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Burger kingdom

How Atlanta got to the meat of the matter

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It all seems so counterintuitive, this sudden celebration and deification of an American staple that starts with a pressed mash of ground beef and doesn't end that much further down the road. But as magazines and cable networks have made foodies of us all, maybe it's not so surprising that the hamburger has become such a flashpoint of culinary discussion and debate. And consumption.

In 2007, Atlanta was anointed – by the most unlikely of national sources, the Wall Street Journal, no less – as the place for the best burgers in America. In the article, longtime food reporter Raymond Sokolov established his own personal holy trinity: the Vortex (with its vast variety of some 20-odd choices), the Earl (not so vast, but pointed and popular) and Miss Ann's Snack Bar (the singularly exalted "Ghetto Burger"). But as Manhattan darling chef Daniel Boulud proved with his $27 signature "DB Burger" – with its braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles – even burgers can be upscale. Shaun Doty picked up on this theme when he opened Shaun's in October 2006, offering a $16 burger featuring fatty (and pricey) Wagyu beef served with a slice of Vidalia onion and a smear of homemade mayonnaise atop sesame-seed brioche buns from Alon's Bakery, with pommes frites cooked in "graisse de canard" (duck fat).

Even in Atlanta, the menu choice that had been the heart and soul of the downtown bar and grill and fast-food joint had suddenly gone uptown. Is this all for real, or just whimsy and novelty? Maybe it's a little of both, because as fancy as America's tastes have become, the burger still represents simplicity at its finest.

"It's just a tribute to the enduring quality," says Doty, who confesses to cocking the higher brow as a rising chef who once worked under Guenter Seeger. "Maybe when I was younger, I wouldn't have done [a burger] because I was on a jihad for the high culinary arts. You can have a fabulous burger on a brioche bun from a fresh bakery. A good burger pulled off right can be pretty dynamite, also."

Doty's doting quickly established the gourmet counterpoint to Ann Price's ground-level ground-beef offering, the "Ghetto Burger," which, despite a local popularity that matched its girth, attained national attention with the Wall Street Journal article. For the record, Sokolov never officially dubs her two-patty monstrosity the best hamburger in the world; he calls it "the outstanding hamburger experience I found." And dining at the Kirkwood shack is more about the experience than anything else, from three-hour waits complicated by Price's "Soup Nazi" rules and carping at customers, as well as her ability to produce eight burgers at a given seating all by herself. This procedure recently was captured on film by director Shareef Scott and his group Directorz Inc., with half the clientele admitting to learning about her work only through the famous March 2007 article.

As much an "experience" as Miss Ann's burger might be, eating it is as much an exercise in excess as it is to drop $16 on Doty's decadent Wagyu beef. What helps make the Atlanta burger reputation so vital is the spectrum points in between. For every bar-and-grill marvel served up at the Vortex and the Earl that Sokolov rightly extols, there are still more that locals swear by in local Internet surveys and magazine readers' polls. There are champions for George's, Murphy's and the Highlander in Virginia-Highland, as well as advocates of the U.S. Café Express out in Smyrna.

Even local fast-food joints deserve special notice, most notably the one at Fat Louie's on Marietta Street, which is a classic greasy affair but with ground beef that is obviously of an above-average quality.

But the offerings at the Vortex and the Earl deserve their hype. The Vortex's variety is matched only by its attention to quality supervised by a manager who knows his way around a grill. The Vortex's Tim Linnehan's eight years spent supervising the joint's 20 different burger offerings overshadows his high-end culinary training at Johnson & Wales. He knows quantity can't obscure quality, even when he moves 300 burgers in four hours at peak production time.

Using fresh ground sirloin with an 80:20 ratio of beef to fat, Linnehan swears by the flame-grill approach because it "adds a flavor that you just can't get cooking on a flat piece of metal." That ratio is crucial, he notes; a burger needs fat for flavor but doesn't have to be too fatty. "If you're flame grilling," he cautions, "the fat will start leaking off and then start burning. The burger will self-destruct in the cooking process."

For the ultimate in simplicity, few burgers are as straightforward as the Earl Burger. One of five offerings, the Earl Burger features an 8-ounce patty of char-grilled Black Angus beef and is remarkably lean yet still juicy, served on a locally baked sesame-seed bun. ("Fancy buns," says kitchen manager Shane Pringle, "distract from a good burger.") The fresh red onions, lettuce, a pickle, a choice of cheese and an optional offering of wasabi mayo top everything off perfectly.

While the Earl Burger already has faced competition from the offering nearby at the recently opened Glenwood bar and grill, its dedication to simplicity and quality should keep it among Atlanta's favorites for years to come.

Which is to say that the demand for quality burgers may never die. Is this a peculiarly Atlanta phenomenon? I'll never know until I eat every burger in every American city, and that ain't gonna happen anytime soon. But what I will do is keep marveling at a city that can use a burger to reference the ghetto at one point and table-cloth chic at another – with myriad different references in between – and clearly grasps the Old South/New South paradox of culture and cuisine.

And knows how to get fat and happy in the process.

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