Nice to meat you: how to craft the perfect burger

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Light reflects off of the Ray’s Place sign on Franklin Avenue, Kent, Ohio. Tuesday, April 16, 2019.

Apple pie, hot dogs and fried chicken are some of the most recognizable meals when one thinks of American comfort food. However, the list wouldn’t be complete without a key piece of Americana: the hamburger. The partner to french fries and the perfect entree for a summer picnic, burgers are an iconic menu item across the country.

According to a 2019 USA Today article, Americans consume an estimated 50 billion burgers per year. This deep love for the classic sandwich is no different in Kent, where plenty of local restaurants offer burgers as a mainstay of their menus.  

One of the first eateries that often comes to mind is Ray’s Place, located in downtown Kent. Established in 1937, the restaurant has remained a huge part of the community and offers an extensive menu full of various types of fare. Despite the variety of menu items, Ray’s Place’s burgers are one the biggest, if not the best, sellers on the menu, said Charlie Thomas, owner of Ray’s Place.    

“We use a special grade of beef from a purveyor,” Thomas said. “We have several different burgers on the menu, the Bleu Cow, Italian, then we have the Gourmet Burger. The Mo-Fo, we’ve had that for over 42 years and that’s the one Michael Symon said was the best burger he ever ate.”

Beyond using a particular type of beef, Ray’s Place also uses a chargrill to cook its burgers. The grill gives the sandwiches flavor that wouldn’t be achieved from simply cooking at home because the beef is seasoned from cooking all day long, Thomas said. 

Along with the correct grill is the correct grilling method. Usually, the thing to avoid is an overdone burger. Overcooking can leave burgers on the burnt side and lacking in taste, Thomas said.   

The practice of using a particular cooking method is a tip Mike Kostensky, owner of Mike’s Place for going on 33 years, also mentioned as an important part to making a good hamburger.

“A big hell yes,” Kostensky said in reference to whether burgers make up a large part of Mike’s Place’s menu. The restaurant’s burgers are charbroiled over a hot flame, giving them lots of flavor, then seasoned with special sauces, Kostensky said. 

In order to cook a good burger, however, it’s important to start with quality ingredients. 

“We buy the best meat you can get. I don’t want it too fatty but I don’t want it too lean, so we get a pure ground beef. We never freeze our meat so I buy the meat I need week-to-week,” Kostensky said. At Mike’s Place, where a majority of the burgers are a half-pound, buying the right beef and never skimping on the cost of meat is one of the most important steps, Kostensky said.

This sentiment, that quality beef is important, rang true at Five Guys as well. The restaurant balls its patties fresh every morning and never freezes its meat, said Kiana Jackson, manager at Five Guys. Echoing the other eateries, Five Guys has a special method for creating its burgers.   

“We have a three-section system where we’re only supposed to flip it two to four times so it decreases the amount of juice we waste,” Jackson said.  

Beef is the foundation of any good patty, but what it’s served on is just as important. The use of a well-toasted bun is something that’s key to making the perfect burger, Jackson said. The idea that quality buns are as important as the burger itself is something other local restaurants reiterated as well. At Mike’s Place, the bun is the finishing touch to a top-notch burger. Good buns are always purchased for the restaurant, never cheap ones, Kostensky said.   

The options of where to get a burger in Kent extend to more than just burger-centric eateries. At Wild Goats Cafe, a restaurant often thought of for its breakfast fare, there’s a whole evening devoted to the classic sandwich where customers can grab a burger for three dollars. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic restricting capacity in the restaurant — which then restricts revenue — Wild Goats Cafe is only offering breakfast and lunch at this time and have put their dinner menu on hold. Customers can still grab a Wild Goats burger, so long as they place their order before 3 p.m.

However, with ever-changing health trends, the burger landscape is beginning to change as well. For those who are health conscious, Mike’s Place has a vegetarian section of its menu that includes beyond burgers and meatless chicken wings, Kostensky said. At Wild Goats, patrons can enjoy the Midday Sandwich, which is a garden burger made in-house from scratch with a variety of toppings, Rogers said.   

In the end, what makes someone’s perfect burger goes beyond expert recommendations or best practices. For Thomas, it’s a burger with all the necessary toppings, including pickles, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato. For Rogers, it’s Wild Goats Cafe’s Horns Burger, a double burger topped with bacon and ham. For others, a good burger is tied to a memory. 

“An old bowling alley I used to go to when I was a kid, many years ago. They cooked theirs on the griddle,” Kostensky said. “And they buttered their buns with real butter. Nothing beats those.”  

Contact Abigail Mack at [email protected]