When I was about 4 years old, I was out with my mom in Taipei going to buy some 將肉燒餅 (jiang rou shao bing), which is basically Asian-style roast beef stuffed inside a baked sesame bun type thing. The guy making the things is super old, has more than a few missing teeth, and I'm not gonna lie - basically looks like a pedophile. My mom buys like five of these things, and the dude tells her that I can have one for free because he thinks I'm cute (if only things still worked that way). At first my mind is thinking, "man, this shit is awesome... I get food for free. That's the best kind of food!" But after some mental processing, I began to think "there must be some catch. No one just gives away product without profiting. What exactly does this man want? Is it my repeated patronage of his shop? Can't be... I don't make purchasing decisions. Is he trying to molest me because he looks like, no... is a pedophile? This seems quite plausible. If I accept it, does that automatically grant him permission to my naughty bits?" These are important questions that a 4 year old me needed answers to, but couldn't possibly understand.
My buddy Danny over at "Food in Mouth" wrote a post about going to press events and having stuff given to you based on your status in which he talks about how stupid it is to 1) cover events that no one else can attend and 2) write about an experience you didn't actually pay for. In all honesty, I agree with that entire post... even though I'm guilty on both counts. I write about burgers all the time without actually paying for it (although someone does). Does that change my perception on the food? Of course it does! The burgers at Minetta Tavern are absolutely bitchin', but at $26 dollars a pop, you will NEVER see me there. Alternatively, you will find me absolutely demolishing White Castle sliders because they're 56 cents each. It's just more cost effective, and that's how I roll on my budget.
Last Sunday I went to this thing called "Burger Brawl" for AHT. I had no intention of going originally, because tickets were $60 and going to a less than worthy cause imho, but when Serious Eats told me they'd get me in for free I figured I might as well. Instead of telling you how awesome it is to eat 18 different kinds of burgers without paying (it is) and being a hypocritical cunt in the process, I'm just going to discuss the few burgers that stood out, and that I'd probably be willing to pay for in the future. Starting with the "Burger 15" from Ladder 15.
At $18, the Burger 15 is really expensive to poor old me. It probably costs that much because they make their patty from ground short rib and then they add bone marrow to it. The rest of the sandwich is pretty normal... grilled red onions, mushrooms, all inside a brioche. Everyone on AHT bitches about how much the brioche is overplayed and boring. Well that's fine and all, but I like eating bread that tastes like candy, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down when I say a brioche tastes good. Anyway, it's not a really complex burger, but when you bite into it, all you taste is a heavy beefiness. Yes, there's a hint of sweetness from the onions, but the unadulterated beef scent is undeniable. While the price tag makes it somewhat unrealistic, it is a burger I would eat several times a week if I could. I would likely die of a heart attack, but it'd be worth it.
There was also the "London Burger" from London Grill. For all the buttplugs who hate brioches, here's a burger sandwiched inside an English muffin... because it's from London Grill and all. It doesn't really have a patty... it has a giant over-sized meatball core. It also doesn't really use traditional cheese, opting instead for boursin - a creamy spread that's more like cream cheese. Basically if you went to a burger purist/asshole... they'd tell you this isn't a burger. It's a meatball sandwich. Well fuck them, it tasted delicious. The one thing that you get with a massive patty cross-section is a ridiculous amount of liquid retention even after cooking. This thing sprayed juices everywhere like a dude in porn. It was quite the spectacle. A tasty spectacle indeed.
Scissor me timbers yo, Paesano's should really start making a burger. So I realize that it's kind of a dick move to be posting about a burger that doesn't actually exist on a menu, but I really hope someone who works there sees this and makes this a permanent fixture in their restaurant. It's not that they came up with anything brilliantly different - their burger is just topped with thick-cut bacon, grilled onions, and a tangy sauerkraut-like sauce mixture - but there was something I couldn't really pin my finger on that was fantastically different about their burger. The charring on the outside was something unmatched by any of the other competitors, and gave it a certain homemade charm that all the more "upscale" establishments lacked. It tasted like a better version of a backyard grilled burger. It was conventional and entirely without pretension. Impressing people with flavor rather than extravagant toppings. Like this nonsense:
Why in the world do you think I'd want to have duck and arugula in my burger? That's just dumb.
So back to the story in the beginning - I did indeed take the free sandwich, and no I was not physically abused, but to be honest... that just added to the confusion. Free food - is it okay to take? What are the ramifications associated with accepting it? Well... 19 years down the road and I'm still not sure. When I first started this blog, I looked at all the other food writers who got invited to shit and thought that getting free food was the epitome of baller-status. I was a college kid who didn't really make that much money - oh wait, that still hasn't changed - so the idea of getting things without paying was incredible to me, but for some reason... once people started giving me free food, I felt guilty about it. It was the very same guilt that 4 year old me couldn't understand. I felt like I owed something, I wanted to pay. Some of that comes from the fact that, deep down, I know I can't logically write about something without bias when I don't feel the pain of having to reach into my own wallet to pay for it... some of it comes from the fact that I realize decisions about food shouldn't be made in an economic vacuum in which prices are irrelevant... but most of it stems from the fact that I feel like there's some sort of inherent agreement being made where I owe a debt to the person giving me free shit. A debt that I have to repay with good press. I have to admit, it makes me feel a bit dirty.