Where's the Beef Juice? 

Quest for the East Bay's juiciest burger turns into a waist-expanding odyssey.

To me, the size of the East Bay -- twice as big as Rhode Island, a vast terrain for culinary exploration -- is one of the area's virtues. But when asked to identify the region's Juiciest Burger for our annual Best Of the East Bay issue, sampling every contender seemed an impossible task.

Just the prospect of identifying the contenders felt daunting. I asked around, Googled like hell, and began to compile my short list. Evaluating for juiciness meant nixing the Smokehouse, with its smoky but paper-thin burgers. Ditto In-N-Out. Soon I began to chow.

First stop was George's Giant Hamburger in Walnut Creek. George's has been around longer than I have, and other local publications have praised its mettle. The initial signs were good -- a notice on the menu stated, "Our patties are personally ground daily from fresh chuck." Just as important, the cooks ask what temperature you want your burger cooked. I ordered George's top-of-the-line burger, medium-rare -- with American cheese, thick-cut bacon, and a mess of sweet, wriggly caramelized onions on a standard bun. The onions were superb, the bacon just right, but the patty didn't have the heft to contain enough juicy juice. It lacked what Rudyard Kipling would call "character."

Several days later I drove down with a friend to Val's Burgers in Hayward. Val's is everything a diner should be, complete with yelling kids and decorations that have been hanging on the wall since my mother's prom days. We bathed in the fog of charbroiling meat from the moment we entered, so by the time our burgers arrived we had worked ourselves into an anticipatory frenzy. My mama-sized (half-pound) cheeseburger was everything I expected from a burger -- the edges blackened and crisped by the flames, the meat inside thick and meaty -- except for one thing.

"Would you call this burger 'juicy'?" I asked my companion after a couple of bites.

"Eh," she replied dismissively. "Great, but not juicy." We finished our meal in silence.

The next day, the sky looked a little grayer, and so did my mood. Taking a tip from my hairdresser, a one-burger-a-year vegetarian, I drove to Fatapple's. Now, if there's a burger that Berkeleyans can get behind, it's Fatapple's. Everything about the restaurant feels like home, from the wood paneling to the woman two tables over who looked like my Aunt Phyllis. There I learned another sad lesson, though: A drippy burger is not necessarily a juicy one. A puddle of mustard, mayonnaise, and pickle and tomato juice formed under my chin, but the burger itself tasted slightly grainy and dry. Same thing at Ahn's Burgers in Oakland two days later, where I discovered just how good griddle-crisped pastrami on top of a hamburger could taste, even when the patty under it had been overcooked. Even the much-lauded Barney's Gourmet Hamburgers on College -- where "Best of the East Bay" plaques from prior years tile the walls from floor to ceiling -- served up a grill-charred patty that was moist and pink in the center but didn't flood the mouth with meat juices.

Juiciness was proving elusive.

The question began to ask itself: What makes a burger juicy? "You want fattier beef to keep it moist," says Jeff Yuen, a butcher at Berkeley Bowl. Of the Bowl's five grades of ground beef, Yuen recommends the "lean," which has 12 to 15 percent fat content. "And try not to overcook it," he says.

Rob Hurlbut, CEO of Niman Ranch and a self-professed burger addict, agrees that fat content and temperature determine juiciness. In fact, many of the restaurants that use Niman Ranch's burger meat request 20 percent fat content. (Most hamburger meat sold at retail grocery stores has half that.) "The other factor is the manner in which that burger is formed," he adds. "When you get a manufactured patty that is compacted or extruded, you end up with a much denser patty, which makes it less juicy to the palate."

Ever since the Jack in the Box scare of 1993, when a batch of the chain's mass-produced hamburger meat was contaminated with E. coli, sickening hundreds of people and killing four children, California has required restaurants to serve hamburgers well done -- unless the customer specifically requests otherwise. Some places refuse to make you a medium-rare burger, which to me is the optimal doneness. Others, such as Fatapple's, warn you not once but twice on the menu that if you order less-cooked meat they cannot be held responsible for any illness that might result. My rule is that if they don't want to cook me a medium-rare burger, I don't want them to cook me a medium-rare burger.

After ten days, I'd had my fill of burgers. But my editor was putting on the pressure, so I brought him to Al's Big Burger on the border of Albany and El Cerrito, hoping this would be the last stop. Al's cooks its big burgers over a mix of gas and mesquite, and another local critic had just raved about their juiciness. That touch of woodsmoke produced a marvelous flavor. But neither of us could hand out any awards.

With deadline looming, waistline expanding, and fifteen other categories to research, that's when I snapped. Hence this confession: I named Val's the Juiciest Burger of 2005 simply because it served the best-tasting burger of the lot. But the juiciest? Guilt woke me at 3 a.m. after I turned in my write-up. I called my editor later that morning and told him I had to keep searching.

Burger No. 7 was Christopher's Burgers on College. Now Christopher' s has a lot going for it. The restaurant uses grass-fed beef, ground daily in-house. There are high-caliber cheeses and chichi toppings such as pesto and roasted tomatoes, as well as good fries, which you can dip in sauces like chipotle mayonnaise or aioli. All together, a good meal -- but you know the refrain.

My friend Tony's comment: "I like Carl's Jr. 's six-dollar burger better." Sigh. The next day I tried it. And, no, I don't know what he was thinking. After three bites, I felt a thick ache in my gut, as if someone had grabbed my pancreas and started to twist. After six bites, I gave up. It took a half hour to walk off the pain.

Now on a steady diet of raw carrots and steamed broccoli when I wasn't eating fries and ground beef, I soldiered on. This quest was proving that although inch-thick burgers may be many things, juicy isn't one of them. A six-dollar burger is just too thin. It was time to break out the gold card.

Which is how a friend and I found ourselves at Luka's Taproom in downtown Oakland, which has been catching buzz for its deluxe $9 model. The moment we picked up Luka's plump burger, meat juices began streaming onto our thick Belgian-style fries. The patty, a true medium-rare, oozed melted fat and blood. That's what I call a good burger.

In fact, I thought it was the one until I lunched at Berkeley's Cafe Rouge. Chef Marsha McBride is known for her way with red meat, and our waiter claimed the restaurant ground its burger meat from chuck carved off the slab. Cafe Rouge's medium-rare burger started dripping the moment I tipped it toward my mouth, and the inch-and-a-half-thick, fuchsia-hearted patty was formed more loosely than Luka's. As Hurlbut had advised, texture proved the X factor -- the uncompacted meat gave the fat room to melt inside the patty. I made a mess of my shirt. My quest was finally over.

There's only one problem with a Cafe Rouge lunch: A burger, a coke, and tip there will set you back $16. Frankly, a hamburger isn't a complicated thing, and for $10 less I'd be content with just about any of the other ones I tried. Is Cafe Rouge's hamburger the juiciest burger around? Who can say? The East Bay is a big place, and tons of ground meat is sold here every day. I suspect that the juiciest burger could just be my Moby Dick. Yet I refuse to be its Ahab, dragged, insane, into the depths of obesity. If I ever meet up with the juiciest burger ever grilled, I'll let you know. For now, it's back to the salad.

HOW TO MAKE A JUICY BURGER

As told to Jonathan Kauffman by Niman Ranch CEO Rob Hurlbut.

Take a handful of meat and form it into a snowball. Press the center of that ball to flatten it out on your cutting surface. Don't pick it up and form it between your palms, compacting the meat: instead, press so just the center of the burger is indented -- let the meat push out to the sides. That way, the burger stays fluffy. There's more air in the patty.

The burger shrinks as it cooks because some of the fat melts away and the meat constricts. The perimeter shrinks more than the center. If you start out by depressing the center, you'll end up with a flat patty as the burger shrinks. You don't get that dome effect, and the cheese will stay on the burger better.

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