Another year, another smoke-filled battlefield, as 12 restaurants, food trucks and pop-up shops came together on July 29 to vie for the coveted title of Asheville’s best burger. Kelly Denson’s All American Food Fights hosted the fifth annual WNC Battle of the Burger at Salvage Station, where the public milled about under the blazing sun to determine the people’s choice, while a panel of judges blind-tasted all 12 burgers to develop our verdict.
Though many of the competition’s usual suspects were missing — noticeably absent was 2016 champion Isis Music Hall — a slew of newcomers took their spots and made quite a showing. The field included D.O.G.S., Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine, Rankin Vault Cocktail Lounge, The Chop Shop Butchery, UltraStar Multi-tainment Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Resort, Disco Burger, Salvage Station, Stackhouse, Sand Hill Kitchen, The Burger Stop, AUX Bar and Ambrozia Bar & Bistro.
The judges this year were chef Duane Fernandes of Hemingway’s Cuba, Asheville Food Fan Stu Helm, AVL Today’s Ali McGhee, local bon vivant and Southeastern Beard & Moustache Championship winner Kevin Tuomey and myself. We ranked the 12 burgers on a scale of zero to 10, blindly tasting one burger at a time over the course of two hours.
In the end, AUX Bar took to the podium for third place with a classic In-N-Out-style burger, as traditional as one could get, with a patty hammered thin, lettuce, tomato, mayo and the works. For the top two slots, the judges were divided between The Vault’s legendary presentation with arugula and bacon, and Sand Hill Kitchen’s Southern onslaught with pimento cheese, bacon, tomato and what appeared to be pepperoncini.
In the end, a mere point determined the winner, giving Sand Hill Kitchen its first grand prize in the WNC Battle of the Burger.
The people’s choice award was reclaimed by the Rankin Vault, which had dominated the competition every year before being dethroned in 2017 by the now-defunct Montford Pull-Up. So it seems the Vault dynasty persists, as does the mystery of whatever happened to the epic burger trophy from the first two years of the competition.
There were the expected pitfalls — too much oregano in the meat, overwhelming tastes of propane, dry game meats, cold and untoasted buns and sauces with more oil than flavor. But overall, the judges’ scores were the highest in the history of the competition, with the top one totaling 46 points and the lowest a cumulative eight points. (Last year, an average score of zero was awarded after judges opted to allow negative scores.)
The general consensus among those charged with the task of deciding the top burger was that 2018 was truly one of the best years of the competition. Everyone brought their A game, with any flaws resting more in the execution than the concepts.