid and every once in a while I just want one of their burgers.
17. What does it take to "wow!" you?
Robert - for me it is usually something special like the seasoning or the sauce. Everything else needs to come together but then there needs to be something extra that makes it stand out.
Mike R. - the more burgers I'm trying the more it takes to "wow!" me. The deep fried wowed me. An egg can add to the "wow!" but it's becoming more common too. Although I always look for that extra thing to wow me, I also have to say that when we visited Southern Grill they just brought out an absolutely perfect American burger. There was nothing extra on it. There was no chili, no bamboo sprouts. You could take a picture of it and it looked like a burger from the '40s or '50s. It had a homemade taste; the buns were perfect; the meat was cooked well. And they're consistently good too.
18. Do you ever go to a place twice?
Not as a group. Kickbacks Gastropub is the only exception. We've gone there twice. They wowed us and we wanted to double check that they were really that good.
19. How many places have you visited so far?
About 20 or so.
20. Are you running out of places that you really want to visit?
Oh no! We've tended to focus on places downtown because we work downtown and can get out for lunch. But there's a lot of places at the Beach that we want to try out and are saving for the weekends.
Brian - we keep trying to go to The French Pantry. The first two times we went and it was so busy we couldn't get in during lunch. When we finally got in on the third attempt it had been so long since we were there that we couldn't stay away from our favorites, so I went for the French Dip. So we still need to go back for the burger.
Mike R. - our current list will last another four months if we go every week. And we keep getting more recommendations for places to try.
21. Your only score of 10 so far has gone to Bubba Burger. How did Bubba Burger get a 10?
Mike B. - I was saying before that I normally order a pretty consistent burger. Bubba Burger was the exception. They have a Chuckwagon Burger that is dipped in a thin batter, like a tempura, and then deep fried. When you bite into it there's a crunch and then it's really tender inside. It was cooked perfectly and topped with great chili and jalapeños. It was really different. The combination of the deep frying and the creamy chili created a real taste treat. Mike R. and I were the only ones to have the Chuckwagon and we both gave Bubba Burger a 10 because of it. Brian and Robert wouldn't have given Bubba Burger a 10 but they also had something different. So the right burger can definitely influence things. And I struggled a bit with the score. I don't want to give out a 10 easily and I was having a specialty burger, which I normally don't do. But it was a great burger and deserved a 10.
Robert - Brian and I have a similar take on the best burger. I think we'd both say that Kickbacks and Olio have the best burgers overall. And by far, too.
Brian - yeah, I'd agree with that. There are a lot of good places but Kickbacks and Olio stand out and I'd have no hesitation recommending them to anyone.
22. Are you seeing any trends in the burger industry?
There is a grilled cheese bun trend. They use two grilled cheese sandwiches as the buns. You can get one at Metro Diner. I think it started at the stadium - they have something called the Two Point Conversion which is a burger with two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun.
…what do you think of it?
It's probably too much. Hardees has it. We tried theirs but it really didn't work well.
Mike B. - I had to try the one at Metro Diner. But it was like "here we go again - too much cheese." It's massive too - it's even hard to get your mouth around it. All you tasted was grilled cheese.
Taps Bar & Grill
23. What's next?
We're always talking about whether we should spend more time rating the chains or whether we should keep focusing on the smaller places.
Some of the chains, like Longhorn's, are really good, so we don't want to dismiss them. And they act as a benchmark. A lot of people know Five Guys, Outbacks and places like that. If we can say - "this burger is similar to what you get at Outback or this burger is better than what you get at Five Guys," that can help people to relate to our feedback. And some people may not think of getting a burger from Longhorn's but we gave them a 9 out of 10 and they're definitely worth trying for their burgers.
A place like Kickbacks is known for its beer and I would never think of it as a burger place. But it's obvious they take their burgers seriously and produce a really high quality product. And as a burger BLOG we have the opportunity to let people know about places they might not think of when they're looking for a good burger and that's really important to us. So we won't forget the chains but we're going to keep looking for those smaller places that are unique to Jacksonville and are worthy of a special drive.
24. If someone wants to keep up with your quest for great Jacksonville burgers, what's the best way to do so?
The Burger Geeks (L. to R.): Robert, Mike B., Mike R., Brian.