They say that all is fair in love and war, and it certainly was a matter of both love (of burgers) and war at this years WNC Battle of the Burger. Asheville Food Fights’ grill-off featured 10 local restaurants offering a diverse array of burgers that drew a large crowd of red-meat fans. Attendance at last year’s inaugural event was nearly 800, but this year’s showdown saw more than 1,000 guests throughout the day, according to estimates by organizer Kelly Denson. She adds, “If it hadn’t rained earlier in the day, I think we would have had hundreds more.”
The Battle is an official qualifier for the much larger World Food Championships, a series of competitions that offers it’s victors prizes of up to $10,000 for earlier rounds and $100,000 for the whole shebang. Last year’s champion, downtown bar the Rankin Vault, went to Las Vegas to compete, ultimately finishing 15th in the nation. This year the competition will take place in Kissimmee, Fla.
The 2014 event was decided by popular vote with votes from a panel of judges weighing in at a higher percentage. This year, however, the system was changed to mimic the voting style of Asheville Food Fight’s Wing War and offered two prizes — one for the people’s choice and a grand prize for the judges choice.
Judges were sequestered in a small pavilion, given a blind tasting of all 10 burgers and asked to rate them on a 10-point scale.”I think it is really important to know who the people choose,” says Denson. “But when we’re sending [the winner] to Las Vegas or Florida, that has to be selected through blind taste testing. There’s no favoritism that can actually influence the vote. When they are going on to the World Food Championship, we want to reflect that same voting style.”
The judges presiding were myself, WLOS anchor Evan Donovan, Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, Isa’s Bistro chef Duane Fernandes and food writer Constance Richards. And the onslaught of beef was almost insurmountable, with burgers that were clearly intended to be sliders but often seemed much larger than they probably were.
Since the competition was blind, we had no idea whose food we were eating until after the smoke — and our plates — had been cleared. Compared to last year, the restaurants had drastically stepped up their games. Most of the offerings were richly seasoned and flavorful. Some, however, seemed to resemble beef tartare more than a burger. One judges note read simply “Not good. So raw.” And I believe I made the comment at one point, “I’m pretty sure this one is still screaming.”
In the end, there were some clear favorites among the panel. Ambrozia served up a patty that on its own might have proven to be the most flavorful with a nice char on the edges. Oyster House’s tasty offering was topped — unsurprisingly — with a fried oyster as well as a rich remoulade. But in the end, Farm to Fender’s Hickory Nut Gap Farm grassfed burger topped with smoked brisket, house-cured tasso ham, caramelized onions and tomato was crowned champion. “It’s interesting that Asheville’s best burger isn’t actually at a restaurant,” Donovan noted.
The people’s choice went once again to the Rankin Vault and its offering of a cult-like town favorite. This means the bar gets to keep the coveted Battle of the Burger trophy — a giant burger-shaped coin bank affixed to a trophy stand — for another year. “It’s kind of like the Stanley cup,” Denson says, explaining that the trophy is inscribed with each years winner and passed along every year to the new winner. “It’s the Stanley burger, I guess.”
“The venue was incomparable,” she adds of the the competition’s move to the Salvage Station, a large outdoor venue in the River Arts District designed to host festivals and concerts. “There’s nothing else like that in town, and that venue is just incredible. It was made for our type of community event, and it raised the bar for everything.”