Final Four: The Mystery Diner samples burgers in our Burger Throwdown

Mystery Diner • Updated Jun 19, 2018 at 2:51 PM

Burger Throw Down 2018 is reaching its climax, and you could not find a more diverse group than this year’s choices: a former food truck, an Italian restaurant, a “burger joint” franchise, and a seafood restaurant.

You, our diverse and discerning readers have chosen these contestants to be the four finalists for the 2018 “Best Burger” Title, and the bragging rights that goes with it. Here, in no particular order are your fabulous four Burger Throw Down 2018 finalists:

Slammin’ Sammy’s Sandwiches – Old South Burger. You’ve got to hand it to Samantha Chapman. Her reputation of being one of the savviest local restaurateurs was proved just this past year when she took her very successful Slammin’ Sammy’s Sandwiches food truck off the road, moved her operation to a newly renovated brick & mortar storefront on West Walnut Street near East Tennessee State University and was successful as a result. The main draw at Slammin’ Sammy’s are (of course) their sandwiches; the pimento cheese sandwich made from Chapman’s own family recipe being especially delectable. Well, Ms. Samantha Chapman took that outstanding recipe for pimento cheese and married it to one of Slammin’ Sammy’s 100% Angus beef burgers, creating Slammin’ Sammy’s Big South Burger ($9.29, coleslaw or fries included.) Starting, not with the usual generic off-the-shelf hamburger bun but an artisan-quality grilled brioche, you add a quarter pound (cooked weight) of 100% Angus ground chuck and top sirloin. Chapman then “amps up” the burger’s Southern slant by adding a slice of fried green tomato, and next some slices of center-cut Southern-style smokehouse bacon. But nothing says “Southern” better than a good dollop of Chapman’s proprietary pimento cheese as the finishing touch. No doubt about it, Slammin’ Sammy’s Big South Burger is one of the best ways to enjoy local Southern heritage.

Portobello’s Italian Bistro – Portobello’s Burger. I’d enjoyed enough outings at Portobello’s Italian Bistro to consider myself pretty familiar with the offerings listed in the pages of their diverse and eclectic menu. Just how eclectic was brought home to me on a recent visit when I discovered an entry for their Portobello’s Burger tucked away in a corner with the menu’s sandwich selections. As with all their creations, Portobello’s proprietor Sherif and his kitchen staff have taken their version of an ordinary cheeseburger and made it truly exceptional. The Portobello’s Burger begins with eight ounces (yes, that’s a half pound) of locally-sourced USDA certified Black Angus beef grilled as you request. (“Medium Rare” is my choice, as in cooked just enough for me to still taste the “Moo.”) While the beef is resting to seal in its juices, a quantity of caramelized onions and mushrooms is nestled on top, together with some crumbles of imported Italian gorgonzola cheese. The bottom half of a grilled onion bun is layered with fresh leaf lettuce and a slice or two of red ripe tomato. The bun’s lid gets a swipe of mayonnaise, at which point the the rested and dressed Portobello’s Burger gets plated with a side order of their fresh-cut French fries. Thus assembled, your Portobello’s Burger is a feast for the senses. First, your nose catches the mouth-watering aroma of freshly grilled beef and grilled onions as the burger is brought to your table. The burger itself looks delectable (and sizable) plated up with its side order of fries. Taking a bite, you hear the crunch of fresh leaf lettuce and juicy tomato. The flavor bouquet of the Portobello’s Burger is truly remarkable. You taste the correctly prepared grilled beef, the pungency of grilled onion. There’s the earthiness of the mushrooms, offset by the sour tang of ripe tomato. But it is that unlooked-for, almost wrong-headed, decidedly strong and definitely cheese-y flavor note your palate gets from the aged gorgonzola that unifies all of the other flavors in the Portobello’s Burger into a delectable whole. As you can see (and taste), your enjoyment of a Portobello’s Burger is not just a meal, it is an event.

Five Guys – Build–A-Burger. With a menu that promises you up front that you can add whatever toppings you choose to your burger and it won’t cost you anything extra, no wonder the Five Guys restaurant franchise been successful for the past 32 years. This “Build a Burger” concept has been tried elsewhere but not with Five Guys degrees of success. The policy at Five Guys is that the customer knows what he/she is hungry for, so why not offer them a meal prepared from the best quality ingredients and cooked the way they want it? On my latest visit to Five Guys in Kingsport, I decided to try my hand creating my version of a Five Guys “Build a Burger.” Figuring that my building project required a firm foundation, I started with a superb Five Guys bacon cheeseburger ($8.39) and told the team at Five Guys’ to make mine “All the Way.” This involves one of their grill masters taking an eight ounce 100% beef patty, grilling it until “well done” (a company policy) and then melting a to ounce slice of American cheese on the top of it. Next, burger heads to the prep line where one of the Five Guys prep specialists assembles the burger on its bun and adds lettuce, dill pickle chips, sliced red tomatoes, followed by a compact pile of sautéed mushrooms and onions. The burger bun’s base gets a swipe of real (Hellman’s, I think. You can taste the difference) mayonnaise, while the lid gets a squirt each of ketchup and some pungent yellow mustard. Oh, and don’t forget the bacon, smoky-sweet, and also cooked “well done.” My “Build a Burger” was then folded up in aluminum foil and tucked into a brown paper bag together with one of their “Regular” sized (as in three hands full) order of their fresh-cut French fries that the Five Guys’ manager just dumped into the bag, right on top of that nicely wrapped up, all-the-way, build-a-bacon cheeseburger of mine. The taste, you ask? Every one of my taste buds got something to mull over and enjoy. The draft communique that my palate sent me was a resounding “Yum.”

Riverfront Seafood Company – Riverfront Burger. When I think of where I can get the best burger the Tri-Cities, a restaurant where the majority of their menu items have either fins or claws does not normally spring to mind. Until now, that is. My gentle education burger-wise occurred recently when I’d had fish for lunch and was informed later that day that my dining partner had been wanting fish all day long, and guess where we were going for supper that evening? Now, Riverfront Seafood Company is a Kingsport haunt of mine whenever I want some of Neptune’s bounty on a plate in front of me. Just not this time. As I sat there glumly contemplating their menu and wondering If I’d start growing gills anytime soon, I spotted my dining salvation lower down Riverfront’s menu page. The Riverfront Burger ($8.99) was a perfect choice for a diner who, just at this particular moment, was not in the mood for seafood. Riverfront’s kitchen can customize your Riverfront burger any way you want it. I had my half pound of 100 percent ground sirloin cooked medium rare on the char rack, then placed lovingly on a grilled onion bun, enrobed in smoked, aged cheddar with just a smidgen of mayonnaise on both the bottom bun and the lid. Wanting some good things from the garden, I opted for some fresh, crisp leaf lettuce, a quantity of red onion ringlets, a couple slices of tomato and a nice crunchy dill pickle spear to top it all off. Being able to substitute a nice garden salad instead of a stack of Riverfront’s fresh-cut French fries as my side order made my dinner perfection itself. Be warned: the Riverfront burger is not for those one-handed burger eaters whose single-handed grip needs some strengthening. The Riverfront Burger requires you use two hands. If that’s a problem, by all means, please deconstruct it with your knife and fork. You will want to enjoy every morsel of Riverfront Seafood Company’s excellent Riverfront Burger.

Well, there they are. Why not stop in this week and make sure your choice for Burger Throwdown 2018 is the winning entry? I can’t think of a better (or more satisfying) way to make sure you are one of the informed electorate. Good luck, and good eating!

Where to vote: https://goo.gl/zy8C7r

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