"Grilled" is our series of Q&As of burger-related people. It's been a while since we've done these regularly, but we're starting up again by interviewing our contributors so you can get to know the people behind our site. Today we're grilling Daniel Zemans, who's been covering the Chicago burger scene for us since 2009. You can also check out his pizza reviews at Slice.
Name: Daniel Zemans
How has writing for AHT changed your burger-eating habits? How often do you eat burgers now compared to before? I definitely eat more burgers now and that's a very good thing. I think my tastes are pretty much the same on the burger side of things. I have noticed that I will no longer eat mediocre fries.
The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest burger encounter? I suspect my first burger was either homemade or at McDonald's but I have no idea. My earliest great burger memories involve the Swiss Burger at Jimmy's, a bar near my childhood home. Jimmy's, known to outsiders as Woodlawn Tap and to priests at the nearby Catholic school as St. James Chapel, makes greasy burgers that I'm sure come from mass-produced pre-frozen patties. Even as my tastes have moved away from that type of burger, the power of memory is strong enough that I still think Jimmy's burgers are delicious.
When did you realize you loved burgers? Around the same time I learned burgers existed.
Cheese: American, cheddar, other? On thick burgers, give me either a good soft blue cheese or else a sharp cheddar. On thin burgers, I want American.
Ketchup or mustard? I love sugar. I love beef. But I do not like sugar on my burgers and therefore shun ketchup, pixie sticks, and all other factory-made toppings with added sweeteners. I've had some housemade ketchups that up the tomato and vinegar-to-sugar ratio that I've liked a lot. Mustard, on the other hand, can do know wrong. My strong preference is for yellow, but browns and Dijons will do just fine.
Preferred bun? All buns are better when toasted and I've never found butter to be objectionable. My preferred type varies based on the burger.
Grilled, griddled, broiled, or other? Grilled.
How do you like your burgers done? It depends on the restaurant. If I trust the source of the meat, I want it very rare. If I'm unsure, regular rare will do.
Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger? One half-pound of freshly ground beef with a fat content between 20% and 30%, grilled over a high enough heat so that there's a nice crust surrounding a rare interior, and topped with grilled onions, strong dill pickles and either a soft, rich blue cheese or a sharp cheddar. I'd like it on a toasted bun that's strong enough to stand up to the juicy patty yet soft enough that it doesn't get in the way.
What's your favorite fast-food burger? White Castle.
What topping or condiment should never grace a burger? Besides ketchup and pixie sticks? Brie cheese has no business being anywhere near a hamburger.
What's the best burger you've eaten this year? The one on the dinner menu at Sola.
What's the most unusual burger you've ever eaten? At this point, creative toppings have become so common that none I've eaten strike me as particularly unusual. Bob's Bad Breath Burger at The Weary Traveler in Madison (caramelized onions, tomato, cream cheese, Pickapeppa Sauce, and green goddess dressing) was definitely odd, but it was also outstanding.
What's the most overrated burger you've tried? Most underrated? Overrated: Billy Goat Tavern and Five Guys. Underrated: The Wiener's Circle.
Imagine that for some crazy reason, you're going vegetarian. Where do you go for your final burger? I might have a different answer tomorrow and yet another one the day after, but right now I'm thinking I'd go to BIG & little's for a thick grilled patty, made from well-seasoned freshly ground beef and topped with a mess of Merkt's cheddar. It's not my favorite burger, but it's got a combination of quality and accessibility that I'd love to have as a final and long-lasting meat memory.