For the fourth time this year I gathered up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. This was the next stop in a year long search for the best burger that St. Louis has to offer, based on the input of my readers. You nominated them and I'm eating them, one by one until I crown the best burger in St. Louis this coming December.
Joining me were Church of Burger member Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project), photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography), second time participant Stephanie Tolle (Iron Stef / Food Blog Mafia) and special guest George Mahe (St. Louis Magazine / Feast).
Thanks are due to the nice folks at Cottonfactory who kindly provided my shirt for this months update.
With the introductions out of the way its time to welcome you all back to The Church of Burger. In the name of the bun, the toppings and the holy burger, I present unto you the April Burger of The Month from McGurk's Irish Pub & Garden.
McGurk's is a legendary Irish pub in the historic Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. While the pub is only a shade past 30 years old it feels like it has stood at the corner of 12th and Russell since before St. Louis was handed from the French to the Spanish and back to the French over 200 years ago.
The interior of McGurk's is a mixture of well worn wood surfaces and floors that complement the red brick architecture that is common across the city. The space invites you in and wraps itself around you; it is the kind of place that you can walk into in the late afternoon and walk out of as the sun rises the next morning if you are not careful. After all soûlard is the French word for drunkard.
In many ways this part of St. Louis reminds me of Pleasure Island from the Disney version of Pinocchio. To my friends and neighbors who live in the neighborhood what I am saying may seem like a slight but I do mean it as a complement. Soulard is a great place to visit, but it should be known that if you overstay your welcome vice will undoubtedly get the best of you and you run the risk of turning into a jackass. I say this based on personal experience.
Our group met up as McGurk's opened to find the bar already filled with people and a Irish band setting up off to the side. With some luck and persistence on the part of Kelli we scored a long raised table off to the side that was more suited to family style drinking than eating, but with folks filling in the door it was the best we were going to get.
Around the table McGurk's Burgers were ordered medium rare to medium, topped with cheese and various combinations of mushrooms, onions and bacon. In a particular stroke of genius Stefani and Jonathan asked for chocolate sauce to complement house made chips, making for a sweet and salty side for their burgers. Given the traffic though McGurk's, service moved along at a reasonable pace - essentially long enough to drain your pint of beer and order another for your meal. One diner commented that they were, "impressed that all the burgers arrived simultaneously (and on one tray) and were served without resorting to the "who got what" rigamarole."
This is the first stop on this burger adventure that I have frequented before, and in the spirit of disclosure I can honestly say that John D. McGurk's Burger topped with sauteed mushrooms, onions caramelized in Guinness and bacon is a personal favorite of mine. Alas, I would be trying this burger as it came, free of addition of mushrooms, onions and bacon. This meant a medium rare burger topped only with the garnish plated with the burger, slices of tomato, red onion and a single leaf of lettuce.
Behold the burger from McGurk's Irish Pub & Garden:
At the core of the McGurk's burger is a thick and almost perfectly formed patty of beef, suggesting its been formed and pressed with the aid of a mold to ensure consistency from one plate to the next. My burger arrived closer to medium than the medium rare I had ordered but the interior was pink and lightly seasoned. Around the table all the burgers arrived as ordered save one, which was sent back for a replacement.
"The burger edges were perfectly uniform: either a pre-formed patty or one that had been hand-pattied then pressed into a mold. The taste of the beef was good, complimented by perfect cross-hatch grill marks and char. So the taste was fine...the texture was not."
"I ordered it medium-rare. It was cooked perfectly, and tasted nice and meaty... I wouldn't have minded more salt."
"My choice of fare at McGurk's will not be changing after having their burger, an effort that falls short of the ideal in terms of both the mushy bun and patty lacking both juice and proper seasoning."
"I didn’t miss the salt on this one. I thought the meat had enough flavor on its own (well, on its own when you count the swiss, tomato, mushrooms, and Guinness onions)."
"A good burger is like a good crabcake: it should formed by hand and treated lightly...not over-worked, not over-pressed, not over-handled. A burger should be handled only enough to keep it together...it should be made with freshly ground beef and should be airy and, for lack of a better word, fluffy. Otherwise the protein gets too compressed and the juices in the meat do not flow. I encounter very few burgers made the right way. This one was no different."
"The burger just looked overcooked and unappetizing. It had clearly spent time under a heat lamp or on the side of the grill (as the garnish was cool, I would suspect the latter). Regardless, it was NOT fresh off the grill."
"I order my burger medium and that’s just how it arrived. It was moist, but not dripping with juices. This was fine with me. I know others like to see the juice, but I’m cool without it. When I see lots of juice, I picture cows bleeding. The burger was not overly seasoned."
Ample grill marks were apparent on my burger suggesting the patty was cooked properly - placed on a rocket hot grill to cook on one side, then flipped to finish on the other. While the caramelization on this burger did contribute to the overall flavor, it would have benefited from additional seasoning.
Around the table diners were happy with the char McGurk's achieved on their burger.
For me, mushrooms, caramelized onions and bacon are to burgers as mirepoix is to a good stock. Yes, there are countless other toppings for a burger, but they pale in comparison to the earthienss of mushroom, the sweetness of onions and the smoke and salt thrown off by bacon. It was with heavy heart that I watched my fellow diners enjoy their burgers, because I knew just what I was missing.
Tasters offered up the following thoughts on their burgers:
"I loved the Guinness onions."
"Sorely missed rarebit."
"The mushrooms and onions were such good burger companions. Simple flavors... they tasted like mushrooms and caramelized onions, sweet and earthy and seasoned well, without any unnecessary flavors."
"It's bad enough to have to endure tomatoes in April anyway, but to be served slices with the core still intact? Please... Here's a dollar, McGurk's...go buy a tomato corer."
"My toppings of onions, mushrooms, and bacon were expertly prepared."
"This burger was clearly fresh off the grill, cooked properly, cheese looking freshly melted, with 2 respectable strips of room temp bacon crossed over the top."
I was not a fan of the traditional kaiser bun the McGurk's burger was served on. While it had marks from being grilled before plating, I found the bun bland and flavorless, sadly it was a perfect companion for my tasteless and out of season tomato. Sad.
I was especially surprised at the differences in the quality of the bun from one plate to another. It was almost as if some of our burgers were made with yesterdays buns and some with buns delivered fresh that morning.
"The kaiser bun was slightly grilled--a wee bit of crunch on the edges, otherwise doughy--but it was still under-heated and under-grilled."
"The bun was grilled, and that was my favorite part, as it added buttery crunch a good way into the burger all the way around."
"This burger's kaiser was room temp, not grilled, not warmed, and quite doughy, again, not unlike other burger buns in town, and therein lies the problem."
"The bun was the perfect texture – not so soft that it fell apart while eating it and not so hard that it crunched. It had a bit of its own flavor, but not so much that it overpowered the burger."
"My bun was toasted a little too much--it wasn't burnt, the toast was just particularly chewy, and it overpowered the meat, which lacked juice."
Truth be told I was very disappointed with my burger from McGruk's, especially after having so many tasty ones there in the past. In hindsight its apparent that what I liked about the burger at McGurk's was not the burger at all, but the toppings. Instead of complementing the burger, its the toppings that steal the show, leaving the patty as a mere delivery vessel. Take the toppings away and you have a burger that is average at best.
I was struck by the comments of one diner, who provided the following thoughts on McGurk's and their burger.
"I've been going to John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub & Garden long enough to remember what the place looked like before the additional rooms "and Garden". The feel of the place hasn't been altered by time, nor has my usual order - fish and chips, a stew, or corned beef to be washed down with by a pint of cider or stout; dessert, for me, is optional: a snifter of one of their many excellent scotches. Why return for a mediocre burger when there are better food options available?"
I would tend to agree with those sentiments. I'm sorry McGurk's, you are by far one of my favorite places to hang out here in town and I was pulling for you to be the best burger in St. Louis. I'm sorry to say that I don't think that's the case. The search continues.