Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Pimento Cheese Trap

A Serious Burger with Pimento Cheese
(under that big blanket of lettuce somewhere)
My article this week for the Charleston City Paper delves into the perilous world of the gourmet burger and calls for a reformation.

One of the problems I identify with "the Serious Burger" (as I've dubbed the gourmet variety) is with the cheese. I didn't have space to ponder the subject of cheese too much in the article, but it's a thing that I've come across again and again and deserves addressing.

If you slap on a thin slice of American cheese on top of a burger, it gets soft right away and melts around the patty to form a smooth, soft coating. With fancier cheeses--like crumbles of bleu cheese or feta--you don't get that effect. The hunks and shards just don't melt properly, and leaving you with a burger with the textures all wrong.

It's a problem that is particularly pronounced with pimento cheese, creating what I like to call "The Pimento Cheese Trap."

 Virtually every Serious Burger joint in Charleston--and all over the South, for that matter--has stumbled into this trap.  You can see why they do it: what better way to gussy up a burger than to top it with a generous scoop of good old “Southern caviar”? You not only get some fancy cheese on the burger but also can tap right into the current hot trend for all things Southern. Instant class and hipness, all in the same scoop.

The problem is not with the pimento cheese itself but with the delivery. When it’s plunked onto the burger in a big cold scoop, the mere warmth of the patty isn’t enough to melt it, and, since most Serious Burger joints don't toast or griddle their buns, you’re left with a burger with big clumpy chunks of cool cheese on top. And it's just not all that pleasurable to eat.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one can’t make a good pimento cheese burger. It’s just that very few restaurants manage to pull it off.

The Rockaway Burger from Columbia’s Rockaway Athletic Club will always be the gold standard for me. Old Columbia residents maintain that the Rockaway Burger is but a pale shadow of the original pimento burger from the long-departed Dairy Bar, and I can't contest that, but the Rockaway Burger has the advantage of still being available on the market.

The burger comes to the table sliced in two, a toothpick speared in each half. The bun is warm and soft, the patty generous but not too thick, and—most important—the pimento cheese is melted completely so that it coats the burger and merges into the soft bun and oozes out in rich, golden drips as you bite into the thing.

Here's a pic from the Columbia Free Times of the Rockaway Burger in all its glory.

So here's a simple plea, burgermeisters: load up that bun with pimento cheese if you wish. But, pretty please, put that thing in a sandwich press or drop it straight on the griddle and melt that cheese good. Anything else is a sacrilege.

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