For the sixth time this year I rounded up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger on a sweltering Friday night. 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 alumni Bill Burge (STLBites), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project), project photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography), Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), return guest Jeff Lash (Twitter) and first timer Corey Woodruff (Corey Woodruff Photography).
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 June Burger of the Month from the Fatted Calf.
The Fatted Calf was actually closed when I asked for burger suggestions back in January because of a fire that gutted the kitchen the previous fall. While it was clear that the Fatted Calf would indeed reopen, it was not clear that it would happen before its June date with the Church of Burger. It was indeed a risk to leave it in the voting, but given the citywide love of the Calf Burger, I felt that we should give it the shot at being the best burger in St. Louis that it had rightfully earned.
The Fatted Calf sits among the office buildings and specialty shops that line the streets of Clayton, its dark wood and cafeteria vibe are in stark contrast to its surroundings. In this affluent part of the city, the Calf shows that even the well healed enjoy to slum it, not only for a quick lunch but in the early dinner hours of a Friday night.
We filtered in one by one and commandeered a long table near the front windows. While we waited for a critical mass to head up and place our orders, a member of our party offered up that the Fatted Calf reminded him of the kind of place where one should swill beer from large goblets. I found myself nodding in agreement, but adding a dusty suit of armor in the corner and a well placed Hobbit to my own visualization of the space.
We proceeded to the back of the restaurant and got in line for our burgers, ordering from a large board running the length of the counter. To a person our group ordered variations of the "Calf Burger", a 1/3 lb. patty of choice beef, charbroiled to order and served with a selection of house made relishes, pickles and onions -- raw or grilled. As always I ordered a Calf Burger cooked medium rare with raw onions and pickles, while others opted to add soft cheddar, blue cheese, lettuce, tomato, mushrooms and bacon. Readers had recommended the milk shake so several of us upped the caloric ante and ordered shakes with whipped cream.
Moving down the line to order drinks and sides, we were able to watch the grill-man pull packages of pre-made patties out of a cooler and slap them down on a well worn and rocket hot grill. At the end of the counter we paid, were given small numbered table signs and then proceeded back to our table to wait for our burgers. In short order paper trays containing burgers, french fries and onion rings were delivered and we dug into the much heralded Calf Burger.
Behold the Calf Burger from The Fatted Calf:
There is no getting around it -- the Calf Burger is not a hand made burger. It is uniform, round, thick and machine pressed. Watching the grill-man work I did not see him season my patty before throwing it on the grill. While the burger was seasoned at some point during preparation, I thought it could use more salt. I also felt that my burger, cooked to a perfect pink medium rare, lacked the juice that I expect in a good burger. It is safe to assume the lack of moisture stems from the pre-made nature of the Calf Burger. As I worked on this burger I found myself longing for both missing keys to burger success - salt and fat.
"The Fatted Calf's web site proudly calls out, "Tradition. Family. Soft Cheddar." A wiser person than myself would immediately conclude that their priorities are therefore not 'Fresh. Flavorful. Hand-Formed Patties.'"
"Cooked perfectly (ordered medium rare) but rubbery texture and freakishly round. Like perfectly round. Almost no seasoning or flavor to speak of."
"I'm not going to go as far as saying the burger sucked, it didn't, it just wasn't memorable in any way. Couple the fact that the burger looked to be a pre-formed, frozen patty it becomes clear that whatever former-glory "The Calf" might have previously had, it's glory days are over."
"Fatted Calf was the first Church of Burger joint to actually deliver a mid-rare burger when ordered as such, for which I am grateful. However, it needed seasoning."
"The burger lacked any substance or texture - surprising, considering that juice was slowly oozing down onto my plate paper food boat. If it had been seasoned, I could not detect even a slight hint of it."
"This was the burger that made me question why I agreed to eat all of these burgers. I left feeling gross about what I had just put into my body. Whose favorite burger is this, and why?"
"The Patty -- it's pre-made. That's just a fact. It's not going to taste the same as a hand-formed burger and you shouldn't be expecting it to. For a "cookie cutter" patty, though, I found it to be very tasty. I ordered it medium though it was much more pink/red than I expected. It was still delicious."
"I ordered my burger medium and it came out dry - no pink at all, and no juice. Since all I could taste were the mushrooms, I decided to try picking off a piece of the burger to try on its own. After that, I was almost glad for my salty topping - almost. How could Andrew eat that burger without any toppings? The burger had no taste. I might as well have been eating the plastic piece of fake meat that came in my son's make-believe grocery cart."
The grill at the Fatted Calf is hot, hot enough that welcome and noticeable wisps of smoke appeared around the burger and wafted into the air around it. Patties are thrown on the grill and they stay there, turned once and finished leaving a great set of marks. Job well done.
"Carmalization was present but not overpowering. To be honest, I didn't really notice it, which is a positive in my book. Just enough to give it a bit of a crunch, not too much to steal the flavor."
"Nice grill marks but no trace of the crusty searing I like on a burger."
"The 1/3 pound burger boasted grill marks and tasted appropriately charred"
Relish, pickles and onion make a Calf Burger. Additional accouterments will cost you $0.65 to $1.25 extra per topping and quickly turn a $5.00 burger into a $7.00 burger with the simple addition of cheese, lettuce, tomato. As they are not standard equipment on the Calf Burger I was spared the mealy and bland tomatoes that have plagued every burger we've tried so far this year. In its place were mounds of raw onion and pickles. While excessive, they did make for a tasty contrast to the patty and helped to take my mind off the lack of salt and juice.
"While the cheese scoop was the same size as the one at Michael's, at Michael's you had almost twice as much burger to spread it on. Additionally, the burger at Michael's, all 10 mother fucking ounces of it, was a quarter more. As it came with lettuce, tomato, onion at no charge -- it actually cost less. That's kind of crazy when you think about it."
"Thank the burger Gods for the bacon and blue cheese I opted to include."
"I chose to follow a standard burger order: plain with just cheese. Unfortunately, the crust-less burger combined with the scoop cheddar and nondescript bun means I encountered a mouth full of mush. No textural contrast at all."
"Pretty much every burger I've ever ordered - even at those non-locally owned fast food joints - came with lettuce and tomato. When I saw the pile of lettuce and tomato behind the counter at The Fatted Calf, I never imagined that it was considered a topping available for purchase for $0.65. Had I read the sign, I would have known. But why would I think to look? My burger simply went without lettuce and tomato. While I can take blame for not reading when it comes to the lettuce and tomato, the restaurant is at fault for not pointing out that their cheddar is soft cheddar."
"A la carte pricing is ridiculous and expensive. I ordered bacon and blue cheese on mine and was rewarded with very crispy strips of bacon (deep fried?) and soft blue cheese crumbles. Both added a much needed dose of flavor to the otherwise bland burger."
"I went straight up, just ketchup. Call me a heretic but this way I got the full flavor of the burger."
"I smothered the tasteless patty with bacon, mushrooms, raw onions, and delightful scooped soft cheddar."
"Any liquid that the burger had was from the mushrooms - and let's talk about those mushrooms. When I took my first bite of the burger, all I could taste was mushroom. I couldn't taste any beef flavor or grilled onion or even swiss cheese. I couldn't figure it out. I always order mushrooms on my burger and they always play a supporting role; never had they tried to make a play for the lead. What was different? Some table discussion led to the conclusion that these mushrooms were from a can. Sad. While someone bemoaned the fact the burger didn't have enough salt, my canned mushrooms had so much salt that any salt in my burger would have made me feel like I was eating seawater. There is really no excuse for not using fresh or even frozen mushrooms."
For me, the Calf Burger bun may be the best we've seen so far -- doughy and more than up to the task of transporting the patty and its toppings from start to finish. I really would have liked to have seen how this classic kaiser roll held up to a really juicy burger. Top shelf.
"Very good. Exactly the same diameter as the burger--a good thing, in my opinion. Very soft and bread-like texture, thick enough to handle a lot of toppings without being too hard to handle (or fit in my mouth)."
"To their credit, I think this was the first bun that really worked with the burger. The bun stayed intact throughout my whole meal. That being said, my burger didn't exactly put the bun to the test."
"The bun was a nice treat. Substantial, flavorful yet not noteworthy in any particular way. It did its job and didn't try to steal the show."
"The juices were plentiful and were collected nicely by the top third of the bottom bun. It didn't soak all the way through, though it was definitely collecting some good juice, like a wet sponge. The combination of the fresh bun and the juices formed a nice yummy layer of juicy/soggy bun that added an extra layer of flavor between the burger and bottom bun. This is one of the few times I'd use the word "soggy" in a good way."
"The lightly-toasted bun held up extremely well to my onslaught of toppings mingling with the burger's grease."
Readers voted the Calf Burger from the Fatted Calf in numbers but I'm left wondering why? Really -- it is a fast food burger. Viewed though that lens the Calf Burger compares to the burger from Five Guys and stomps on the nuts of anything The Clown or The King have to offer -- but this is a search for the best burger in St. Louis. While the best burger is undoubtedly one that you can see yourself having on a regular basis, its probably not a fast food burger.
In the end I've left with the weighty comments of two of our dining companions:
"More than anything, I remember liking The Fatted Calf many years ago and I hope, I really do, that it used to be better. Otherwise I have no idea what I was thinking before."
"Fatted calf is a metaphor related to rejoicing for someone's long-awaited return; I can only conclude that the restaurant is appropriately named as I will not be going back for their burger for quite some time."
It seems the search continues. Until next month.