There's something undeniably satisfying about a good burger.
I've eaten many — eight last year during the first burger Food Prowl and countless others since — and now I can add six more gourmet burgers to that list.
At least half of the burgers I ate during the past month with the prowl team count as my favorites in Omaha.
We had homemade ketchups and mustards. Creative toppers including fried oysters and foie gras. Buns brioche and pretzel. House-made pickles and secret sauces. And patties — oh, the patties. Most were special blends of beef, almost all were cooked to a perfect medium-rare center.
Even with such high-end burgers, our main criteria remained pretty straightforward. The burger patties had to be cooked and seasoned right. And all the other stuff — even the most creative toppings and condiments — was just decoration. Albeit delicious decoration.
Two members of the original burger prowl team — An Vu of the Omaha Burger Club and Nick Strawhecker, chef and owner at Dante Ristorante — were back. I added Omahan Mindy Duff, a woman who has eaten burgers around the world. One of her favorites: the cheeseburger at chef Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, a popular chain of burger restaurants that started in New York and serves affordable high-end burgers.
At the first meeting at midtown's J. Coco, the team discussed burgers and how the prowl would work. We decided to try special toppings and artisan buns when available, and to try one basic burger at each place so we could judge the quality and cookery without distraction.
The J. Coco burger is one of my favorites in town. The burger I shared with Mindy was cooked perfectly, topped with a runny egg and resting on a bed of sweet caramelized onions. We opted for the buttered and toasted brioche bun.
An really liked the pretzel bun on hers.
All of us agreed that the Wagyu beef burger didn't need ketchup or mustard — the egg and onions exploded with flavor and brought just the right amount of moisture to the package. The slightly charred exterior of the patty tasted great paired with the pink center.
Nick ordered his medium rare and it came out closer to medium, though he had high praise for the brioche bun, made in-house.
It struck me as a bit weird to try a burger at Plank, the city's newest seafood place, but An had eaten one there and Nick was into the idea, so we headed there for lunch. Nick got house-cured bacon and cheese on his burger, while An opted for the most adventurous topping, a fried oyster, which we were all excited to sample. Mindy and I shared a classic cheeseburger.
The certified Angus beef burgers came out cooked as we ordered, if a touch rare. Nick's burger, topped with the house-made bacon, had a smokiness that the others didn't. He dug it.
The oyster burger took the cake. Two fried pieces of oyster almost melted into it, but didn't overtake its flavor. We liked the textural mix of the juicy beef and slightly tougher seafood, and the oyster brought unexpected crunch and chew to the sandwich.
“I thought this would be gimmicky,” An said, “but it's not.”
Our main beef with Plank's burger were the nondescript buns.
We met again at Lot 2 — the first customers in the door when it opened at 4 p.m. — to try a burger we'd heard a lot about. The restaurant uses grass-fed beef from Grass Run Farm in Omaha.
Lot 2's burger has a lot going on, including a spread of homemade bacon-onion marmalade, a secret sauce and roasted tomato. We all got the restaurant's basic cheeseburger and ordered one naked patty, sans toppings or bun. The results created a team split.
I shared a burger with An and we agreed that the first bite tasted more like a bacon sandwich. Mindy's burger, though, had just the right amount of bacon jam and wasn't overwhelmingly smoky or bacony. None of us could taste the roasted tomatoes, which was too bad because one was tasty when I tried it alone. The naked patty tasted fairly salty, and the inconsistency of the dressed burgers bothered me.
Nick loved the L2 burger, though, and commented that it was one of the juiciest we'd tried. He thought the meat was standout. It was the first prowl burger he finished all by himself.
“So far, for me, this is the best of the lot,” he said.
An liked the cheese — “a happy medium between a Kraft single and swiss” — but would have preferred fewer toppings.
“The meat would have been the star,” she said. “But instead it was buried in the background.”
We headed to the Grey Plume with expectations high — An and Mindy had tried this burger and had mixed feelings about it. We wondered what we'd find. It turns out the Plume burger has undergone revisions and it, too, divided our team.
The burger itself was one of the most flavorful, and the seasoning of the patty was on-point. The Plume makes its burger using the beef cut called chuck roll, sort of the “pork butt” of beef. Its makes its buns in-house, and the menu offers add-ons, two of which we tried: foie gras and pork belly.
The burger was an experience to eat. Alone, the mustard may have been a touch grainy and spicy, and the bun may have been a touch dry. The chunks of foie gras and pork belly might have been too big. But when you took a bite of condiment, house-made pickle, crumbly buttermilk cheese, burger and bun, the whole thing became clear — this burger is thoughtful. Not one flavor was lost or muddled.
We did have a few problems. It required a knife and fork, and Mindy didn't like that. Picking it up, she said, is “part of the joy of eating a burger.”
And both An and Nick thought the bun was too dry and too large. It was different from the one An and Mindy had tried previously; Mindy liked this version more. But An said she wished there were an option for a pretzel bun. Bun aside, An said the meat here was clearly the star of the show — and that's the point.
We headed to Dario's Brasserie — our third stop in one evening — to try a burger that An and I thought had a more than decent chance of winning.
We waited the better part of an hour for our three burgers, which came out way too rare — one basically inedible — and way too salty. One was saltier even than the duck fat French fries.
“If I had not been here with you on this prowl,” An said. “I would not have believed this had happened.”
At Nick's suggestion, we met for the last time at Louie's Wine Dive in west Omaha. The burger there was classic and basic — but not very gourmet.
“It's not a bad burger,” Mindy said. “It just doesn't compare with the other ones we've had.”
Then the vote.
We ruled out Louie's. At Plank, what we remembered most was oyster, not burger. Dario's was out.
An and I both ruled out Lot 2 because of the overwhelming bacon jam, though without that issue, An said, it would have gotten her vote.
“My vote goes to J. Coco,” An said. “I love the pretzel bun. I love an egg. It was flawless. I didn't need to dip it in ketchup and the flavor of the meat was great. It was slightly overcooked, but I ordered it medium, so that was my fault.”
Mindy went next.
“There was only one burger we tried that is comparable to the gourmet burgers I've eaten in New York City,” she said, “and that's the Grey Plume burger.”
It got her vote because of the quality of the meat and the condiments; she forgave the fact that she had to cut it with a fork.
Nick's vote went to Lot 2 because, to him, it was the most balanced.
“The burger-to-bun ratio was spot-on,” he said. “It hit it home.”
I was torn between two burgers for different reasons. I love J. Coco's burger. I love the brioche bun and I've never eaten a burger there and left without feeling satisfied. But the experience of the Plume burger left me breathless. Their burger elevated the lowly sandwich to something else — a real dish. So I voted for the Grey Plume, and we had a winner.
“It's the truly extravagant burger,” Mindy said. “It's the burger experience.”