Where's the Beef?
When only a burger will do, Greater Wilmington serves up everything you could want!
In northern Delaware, diners who want to hold a meal with two hands often opt for cheesesteaks, Italian subs and crab cake sandwiches. That’s not surprising. The area is nestled between Philadelphia and the Eastern Shore. But when it comes to overall sales, these signature items are often bested by the beef burger.
“Burgers are 10 times more popular than crab cake sandwiches—and we sell a lot of crab cake sandwiches,” says Paul Bouchard, managing partner of Tonic Bar & Grille in downtown Wilmington.
At 8th & Union Kitchen in Wilmington’s Little Italy, which offers discounted burgers on Mondays, burgers are “by far our best-selling category,” says owner Brian Ashby. On Tuesdays, it’s hard to get in the door at Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Wilmington’s Trolley Square area, which sells its burgers at half-price. On Wednesday, those seeking a value—and a beer—head to Ulysses Gastropub in Brandywine Hundred.
The area’s passion for burgers is best displayed at the Delaware Burger Battle.
Last summer, more than 800 burger buffs attended the event, which public relations consultant JulieAnne Cross founded in 2012 with then client Matt Curtis of Union Street Grille (now 8th & Union Kitchen).
At the 2017 battle, the judges awarded the first-place prize to Redfire Grill & Steakhouse’s “Redfire” burger, which is topped with maple-pepper-lacquered bacon, aged Cabot cheddar cheese and house-made Thousand Island dressing. “It’s our most popular sandwich,” says Eric Huntley, Redfire’s executive chef. “To be honest, its sales rival some of our steaks.”
BEAUTY & THE BUN
A hamburger traditionally is grilled or fried ground beef on a sliced bun. The idea dates back to the 18th century, when a “Hamburgh sausage” was roasted and served on toasted bread. German immigrants brought the idea to the United States. But it wasn’t until 1904 that the New York Tribune noted the number of vendors serving a hamburger at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
For decades, the burger has been the star of quick-service restaurants (White Castle opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas; McDonald’s first opened in 1940), diners and malt shops. It’s still the main attraction at The Charcoal Pit on Concord Pike in Brandywine Hundred.
While chains like the Shake Shack, which has a location near Christiana Mall, have created a brand laced with nostalgia, The Charcoal Pit is the real deal. The restaurant, which opened in 1956, still boasts mini jukeboxes at the tables. A soup bowl-shaped sign announces the flavor of the day. Expatriates pine for The Pit Special, which is topped with crisp lettuce, a slice of onion and tomato. On the side is a pleated paper cup of house-made relish. Pair it with a chocolate shake, which comes in a frosty metal container with a spoon.
A BROAD BURGER BASE
While burgers still rule in such family-friendly restaurants—including newbies like Grub Burger Bar in Concord Mall, which has a full bar—it’s bounced onto upscale menus at both lunch and dinner.
“The burger is a beef steak in this day and age, and it’s worthy of a special approach,” says Brad Wenger, general manager of the Hilton Christiana, which is home to the recently opened Market Kitchen & Bar. “It’s coveted in just about any meal period.”
What’s driving the trend? “Chefs have gotten more creative as to what goes on top and what goes in them,” says Robbie Jester, executive chef at the Stone Balloon Ale House in downtown Newark. “Burgers are among our number one sellers.”
Credit America’s appetite for “big flavors,” says Jim Berman, executive chef for Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen, which has locations in Newark and Bear, Delaware, and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “There are very unique approaches,” he says, “and the layers of [burger] flavors have just exploded. There are no more rules.”
Consider the Hangover Helper burger at Grain, which has a fried egg, tater tots, cheese and barbecue sauce. Among the Stone Balloon’s offerings is the Big Bad Q-Doo Daddy: two short rib patties with cheddar, bacon, root beer-chipotle barbecue sauce and crispy onions. The impressive stack is speared by steak knife. Tonic’s “Peppercorn Blue” burger comes with Gorgonzola cheese and roasted red peppers.
Burgers also let a restaurant flaunt its creativity. “We don’t like to do anything like anyone else,” says Ashby of 8th & Union Kitchen. “We like to think outside of the box.” His Kennett Square Burger includes bacon, an egg, Swiss cheese, aioli and, of course, mushrooms.
At Home Grown Café in Newark, the Smokehouse burger includes chipotle-tomato jam, smoked bacon, smoked cheddar cheese and lettuce. (The restaurant, a fave of those on special diets, lets diners substitute a veggie patty or chicken.)
Each year, innovation is on full display at the Delaware Burger Battle, where Maiale Deli & Salumeria nabbed the 2017 people’s choice award for the Mexicano burger, a blend of ground prime chuck with chili powder, paprika, cumin, cilantro, garlic and fire-roasted poblano chilies—all topped with queso Chihuahua (soft white cheese), pickled red onions and chipotle sauce. The burger is currently in the deli’s menu.
As the price of a burger creeps toward $20, the meat clearly matters. “The really good burgers at the Delaware Burger Battle have really good meat and a good bun—those are the hallmarks of the trophy winners,” says organizer Cross.
At Goat Kitchen & Bar in Brandywine Hundred, patties are made from Hereford beef and topped with pimento cheese—and lots of bacon. Some restaurants opt for a mix. The Stone Balloon’s blend includes equal parts short rib, brisket and ground chuck.
Others take a local angle. Harry’s Savoy Grill in Wilmington, known for its prime rib and strip steaks, sells the Jenny Farm steak burger made with beef from a Unionville, Pennsylvania, farm. At Market Kitchen & Bar—which was designed for Hilton Christiana—the Cow Tipping burger is 100 percent dry-aged Angus beef from Reid’s Angus in Frankford, Delaware. The cheese is from Calkins Creamery in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and the brioche bun is from Le Bus Bakery in Philadelphia. (The sandwich also includes caramelized rosemary onions, lettuce, tomato, and an herb spread.)
“Initially the burger wasn’t going to be a signature item,” Wenger says, “but it morphed into that.”
Berman of Grain isn’t surprised. He feels like all food should give diners a “little internal belly hug.” But in the case of the beef burger, it’s one big bear hug.