There are many paths on the road to burger greatness, but they all start with a cow. The assembly-line bovine begins his life in a turkey baster full of bull semen, then lives a pastoral youth, sucking from mother's teat and grazing on grass and hay.
Soon enough, though, the hapless calf is bound for the monolithic feedlots of Texas, Kansas or Nebraska, to gorge on soy and corn and agricultural waste. He'll blossom from a svelte 650 pounds to a marbled monster weighing in at well over a half-ton of beefy flesh.
Others begin in different surroundings, fed diets of beer and sake between visits from the masseuse, all in the tranquil shadow of Himeji Castle in Kobe, Japan. Some range the wild scrublands of the Argentine plains or the Australian outback, wrangled by some of the world's last real cowboys.
No matter where they start, however, the lives of these proto-burgers are always cut short, sacrificed by America's insatiable desire for an all-beef patty, special sauce optional.
But from that finality comes a new beginning. Wherever the beef comes from, it takes a chef's hands to turn coarsely ground fat and protein into the mouthwatering creation that has driven the fast-food industry into every civilized and benighted region on the globe. The choice of meat, the ratio of seasoning and, perhaps above even all of that, the application of heat set one burger apart from another.
Over the next four weeks, we'll pit 64 of the Bay area's best in a head-to-head battle of the burgers. This is a tournament, folks, not a playoff. Each match is do or die — one misstep and you're out of the dance. Leave the patty on the griddle a little too long, forget to sprinkle some salt, and you can pack your spatula and go home.
This year's competition will be harder on the participants than 2007's Pizza Tournament. Home cooks find it difficult, if not impossible, to execute a superior pizza in the kitchen. But every schmo with a "No Fat Chicks" apron can flip a burger, usually lacing it with a secret ingredient that transforms ground chuck into culinary gold. The Bay area's finest burger purveyors will have to stretch to overcome the efforts of the home cook.
There are four steps to the perfect burger: a patty that tastes like beef, with enough fat to leave streaks of greasy red running down my chin; enough salt to highlight the flavor of the beef, with other seasonings subtle enough to provide no more than an accent to the source material; a seared crust, whether from flame or griddle, with the inside either cooked to order or left with enough life to remember the flesh it comes from; and finally, a bun and fixin's that help instead of hinder the star of the show.
Remember, hamburgers are about beef. Cheese, sauce, bacon and other high-falutin' distractions are fine, but they can't polish a turd into treasure. The patty needs to reign supreme.
When I started this quest, two names dominated the burger conversation: El Cap and the Chattaway. Both St. Pete standards, on opposite sides of downtown, both with burger reps that are hard to ignore. Can they possibly live up to the hype? Will they justify their number one seeds in the Pinellas brackets?
Biff Burger, also in St. Pete, might have something to say about that, though it hasn't achieved the fame of the two Pinellas burger bullies. And can the basic ground chuck of the top seeds measure up to the luxury of Kobe beef in the hands of an accomplished chef like Chris Ponte at Café Ponte?
In Tampa, there's no consensus. People point to the Goody Goody Burger, the local classic defined by a secret sauce that is currently topping patties at Pine Grove Family Restaurant. The rest of the bracket is filled with bars and diners, few of them burger specialists. Will the Tampa burger that rises to the top ever be able to compete with the best Pinellas has to offer?
But wait — ever had a burger at Bern's Steak House? It's not on the menu, but they'll make you one if you're sitting at the bar and they're feeling generous. Just think of it: the exceptional beef of that vaunted steakhouse, ground and grilled like a common quarter pounder. It'll have a lot to live up to, but it might provide some serious competition.
Or maybe the crown will go to the new guy on the block, Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Yep, it's a chain. Yep, we gave it a number one seed. Have you tried it? This national burger specialist deserves a spot at the front of the pack.
Think you can pick the winners? Time to load up on Lipitor and start scouting out the competitors. Fill out the brackets and wait to see if you have a career in patty prognostication. You may even win a prize.
Next week, the tournament field will be slashed down to the Savory Sixteen, separating the juicy, beefy wheat from the dried-out chaff. On Week Three, we'll prune down to the Edible Eight, the true masters of the burger trade, and announce who makes it into the Final Four. That's when we'll break out a gaggle of local celebrities to help us crown the 2008 CL Tournament of Burgers Champion, announced Week Four. (Trust us, our tummies will need the break.)
Favorites or underdogs, fancy restaurants or dive bars, it's all the same. In the end, they all have one chance to put a burger on a bun that can take the prize.