I often find burgers troubling. There they stand, too tall, fillings spilling from a sloppy circle, great beefy oaks slathered in all manner of sugary coatings; cheese that is too flavourful and proves only to be ruinous; maple-flecked bacon, brittle and unforgiving.
There have been, over the years, burgers that could well have been fine but spoiled by the inclusion of blue cheese. What a tedious distraction. Brioche is another modern blight: Artificial Intelligence to humankind’s creativity, sweet and flimsy and lacking imagination. To place a pattie between brioche is a tech bro believing he can improve the world when in fact he is dampening proceedings with the wrong sort of carbohydrate.
It is puzzling to me that people feel the need to stretch burgers. Food is about inventiveness and progress but it is also about knowing when to stop. Tradition might be the word. A burger’s beginnings are humble and restrained, yet substantial and supremely satisfying. It is in their limitation that they find their solace-giving qualities. In America, there was a long-held belief that a burger should be a one-handed job, a meal to be eaten in one hand while driving a car. Probably a Cadillac along a southern route.
We have to some degree lost our way with burgers. But not always. I may go so far as to say I had the best of my life – at least the most delicious in many years – at the Hoxton in Brussels, in a restaurant called Valentina Cantina, where the chef is Alex Joseph and the burgers are beautifully considered.
First, they are large, but in circumference, not height. This is pleasing – that flagship one-handed job, easily put away without nonsense tumbling about the place. The beef I’ve no doubt is sourced well, and it is complemented only by American cheese, which tops the meat as if a blanket, ketchup and mustard, a spicy dose of salsa, and crisp lettuce.
Gherkins might well improve the burger, but in their place was the salsa criolla, a South American, Latin combination of hot pepper, garlic and onion that is bold with vinegar and necessary sourness.
The waiting staff asked whether I would like my burger served medium. I obliged. And so arrived a juicy, plate-sized burger, seasoned comfortably, beef the star but with a little heat to enliven and accelerate. All in a sesame seed bun, and everything steamed, which is something done in US diners, generally, but forgotten about too often in Europe. By the way, anybody who thinks another sort of bread tops the sesame seed bun is wrong. The success of McDonald’s is the only reminder they need.
1 sesame seed burger bun
150g burger mince
20g salsa criolla: finely diced onion, red or green pepper, fresh tomato, lime juice, coriander, red wine vinegar and olive oil, all to taste
3 slices American cheese
10g American mustard
1 leaf butter lettuce
First, make the salsa criolla. Mix the ingredients together to a salsa consistency – blend if you would like to. Prepare in advance and allow the mix to stand. Save any extra for future use.
Toast the bun, but only very lightly to warm.
Put mayo on the bottom bun.
Smash the mince on a plancha or chopping board, season with salt and pepper to taste, and fry to allow caramelisation before flipping.
Once you flip, add the cheese and lock in steam using a cloche and a dash of water. All around 15 or 20 seconds for the cheese to melt.
Remove the cloche and add the ketchup, mustard, salsa criolla and the bun lid – then steam again for 30 seconds, all together, to maximise moisture but before the bun becomes too soft.
Plate up and serve with chips.