Game of Burgers: Gastropub Gentry, First Round

Categories: Game of Burgers
The Playground's off-menu burger
This gastropub round fancies up the Weekly's Game of Burgers. At a gastropub, the stakes are raised from the fare you gladly accept and adore from a fast food restaurant. A frozen beef puck ain't gonna cut it. A gastropub burger calls for freshly-ground beef from the subprimal cuts of steer that delivers the chef's vision of beefy flavor and a blend of textures that promises to please the palate.

A standard sesame-seed bun? Oh, no. What you'll find at the restaurants I sampled are tall, soft egg buns. Or buttery brioche buns. Perhaps an herbed whole-wheat, or fresh pretzel, or Hawiian sweet roll bun. A slice of processed yellow cheese food product will not do. A carefully thought-out pallete of cheeses await in the kitchen to add ooey-gooey melty fat, and so too a selection of condiments and greens like arugula that you'll never see in a diner's larder.

The wide range of ingredients chefs use in a gastropub burger colored the approach I took in assessing this category. Where Edwin ordered a stripped-down basic burger at his diners to keep contestants on a level playing field, I ordered my burgers exactly as the chefs intended them to be served, with no changes to their visions of how a burger's components come together on the plate. The only consistent request? Make mine medium-rare. Other than that, I ordered up the best-sounding burger on the menu, and judged how well they balanced all their fancy ingredients into a cohesive whole.

The Playground vs. The Crosby

The Playground's burger, cooked medium-rare
In what's the strongest jousting match in this bracket, the downtown Santa Ana neighbors squared off with two of the best burgers in the county. While The Playground's known for a menu that changes daily, they're equally known for an off-menu, "secret" burger that's not so secret. It's a thick, hand-formed beef patty topped with a balsamic-reduction caramelized onion jam, yellow mustard and shreds of iceberg lettuce. It takes a less-is-more, minimal approach to burger-building. 

The meat here was delivered medium-rare, as ordered, the blend of beef wasn't too fatty, and the outside of the patty was caramelized but not charred. I wasn't a fan of meek shreds of iceberg lettuce, which doesn't have the crunch of hand-leafed lettuce, nor do I love yellow mustard on my burger. Other than those personal nitpicks, it's a fine burger. Too bad it had to face the Smoked Angus Burger from The Crosby. 

The Crosby's Smoked Wagyu Beef Burger

Where The Playground's Chef Jason Quinn takes a mimimalist approach, Chef Aron Habiger makes a $15 behemoth made with local grass-fed wagyu beef, brandy apple cider mayonnaise, muenster cheese, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, spicy ketchup, fried egg all on a brioche bun. The ground beef patty is smoked first, picking up a backyard grill flavor that no other gastropub's burger has. 

The downside to the flavor boost is a slightly overcooked patty that's well past medium rare. Good thing it's made with the richly marbled wagyu beef, which still retained enough juice. If you prefer yours cooked medium-well, the massive premium-meat tower combines all those other assertive flavors and blends their juices with the oozing yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.

Side note: a fried egg option is also found at 320 Main, a gastropub that should have been in this bracket, but somehow slipped past all of usWeeklings as a candidate. I guess we needed to venture up to Seal Beach more often in recompense. Sorry about that oversight, 320 Main, you coulda been a contender...

Anyhow, the winner of this joust? The Crosby! The tall stack of super-ingredients elevated the superstar smoked beef patty to the win.

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