How to make a ‘better burger’

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The reliable fast food burgers of our childhood have long found themselves in competition with new burger joints in Manila, which offer their own version of what a ‘better burger’ tastes — and feels — like. Here are a few burger places that deconstruct the classic bun and beef patty and turn them into something more delectable and unorthodox, while retaining the bliss of our earliest burger memories. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Do you remember the burger of your childhood?

Perhaps it was a time when fast food was something magical rather than mundane, when McDonald’s and Jollibee were classic birthday party fare, when you could eat five Yum! Burgers in a row without a second thought.

As you grew older, the hamburger might have stayed on in your memory as this simple, nostalgic bite of comfort — a piece of secondhand Americana that Filipinos picked up and made our own.

Today, a handful of burger joints have come into the market to make the burger great again, so to speak — taking those childhood flavors and enriching them to take you back to another time. This is no expansive list of Manila’s better burgers; it is a cursory glance at a handful of restaurants and the different ways they’ve figured out how to upgrade your classic burger.

The-Beef-3.jpg Carnivale executive chef Kel Zaguirre drew from his French culinary background in developing the restaurant’s burgers. All the buns are brioche, and the patties are streaked with wagyu fat to give them a deeper, juicier flavor. Photo by JL JAVIER  

“For me, a burger’s a throwback to a flavor that you liked when you were young — when you kind of didn’t care about calories or about healthiness and you could just eat great food after school, or after going out at night, you could drive-thru at McDonald’s,” says Abba Napa, founding partner of the Moment Group, which manages 8Cuts. “When we created 8Cuts, we really wanted to bring back that nostalgia.

For Al Galang, one of the creators of Sweet Ecstasy, it was a matter of making the burger he grew up with in San Diego. He says, “The burger at Sweet Ecstasy was really developed with, I guess, a homesickness in mind. There were a lot of burgers in the Philippines but where was the one that reminded me the most of growing up in Southern California?”

CNN_SweetEcstasy-16.jpg Sweet Ecstasy was developed in an attempt to perfect the Southern California burger. It was all about simple ingredients, particular vegetable assembly, and a killer meat blend. Photo by SAM LIM  

What does it take to make a “better burger,” as Napa calls it? The common thread among the burger joints we visited was that it was all about the beef — sticking to the best quality meat and ensuring that there were no extenders or fillers. Each of the restaurants took their time with trial and error, researching and experimenting until they found the perfect blend for their patties. Daily operations also revolve around the meat, which is ground fresh daily at each of the restaurants.

Charlie's Grind and Grill, as the name suggests, is already the process that goes into making our burgers. We grind the meat and cook it — the simpler the better,” says Charlie’s Grind and Grill chef Grace Go.

CNN_Charlies-8.jpg Simplicity is Charlie's Grind and Grill's burger philosophy. As one of the longest-running better burger places, it's known for the distinctive flavor profiles of its steak burgers. Photo by SAM LIM  

Charlie’s is one of the longest-running better burger places. They’ve been serving their classic Black Angus Cheeseburger (₱220) and Wagyu Cheeseburger (₱230) since the mid-2000s. Each retains the distinctive flavor profile of the respective steaks, their miscellaneous hotdogs, chicken wings, and french fries. It’s a place to sit down for a messy meal with a bottle of beer.

8Cuts, on the other hand, creates a full-on nostalgic experience with their moody interiors strewn with shocks of neon red and blue, plus 90s and early 2000s music on rotation. Named for the eight cuts of meat in their patties, 8Cuts offers a choice of their meatier house blend patty (short rib, ribeye, and brisket) and their healthier grass-fed patty (sirloin, round tip, flank, short plate, and chuck), served in buns made in-house, with the choice of beer, wine or cocktails to go with the burger.

Napa recognizes that everybody’s childhood burger came with different added elements. “I guess that’s why there are so many different kinds of burgers in 8Cuts,” she says. Apart from their classic cheeseburger (₱195 for a quarter-pound, ₱265 for a third-pound), they offer a variety of special burgers including the Shroom (₱295, ₱365) with baby Portobello mushrooms, and the Piggy (₱265, ₱320) with house-made bacon, among others. “We kind of try to put it all out there for everyone.”

Carnivale-1.jpg Inspired by French cooking, Carnivale's burgers are "seared outside and juicy inside," says Kel Zaguirre, the restaurant's executive chef. "All the flavors are not out in the griddle [but] all in there in the burger." Photo by JL JAVIER  

Carnivale executive chef Kel Zaguirre, on the other hand, drew from his French culinary background in developing the restaurant’s burgers. All the buns are brioche, and the patties are streaked with wagyu fat to give them a deeper, juicier flavor. The burgers are cooked sous vide and seared on a hot plate to get the perfect texture and flavor. “The burger is always at that state where it’s seared outside, it’s very juicy inside. All the flavors are there — it’s not out in the griddle, it’s not out in the pan. It’s all in there in the burger,” Zaguirre says.

In line with the carnival theme, Zaguirre developed a collection of striking, unorthodox burgers. Apart from the most basic Wangus (₱360), there’s a cheeseburger (₱530) that’s served between two hash browns, with mac and cheese and a 64-degree egg, and a Gravlax burger (₱380) with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

For Galang of Sweet Ecstasy, it was a matter of perfecting his Southern California burger, and all about simple ingredients, particular vegetable assembly, and a killer meat blend. “It isn’t me reinventing the burger here, as much as, hey, let me give people an option. Not just people who can relate, let’s say an expat or a foreigner. Good taste is good taste,” he says.

He also developed the signature Ecstasy Sauce that comes in every cheeseburger (₱195). Drawing inspiration from the In-N-Out secret sauce, the Ecstasy Sauce is “every condiment that people would put on the burgers blended into a sauce — mayo, ketchup, salt, pepper, pickled relish,” and a secret ingredient that gives the Sweet X burger its characteristic kick.

The-Beef-1.jpg The highlight of The Beef is its patty blend of USDA beef, local sirloin and Kitayama cuts. All of this is served in a soft, buttery bun. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Meanwhile, The Beef at Century City Mall’s Hole in the Wall serves a standard hamburger (₱295, ₱370 with fries) or cheeseburger (₱325, ₱395 with fries). “Really the whole thing is about uncluttering the burger and going back to the basics,” explains Tin Adriano of Lowbrow, which manages Hole in the Wall.

The highlight of The Beef is its patty blend of USDA beef, local sirloin and Kitayama cuts. All of this is served in a soft, buttery bun. “Anybody can make a burger,” Adriano says. “The whole point really is taking your casual food and elevating it — coming up with something that gives it a different spin but you don’t complicate it either.”

Developing a burger, Adriano notes, is a complicated process to make something that should ultimately strike a diner as simple. Regardless of what it’s served with, what matters is getting that perfectly blended and perfectly cooked meat.

CNN_SweetEcstasy-6.jpg Today, a handful of burger joints have come into the market to make the burger great again, so to speak — taking those childhood flavors and enriching them to take you back to another time. Photo by SAM LIM  

More than that, food is a vehicle for memory. We make associations between food and people and places. There must be something special when you sit down for a burger and it takes you to another time and place.

Whether or not it’s an accurate memory hardly matters. The burgers are definitely different, but now that you’re older, you deserve something better. And if it gives you the same childhood bliss, why ask for anything else?

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8cuts has branches in UP Town Center, SM Megamall and other malls all over Metro Manila. Sweet Ecstasy can be found in Regis Center in Katipunan, Quezon City, 10 Jupiter St. in Makati, and Uptown Parade in Bonifacio Global City. Charlie’s Grind and Grill is located in 16 East Capitol Drive in Kapitolyo, Ronac Art Center in Greenhills, and 1A Greenbelt Radissons in Legaspi Village, Makati. Carnivale is on the 2nd floor of S’ Maison, Conrad Hotel, Mall of Asia Complex, Pasay City. The Beef is in the food hall of Hole in the Wall on the 4th floor of Century City Mall in Makati.