Alvin Cailan is on a quest to find the best burger in America. That’s no easy task. America is a land with a vast burger culture that ebbs and flows across the better part of a continent. Besides that, a burger is never just one thing. It’s the representation of decades, sometimes centuries of migration across oceans and land. It’s a foreign food that’s gone through so many iterations that it feels fully “ours.”
For Cailan, the sandwich has always been a passion project. In 2011, the chef stormed the world food stage with his food truck and now international chain Eggslut. The humble breakfast spot changed the game when it came to executing a simple, delicious egg sandwich. Then came Amboy and The Usual — one a testament to Cailan’s Filippino roots, the other a love letter to the foods Cailan loves most in New York City.
When launching The Usual, Cailan knew he’d want to do a burger. While his rise to international prominence started in the kitchen, he’s been exploring his burger obsession online for years now. Cailan started hosting First We Feast’s The Burger Show on YouTube in early 2018 and is about to launch the fifth season of the series today, September 24th. Meanwhile, he was tapped as the chef for the very well-received Good Burger pop-up in LA.
All things considered, this felt like the perfect time to reach out to the chef to talk about the best burgers in America.
Dude, I’m stoked that the next season of The Burger Show is coming up. I think I’ve watched every episode twice. I really excited to talk about some great burgers.
I’d like to start in Chicago. You hit up Chicago last season and the burgers from Small Cheval and Au Cheval got surpassed by the new Dirt Burger from The Loyalist. Can you break down the difference between those burgers?
You know, I’ve had Au Cheval a few times and I think it’s a really good burger. Most burgers that I really favor have something that’s like an “x-factor” that really makes the burger shine and almost inspires me. It’ll make me want to cook a burger and try to emulate it.
The Au Cheval burger is good. But really, it’s just the basic cheeseburger, you know? It’s a bun, onion, American cheese, and good beef. But The Loyalist’s Dirt Burger has onion marmalade, onion, mayo, and then marmite. They put marmite in it and it just has so much flavor. It still was incognito and still looks like a simple cheeseburger. That’s just so much more flavor for me.
Basically I need to get back to Chicago now to try this burger.
Yeah. It’s super good, man. It’s really fantastic. It’s very playful. Look I don’t hate on Au Cheval, I just don’t think that it’s as good as The Loyalist’s.
I feel that man. Oh, so let’s take a shift to Connecticut. It’s the birthplace of the American-style hamburger. What burger experiences have you had in New Haven that where you were like, “Oh shit, this is what a burger should be”?
That whole area of Connecticut is one of the states where the burger is life. They have a Louis’ Lunch and Louis’ Lunch is like the Smithsonian of burgers because it’s one of the first-ever burger joints in the country.
A lot of people talk crap about that burger. I think they’re expecting a classic beef, cheese, and bun type of situation. But if you put it in the mindset of eating a piece of history, that burger actually shines. It’s really good. So because of that, I think the surrounding area has a kind of restraint and respect for that classic cheeseburger. And, therefore, a lot of programs in Connecticut are just super scared.
But, you know, I really can’t really pinpoint my favorite one. I think the one thing that’s cited the most is the Shady Glen cheeseburger that has that crispy cheese on it. It’s really inspired me. I do a crispy cheeseburger now in my restaurant. That’s the “x-factor” that takes a cheeseburger to the next level.
Let’s move to Los Angeles because I really love Apple Pan. You did an episode about it and I hadn’t realized that In-N-Out actually predates Apple Pan. There’s this weird cross-breeding inspiration thing going on that I don’t think people realize because they see In-N-Out as like this modern place. But it’s been around for decades.
It’s been around forever, over 70 years. I definitely, I definitely love the In-N-Out cheeseburger. But Apple Pan, to me, is special to my heart. I think it’s just a classic plate, you know? People who work there have worked there for 50, 60 years. There’s no beating that. You could have it in 1986 and then you could have it tomorrow and it’ll taste exactly the same. It’s super consistent because it’s the same person making it.
Can you walk us through the Double Cheese Hickory burger? When I hear “hickory,” I think of smoke and Tennessee wood, and, you know, brisket. What’s the “hickory” in this case?
Well, their hickory burger is really a textbook base. The hickory sauce is almost like a ketchup-based barbecue sauce. I personally think it has a little bit of smoke to it. It’s kind of brings me back to a backyard burger when you put on all the store-bought BBQ sauce.
Whenever I order Apple Pan, I usually go light lettuce with no tomato because their burger is just great. The way it’s constructed with the Tillamook cheese. It’s just so good.
Tillamook cheese. That’s close to my heart. I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so I grew up on Tillamook.
Oh man. I went to culinary school in Portland. One of my friends worked at Tillamook Farm and the factory. So I had four years of everything Tillamook in my refrigerator.
Very, very nice. Let’s talk lettuce. I need to ask you this. Look, I’m a big fan of Shake Shack, but there’s a big, big asterisk there. I’m not a big fan of butter lettuce …
It kind of blows my mind that they use butter lettuce on the Shack Burger.
Yeah, I’m not a big butter lettuce fan for burgers. I’m a shredded iceberg lettuce guy. I think it looks pretty — like, if I have to make a burger purely for photographs, you know? I think chefs tend to use butter lettuce ’cause it looks pretty.
Yeah, I’m with you, brother. You’re out in New York with The Usual now. What are you seeing in the New York burger scene now that you’re in the trenches out there?
You know, it’s just like regular food in New York, right? You have super fine dining and then you have these steakhouse burgers — the high-end burgers, the $30, $40 burgers.
But, then you have the really cheap burgers, like the Mister Dips or Joe Jr. or Shake Shack. What’s happening now is that it’s a lot of mid-range burgers are coming out where it’s very moderately priced. I think that’s kind of where New York is right now. I’m guilty of it. I actually have a wide range. I have a $5 burger for lunch. I have a $7 burger for happy hour. And then, I have a $20 burger for dinner.
For New York, five-bucks is a crazy good price.
Right? If you’re dining during the daytime or if you’re at work, you don’t want to spend too much money. So you go for the $5 thing. And then at night, you kind of want to be a little bit more upscale and you get the $20 burger. I think it’s cool because sometimes I don’t want a $20 cheeseburger. Sometimes — or most of the times — I definitely don’t want a super expensive hamburger.
Let’s go outside the box with a Hawaiian masterpiece. Burger legend George Motz cooked you and Ty Burrell the Hawaiian national burger, so to speak.
The Loco Moco!
That felt really old school to me. Like going back to Germany’s original hamburg steak.
I grew up eating the Loco Moco. I feel like that comes from something more Filipino because of how many Filipinos are in Hawaii.
Break it down!
So it’s obviously not a hamburger, it’s a hamburger steak. But, you know, it’s something you would kind of want to do nowadays for house parties with your friends. It’s very simple and yet very comforting.
It’s steamed rice. I usually use sushi rice. I’m a big fan of sushi rice. Then, you make a really simple hamburger steak and top it with gravy and two fried eggs. It’s super good. This is very, very near and dear to my heart because in the Philippines we have a specific style of breakfast that’s called Silog, which basically means rice and egg, and the Loco Moco’s basically a Silog.
So if you were popping over to Hawai’i, do you have a spot that you go find a Loco Moco or Silog?
Oh man, yeah. There’s this place called Dakiecacs. That place has really good Loco Moco. Then there’s Zippy’s which is kind of a chain. It’s like the In-N-Out for Hawai’i but with lots of boxed lunch.
So I got to ask, it’s kind of a personal question. I’m from Seattle. You lived in Portland for years. Did you ever make it up to Seattle and go to Dick’s Drive-In?
Oh yes, definitely. Dick’s is such an interesting place. It’s in a category of burger joints that I like to call “The Local Name.”
What’s that mean?
I think that if you’re an outsider and you hear so much about Dick’s, you kind of get disappointed in it. But I can see the charm and the appeal of Dick’s burger.
I personally like the greasy cheeseburger joint, especially if it’s local. In Portland we have Burgerville. Then in Texas, they have Whataburger. And then there’s Culvers in the Midwest. And L.A. has Fatburger. Those are all kind of in that same realm as that for me — everyone goes there for all these 2 A.M. cheeseburgers, you know?
I feel that 100 percent. Let’s talk about Texas. You got a call-out the Ozersky at Knife in Dallas as a great burger. Walk us through this burger, man, because it looks amazing.
At first glance, the Ozersky burger looks like a done-up McDonald’s cheeseburger. But when you eat it, it blows your mind.
It’s like the epitome of the full cheeseburger that has a slice of onion and no condiments. It has really good beef from 44 Farms and American cheese on their regular hamburger bun. Chef John Tesar was really good friends with Josh Ozersky and before he died. He had a conversation about what the perfect hamburger would be and that’s what he said. And now he pays homage to him every day with that burger.
That’s really incredible. It has the red onion at the bottom that’s really thinly sliced. Is it pickled or anything or is it just straight up?
No, no, it’s raw. Straight up red onion. It cuts through the richness. The beef is what stands out. The 44 Farms beef that they use is so good.
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Right, right. I’m actually in Ohio right now and I noticed you also call-out a Seven Hills, Ohio cheeseburger. The Cheeseburg from Swensons Drive-In. That seems like a really deep cut.
One of my best friends is trapped in Cleveland and I’ve been to visit him every year. People have been telling me about Swensons for so long that the first time I went to Cleveland I went out there and fell in love with it. It’s a classic drive-up. You can’t really order inside.
They do the hard sear on the burger. Classic. It fits the surroundings. It’s one of those “it-makes-sense-with-the-time-and-place” burgers.
And it’s got a secret sauce on the top, right?
Yeah. That’s that “x-factor” that they have. It’s hard to explain, man, I don’t know. It’s super good. Every time I go there I intend to eat like two or three of them.
Let’s do a lightning round for the last couple of questions. I’m just going to fire off the elements of a burger and tell me what you think is the best way to go. Burger buns, what are you going with?
You can’t go wrong with Martin’s Potato Rolls. It’s really something. On the East Coast, we’re used to them. On the West Coast, it’ll blow your mind if you’ve never had it before.
Ketchup, mayo, mustard, or secret sauce?
I’m going to go with secret sauce because it’s all great.
Lean/fat ratio on your beef?
Has to be at the least 75/25.
Cheese? I mean, I know the answer, but cheese?
American all day, baby. And then toppings — how many are too many?
Oh man, you know, I’m all about pickles and onions. At the maximum, lettuce and tomato, especially if it’s tomato season. If it’s not tomato season, don’t even put them on your burger. It’s not worth it. That, to me, is the most. Even bacon is a stretch for me.
How do you cook the patty? Smash, sous vide, flame?
I think the smashed burger is probably the best way to cook a burger until you learn how to actually develop a proper sear. I think the sear is the most important part of a burger that gives it that “x-factor” again.
I’m going to go for smash, especially for those at home. They should try it.
Last one: Seasoning. I think you changed the game when you showed the world how you mastered scrambling eggs. You don’t season your scrambled eggs until they’re done. When do you season your burger?
For me, I would rather just smash my patty first without any seasoning and then season it while it’s in the pan.
Do you season the raw side, flip it, and season again? Or just season the raw side, flip it, and it’s good?
When you’re smashing you just want to season the raw side. If it’s too soon, it’ll be too salty.