From the front lines: The third annual WNC Battle of the Burger

THREE-TIME CHAMPS: Ben Olsen of the Rankin Vault mans the grill at the 2016 Battle of the Burger on Aug. 21. The Rankin Vault captured the competition's people's choice award for the third consecutive year. Photo courtesy of the WNC Battle of the Burger

When the smoke finally cleared, there were clear winners and clear losers at the 2016 WNC Battle of the Burger. Now in its third year, the competition was held Aug. 21 at the Salvage Station, with 10 restaurants and food trucks duking it out under white tents in between cloudbursts and the intense August sun.

VIP ticket holders were granted bottomless beer and complimentary burgers from each of the competitors. The battle itself was split into two categories — one evaluated by attendees and the the other by a panel of judges.

In addition to myself, this year’s Battle of the Burger judges included Stephen Steidle of Eating Asheville food tours, Mackensy Lunsford of the Asheville Citizen-Times, chef Duane Fernandes of Isa’s Bistro and Evan Donavan of WLOS. The judging was blind with entries served anonymously on color-coded plates. At Lunsford’s suggestion, our evaluations were categorized into two 10-point scores — one for execution and the other for flavor — resulting in a possible 20-point total. That way, even if a burger had poor presentation or simply seemed unappetizing but tasted great, the scores balanced each other out. And right out of the gate, that strategy proved necessary.

The first burger was a hammered patty and cheese served on a quarter-loaf of French bread. It seemed underwhelming pending that first bite, but the simple combination of three cheeses and a perfectly seasoned patty took the humble presentation to the next level flavor-wise. The resulting score gave Decrepit Old Geezer’s Sausages — or D.O.G.S. — food truck a comfortable third-place finish.

Another simple but nearly elegant presentation came from The Real Food Truck, with its nicely buttered bun, lettuce, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, mayo, perfectly ripe tomato and some kind of magical sauce. But what really sold the burger — and what turned out to be the deciding factor in a lot of the scoring — was the seasoning of the patty itself. Real Food placed a solid second.

The winner, again, came down to that question of seasoning. The burger from Isis Restaurant was the last one served to our table of bloated, overfed, meat-sweating judges. It came on a drab brown paper plate and was topped with thick bacon, lettuce, cheese and mayonnaise with a bread-and-butter pickle speared to the bun. With our first bites, we all seemed to unanimously say, “That’s the one.”

The winner of the judges’ award each year is entered into the World Food Championships. Isis will go on to compete for the national title in November in Orange Beach, Ala. Previous competitions have been held in Las Vegas and Orlando with prizes ranging upward of $100,000.

Other offerings were interesting but fell short for various reasons. One made with mole, cilantro and sour cream sounded and tasted great, but the gooeyness of all the ingredients and the steamed bun morphed into mush after the first bite — it was high on flavor, low on functionality. But despite even our harshest criticism, the overall scores this year were much higher than in the previous two years’ competitions. Most of the participants have raised the bar significantly. 

Battle of the Burger organizer Kelly Denson notes, “Burgers really level the playing field. You can have a really high-end restaurant going head-to-head with a food truck, and it’s a toss-up.” That surely was the case this year.

The people’s choice award went to the Rankin Vault for the third year in a row, meaning the restaurant can keep the contest’s giant burger trophy — the local Stanley Cup of burgerdom — proudly on display on its bar. The Vault’s hallmark burger, with its Hickory Nut Gap Farm patty, arugula, sharp cheddar and magical mystery sauce, has become a bit of a phenomenon in the Asheville area. “After the Vault won the first time three years ago, their burger sales grew so much that they had to add an extension to their kitchen, because they started selling so much more food,” Denson points out.

This year, the Salvage Station waived its entry fee for the event at the last minute, meaning guests without VIP passes were able to buy what they wanted a la carte from the vendors, have a beer or three and enjoy the live music. “We don’t have an official [attendance] number because there was free admission,” Denson says. “But based on the voting and the parking, we’re just guesstimating at about 1,200,” which is roughly the same as the previous year’s crowd.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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