Hear ye, hear ye, the giant has fallen. After three straight years of overwhelming victory in the people’s choice category at All-American Food Fights’ WNC Battle of the Burger, this year’s July 9 competition saw the Rankin Vault dethroned as Asheville’s reigning burger monarch.
Instead, the event’s attendees chose the Montford Pull Up for the 2017 people’s choice award. It was also a triumphant day for the event’s host venue, the Salvage Station, as its restaurant claimed the top judges’ award.
The temperature was a balmy 85 degrees — probably a little too hot to have 15 grills fired up under the summer sun — as more than 1,800 people filed into the Salvage Station for the fourth annual competition. But the beer was flowing cold, the burgers were hot and fresh and Josh Phillips and Chalwa were cranking out the tunes from the stage under a clear blue sky.
As in years past, the competition was divided, with the people’s choice award going to the winner of the popular vote and three judge’s awards selected by blind tasting. This year’s judges were Evan Donovan of WLOS , Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, Ashvegas food writer Stu Helm, Isa’s Bistro chef Duane Fernandes and yours truly.
The judges, working from an isolated location, were served blindly and rated burgers from the 15 competitors on a scale of 1-10. Defending champions Isis Restaurant & Music Hall made it back to the podium this year but fell to third place. The Isis offering was a perfectly cooked and seasoned patty that practically bled onto a crispy bed of lettuce, tomatoes, white cheese, bacon and mayo topped off with a homemade pickle. It was simple, and every element was perfectly placed.
But that wasn’t enough to best Farm 2 Fender food truck, who had one of the most creative takes we saw all day. Since it was a blind tasting, we never saw official descriptions of the burgers but had to guess at the ingredients through sight, smell and taste. The well-cooked patty was topped with a hay-like stack of grilled leeks, an everything-bagel-like bun and a light chow-chow, with a slice of heirloom tomato and lettuce on the side. It came together as a delightfully Southern flavor, earning a second-place award.
As always, some combinations ultimately didn’t work as well for the judges. Guacamole and slaw on a sub bun, a pair of Sysco-style patties with barbecue hash and other amalgams didn’t sway judges. Some were only slightly off the mark: One Happy Meal-style burger seemed, at this competition, like bringing a knife to a gunfight, showing that playing on sentimentality wasn’t enough to grab the spotlight.
Another entry was perfectly made with a lovely aioli, but the addition of heavily smoked gouda overpowered the rest of the ingredients. Another entry, described by one judge as a “Southern buffet burger,” consisted of a burger loaded up with bologna, fried okra and pimento cheese, proving to some judges that there is such a thing as too much on your burger.
In the end, it all came down to execution. After about the 12th burger, we all agreed that the Salvage Station’s offering was a magical combination. A thick patty topped with pulled pork, an onion ring, barbecue sauce and — was that an onion jam? It looked good, but it tasted incredible.
For the past few years at WNC Battle of the Burger, it has seemed that the seasoning and preparation of the meat itself has ultimately determined whether a burger takes home an award or not. Here it was a perfect marriage of salt and pepper with just the right amount of pink running through the core of the patty: a thing of beauty.
But perhaps the more provocative story turned out to be the overthrow of the king — three-time people’s choice champion the Rankin Vault. Has the downtown cocktail bar’s cult-like following finally met its match? The Montford Pull Up, which also won this years people’s choice in both categories of All American Food Fights’ Asheville Wing War, toppled the reigning champs, ending their dynasty and claiming the giant burger trophy for themselves.
Organizer Kelly Denson says she plans to host a taco competition in October, and lord knows there are enough taco joints in town to compete. This means there could conceivably be a Triple Crown of All American Food Fight competitions in Asheville: the annual Asheville Wing War, the WNC Burger Battle and the taco challenge. Rumors seem to indicate that the the newly heralded Montford Pull Up has an eye on that hat trick.