Life

Three Food Writers Battle To Impress Beard-Nominee George Motz With Their Best Diner Food

When Zach suggested “Diner Food” for this month’s cooking battle, I had one of those “How have we not already done that?” moments. Vince was on board too and just like that, we had our challenge set. It was way faster than the process has gone for at least six months.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, as you’ll soon see. Diner food doesn’t photograph all that great. It’s mostly variations of tan, with vegetables few and far between. It’s also a food genre that people have scorching hot takes on. No one is particularly open-minded about what their beloved diner dishes ought to look like. If it can’t activate sense memory, it’s labeled “trash.”

To label our dishes trash, we brought in chef and filmmaker George Motz. Though Motz is probably America’s foremost burger authority — he’s the director of the Beard-nominated Hamburger America and authored a book by the same name — his months spent traveling America’s byways and backroads seeking out burger recipes has given him plenty of diner experience. he certainly didn’t hesitate to share some strong opinions.

Keep reading for our riffs on diner classics, guesstimate-filled recipes, and plenty of burns. Then plan to check out Motz’s new series: Burger Scholar Sessions, premiering May 5th.

— Steve Bramucci, Editorial Director, Uproxx Life

PAST 5 RESULTS (see full results here):

Breakfast Sandwich Showdown w/Chef Alvin Cailan: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Thanksgiving Showdown Rematch w/Chef Isaac Toups: 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Christmas Movie Showdown: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Oscar Movie Showdown w/Binging With Babish: 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Meatball Showdown with Chef Tyler Anderson: 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. All votes are counted equally. As it stands, the score is:

VINCE: 43
ZACH: 42
STEVE: 36

VINCE’S $28 BISCUITS & GRAVY

Vince Mancini

This recipe is going to begin with a story, so if you’re against that kind of thing feel free to just head on down the dusty scroll knob…

When I was a kid growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, my family was into cooking but for whatever reason, we almost never fucked with Southern food. Maybe it was our vaguely classist way of separating ourselves from the Okies who flooded the region during the Steinbeck years, I don’t know. All I know is that it would always make my belated exposure to certain Southern foods feel like lightning bolts from the universe.

My great aunt Marie was regarded as the best cook in my grandma’s family. She’d stay with us in a beach house we’d rent every summer with some of our extended family. Her second husband had been a cook in the army in Vietnam. This dude was a blast, always showing me card tricks and telling me dirty jokes and basically being the best great uncle a kid could ever have.

One morning, I must’ve been about 9 or 10 at the time because he died when I was in fifth grade, he got up early to make us all breakfast before a big beach day. Breakfast was, you guessed it, biscuits and gravy. Now believe me when I tell you that I remember this meal like it was the fucking Kennedy assassination. I’ll probably forget my future children’s names before I forget my first taste of biscuits and gravy. I don’t know if he even homemade the biscuits or if they were some refrigerated Pillsbury garbage from a can. It didn’t matter. The very concept, that you could take a biscuit, slather it in creamy sausage gravy and call it breakfast, blew my prepubescent mind.

Thinking back on it, this may have altered my palate forever. I’m a dunker. Cookies always go right in the milk (or the coffee or espresso). If it’s clam chowder, I want extra oyster crackers and they’re all going right into the chowder. Chinese take out? Give me the Hong Kong-style chow mein with the crispy little pan-fried noodles that soak up the thick sauce. I live to soak starches in gravy. It is my life’s greatest passion.

Granted that’s not technically a “diner” story, but you better believe biscuits and gravy is my favorite diner food.

For The Biscuits

Biscuits are one of those debates you don’t want to just wade into. Southerners are damn near as rigid and contentious about their cooking as Italians. In any case, I read Amanda Mull’s piece in The Atlantic about how a flour made from soft winter wheat is the magic biscuit secret. I also saw Top Chef Brooke Williamson do a biscuit demo a few months back and soaked up all her tips. So for these, I bought the White Lily flour — which, thanks partly to COVID-19, only cost me $28 — and tried to incorporate most of Brooke’s tips.

  • 2 heaping cups White Lily self-rising flour
  • Pinch of baking powder
  • 8 tablespoons very cold butter, cubed (I stuck mine in the freezer for a bit)
  • 1 tablespoon lard, cold
  • 1/2 cup Bulgarian buttermilk (the richer kind)
  • Teaspoon sugar

What I learned from Brooke was not to overmix or use a rolling pin, and not to twist when I cut the biscuits out with a biscuit mold (which apparently keeps them from rising evenly). So I folded that all up by hand and patted it out to about an inch thick on my work table. Then I cut out my biscuits (no twisting!) and placed them on my greased baking sheet. Then I stuck them in the freezer.

According to Brooke (and probably others I’m sure), those intact butter pockets are key for proper flakage. If you check out my uncooked biscuits (a couple of them look like Pacmen ’cause I ain’t tryna waste dough) you can actually see the raw butter in there.

Vince Mancini

I baked these at 400 for about 12 minutes. The result?

Vince Mancini

Crunchy, airy, soft motherfuckin’ edible clouds. I know I’m not a Southerner but oh my God. They were the best biscuits I’ve ever had. Light and airy and buttery, soft but not doughy on the inside and just a little crunch on the bottom. If I were making a biscuit sandwich these would probably be a little too flaky, but for biscuits and gravy, perfect.

Vince Mancini

The Gravy

Now, I could’ve made a boar or bison gravy like Zach probably would have (if I had been able to find boar or bison at my local, which I could not). I could’ve used shellfish like I saw Brooke do, or done something non-traditional like duck or goose or whatever. But this was a diner challenge and a breakfast dish and I had the kind of hole that only pork can fill (much like Steve’s mom). I don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel with breakfast gravy.

Vince Mancini
  • Whole Milk
  • Flour
  • Country pork sausage (my local supermarket actually does really good in-house sausage)
  • Black pepper (yes, I used the fancy Tellicherry peppercorns from India and ground them myself, I’m insufferable)

Again, nothing too complicated here. I browned the sausage (making sure to get a nice sear), added the fresh ground pepper, enough flour to soak up the sausage fat and juice, turned the heat down and added about three cups whole milk. I simmered that to reduce. It only needed a pinch of salt. A lot of restaurant gravy is way too salty. I don’t like mine overly thick either, it should still pour, in my opinion.

Vince Mancini

The Hot Sauce

Vince Mancini

Okay, here’s where I went slightly non-traditional. I normally just put Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce on my biscuits and gravy, but I wanted to chef it up a little. This was $28 flour, after all. But I wanted to stay within the diner theme, so I thought about what you usually get with diner breakfast. Orange slice and a sprig of parsley, right? The parsley in my garden is growing like gangbusters right now and I have a big bag of lemons from the in-laws’ tree. So I added serrano peppers and a little vinegar and olive oil to those to create a lemon-parsley hot sauce. My first blend wasn’t as hot as I expected, so I actually used about triple the amount of serranos in this picture.

All Together Now

Vince Mancini

It’s by no means necessary, but I like an egg with my biscuits and gravy. It’s hard to beat that yolk/gravy/biscuit combination. In a diner, I’d probably order them over easy but the sunnyside photographed better (that’s a little peek behind the cooking battle curtain for you folks). I topped it with my homemade hot sauce and some chives, which add a little fresh garlicky-onion flavor and crunch and are really easy to grow.

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

There are a lot of great diner comfort foods. But for me, nothing will ever be quite as comforting as a plate of warm biscuits slathered in gravy. Biscuits and gravy is the granddaddy of all comfort food. Just looking at these pictures transports me back to yesterday when I actually had this meal. This isn’t a dish you just eat, it’s a dish you eat, then take a nap, and then reminisce about over a bourbon on a warm evening weeks later. It’s just that good. It doesn’t just stick to your ribs, it sticks to your mind.

Steve on Vince’s Dish:

I like Vince’s food takes because they’re so on the nose. “Biscuits and gravy are amazing,” isn’t really break the internet shit, but damned if I didn’t dig hearing about my boy Mancini’s grand-uncle making him a plateful before their Central Valley beach day or whatever. It filled me with recognition: “THAT THING YOU LIKE, I ALSO LIKE” — which, Zach and I are thoroughly convinced, is at least part of why Vince wins so damn much. That said, the biscuits look lovely and I already cut and pasted the recipe into a folder I keep.

My general problem with biscuits and gravy is in evidence here. I love the flavors but the ratios are always off. It’s based around grease-filled liquid and yet it always finds a way to always seem a little dry. Someone, somewhere is going to break this game open — Biscuit cones filled to the brim with gravy! Baby biscuits in sausage soup! — but it ain’t happening here, Vince. Instead, you went the other way with thinner gravy and lots of sausage. Man, what if you made a BIG ASS BISCUIT and then cut it open with a little whipped butter and the gravy on that? A little cheese aspect? Two fried yolks but skip the egg whites?

Besides the paucity of unique ideas, this generally looks delicious and I’d slam my face in it, you know that. Everything except that weird-ass green sauce that combines the vegetal raw parsley taste with raw garlic and lemon and probably isn’t even that spicy because you de-seed your peppers. Clearly you felt really proud of this sauce because it shows in exactly one photo and just barely, at that. Stand behind it, man. Celebrate it. Because if there’s one southern refrain you never stop hearing down Mississippi way, it’s “This gravy needs more lemon sauce!”

Zach on Vince’s Dish:

I grew up on my (adoptive) grandfather’s biscuits and gravy who incidentally was also a cook in the Navy during the Korean War era. Coincidences abound! He has taught me a lot about cooking over the years when I come to think about it. Anyway, I love biscuits and gravy deeply in my soul.

I think your biscuits look fine. In fact, this is the best part of your dish (I’m not judging the “hot sauce” {which I also think you added on because you knew you were losing. I see you, Mancini}). They could be a little fluffier and more layered. I put my butter in the freezer the night before I bake biscuits and then use the large teeth on a cheese grater to make little morsels of frozen butter. You were so close, my dude. Yet, so far. Still, I would kill one of these biscuits with butter and a nice jam.

I almost feel like you made a thin and un-creamy gravy on purpose. I mean, the mom jokes are right there. But let’s look at what you did wrong. Use equal parts whole milk and half-and-half or cooking cream that has at least 15 percent fat. Sear off your sausage in oil, add butter near the end. You could also add in some fresh parsley near the beginning and let it cook down with the sausage to add depth.

And, man, your gravy is a thin mess. I know your mom likes it sloppy and everywhere, but this is just listless. The biggest selling point of a great plate of biscuits and gravy is a sausage country gravy that’s not too thick (like your mom) but thick enough to be real comfort food. I shouldn’t be looking at biscuits and gravy and see biscuits under the gravy.

George on Vince’s Dish:

First of all, I need to preface this response by saying that I too once had an out-of-body experience the first time I ate biscuits and gravy. It was in New Orleans. I was severely hungover and sleep-deprived and that dish saved my ass. I will never forget that order of biscuits and gravy. And as fate would have it, the place is GONE, of course, so it lives on in my memory.

That said…since then nothing has ever lived up to that first plate of hot, creamy, sausage-y goodness, nothing (with the very rare exception of chef Robert Stehling’s Big Nasty at Hominy Grill in Charleston. It was a fried chicken-biscuit-gravy thing…and that’s gone too for fuck’s sake!). And your version Vince, although created with passion, is not really doing it for me. For starters, Steve is right that gravy looks too damn thin, though I’m sure it tasted just fine. Also, a trick I’ve learned to make even passable B+G taste great is to SPLIT THE BISCUITS before dumping the gravy on top. That’s the best way to scientifically adjust the per-bite ratio. Also, get that green gooey shit away from my damn biscuits, totally unnecessary. The flavor profile of B+G should stand alone. And $28 for flour? My southern Granny, who grew up on a farm in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, made the best biscuits ever and I’d be damned if she didn’t spend $28 on flour over five years! She’s gone now (rest her soul) but if I told her tales of your high-brow flour she would belly-laugh your ass right out of the kitchen.

But now I need some biscuits and gravy…

STEVE’S CHICKEN & WAFFLES

Julianne Sato

I remember the first time I had chicken and waffles. Roscoe’s on Pico, 3 am. Such an extremely LA early 2000s scenester experience that it got a shout out in Swingers (Made is a better movie, you can @ me on that). For the next decade, I took out-of-towners to the fried chicken joint with all the authority of someone who’d been born in the kitchen. “Oh, you have to get Herb’s Special,” I’d gush. As if people need help ordering fried chicken at 3 am.

Around 2007, chicken and waffles became “a thing” in the New American dining scene, a pretty classic example of the particular brand of soul food appropriation where a chef bro would put a little sharp cheddar in his waffle batter, sprinkle a few Marcona almonds on the plate, and pretend like he’d reinvented the shit. And while I stayed loyal to Roscoe’s, I also tried all of these hipster-fied dishes. What can I say? A boy loves his sweet-salty combo.

What I found over the years is that various riffs were, to generalize, pretty freaking fantastic. Because chicken and waffles are pretty freaking fantastic. And while it would take a lot of very calculated tweaks to improve the Roscoe’s recipe at all, it’s fun to see different iterations of the classic approach. The recipe below is mine stab at the dish — calibrated for my particular palate and what I crave. If you like the flavor combinations that I like, you’ll say “Oh, that’s an interesting set of tweaks!” but if anything is off-putting to you, you’ll be like, “Eh, just give it to me the regular way.”

That’s the great equalizer of all diner food, in my opinion, and really what this challenge is all about.

Steve Bramucci

I think I snuck this into my review of Vince’s apple pie a few months back, but I like stewed apple flavor and sorta despise fresh apple flavor. That’s why I always go crumble > pie — the apples get cooked down more. So my goal here was a whole lot of apple references but more in line with what Zach’s whiskey reviewing persona would call “whispers.”

The first apple nods are seen in my brine, pictured above:

  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups apple cider
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 tsp chili flakes
  • 3 cut apples

I brined the chicken for a full 18 hours. Playground DTSA chef Jason Quinn — a longtime friend of UPROXX — has an “Uncle Lou’s” fried chicken that is brined in a heavy vinegar mix, which I love. I knew this would have strong notes but I wanted that. I didn’t quite calculate the effect of the molasses — though Zach probably already sees it coming and is shaking his head. More on that later.

Julianne Sato

I take waffles very, very seriously. Here’s the recipe I used for this batch:

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons synthetic vanilla extract
  • 1/2 vanilla bean pod
  • 2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • two glugs of Wildcraft single-varietal hard apple cider
  • 1/4 cup 18-month aged white cheddar

You can see scenes from the “putting shit in a bowl and mixing in” portion of this recipe below.

Julianne Sato

Moody AF.

Julianne Sato

Action shot.

Julianne Sato

I call this: “Life in quarantine has been hard for us all and I just stared into some waffle batter while contemplating my place in the universe for a solid seven minutes.”

Julianne Sato

Anyway. After the batter was done I made my caramel.

  • 2 glugs Westward bourbon
  • Six cranks of sea salt
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • three pieces of brined apple
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

Cooked until it thickens. I also mashed the apples to the bottom of the pan and rubbed them around a little to extract apple flavor. Really scientific stuff.

Julianne Sato

Sorry to cheat here, but my actual fried chicken recipe is literally just poached from Zach. The dredge was buttermilk. The flour mix was:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne

That’s it. This dish is all about proving yourself a master of salty and sweet.

Julianne Sato

So… the chicken got a little dark. But I swear! I swear it was wonderful and delicious! I’ve puzzled over it a little and I think the blackstrap molasses from the brine sort of colored the batter from the inside? And then with the paprika it got even darker? I’m sure it’s roast topic #1, but — the flavor and flakiness!

*Screams into void* YOOOOOOOUUUUUUUU GUYSSSSSSSSSSSS EYEEEEEEEEEEE SWEEEEARRRRRRRRRRRR!

Anyway, the apple cider really played in the chicken and I loved that. It was sharp enough to offset the savory and sweet flavors a little. The waffle was a dream and, like any good appropriating hipster, I added a few Marcona almonds on top for crunch.

Julianne Sato

Zach on Steve’s Dish:

I’ve never truly loved this dish in any diner and this has not changed that opinion. I’m sorta with Vince. Whenever I order this, I love the chicken and the waffle ends up getting ignored or wasted, even when it’s a good waffle.

I do think you did a great job with the waffle. I would almost argue you could have gone full Waffle House and just made an amazing pecan (not almond) waffle with a bespoke syrup and called it a day. But that wouldn’t be the Steve we know and love. No, no.

Look, you know what you did to that chicken. Molasses isn’t the answer to everything. Brines need granulated sugar just like they need granulated salt instead of seawater. I mean, you know the mistakes you made in brining and frying so I’m not going to harp. But pretty photography aside, you know this is an end result where Tom Collichio would be looking at you with that all-knowing smirk of he’s “got ya” and asking, “So, you wanted it to look like it’s burnt? Right. But, it’s not Cajun or Blackened, right? Okay.” Then Padma would come over and give you that “Oh, sorry bud, and no, never touch me” look before taking a sympathy bite and moving on. You wouldn’t be eliminated but you’d be called out for having a least favorite dish.

In the end, this was about diner food and to me that says something you order over and over again drunk or sober and it’s always just what you need. I don’t need this dish. Sorry.

Vince on Steve’s Dish:

My favorite part of Steve getting further and further behind in this competition has been watching him try to anticipate any and all critiques of his dish and becoming increasingly unglued, shrieking at shadows in his kitchen and loudly defending his excess herbs to the house plants. “I can see you staring at me, ficus, but I wanted it grassy!” Steve, take a Xanax. This chicken and waffles are perfectly fine.

But I’ll be honest, I still don’t really love chicken and waffles as a combination. I love fried chicken possibly the most of all foods and I enjoy a nice crunchy fluffy waffle but I don’t really get what the waffles are bringing to a chicken dish. Seems like they’re adding more sugar and starch to an already kinda sweet and starchy dish. And you can’t really get them both in one bite. I always mow down the chicken and then take a few bites of the waffle. I’d rather have the fried chicken with some greens or mac and cheese or gravy or corn. I don’t want empty calories taking up stomach space that could be filled with fried chicken.

But people seem to love it. Like gourmet mac and cheese as a main, I just sort of accept that it’s not really for me. It’s fine. As for your take, I appreciate your thousand-ingredient waffle, which does look nice and crunchy. Those unfinished edges seem like they added surface area. I like it. No real shade on your brine, though I’m slightly confused why you wanted to make apple pie-flavored fried chicken. It’s like someone showed an AI bot a bunch of comfort food pics and had them generate their own. Your batter, though, somehow looks not quite as soft-crunchy as an original-recipe kind of batter and without the crags and crispies of an extra crunchy-style batter. Sort of the worst of both worlds, smooth yet hard.

And for God’s sake, what the hell are Marcona almonds doing in there? If you wanted some nutty flavor, why not some sesame seeds? Instead, you’ve got big weird chunks of almonds chopped by a blind man that look like I’d have to chew carefully so I don’t accidentally inhale an almond shard while I’m wolfing the chicken. This is the first time I’ve ever looked at a chicken and waffles and thought it’d be improved by removing the chicken. Where did the caramel go? Is it on top of the chicken or the waffle? This looks like subpar fried chicken on top of a great waffle.

Did you guys ever use to make bacon waffles growing up? Where you put chunks of bacon in the waffle batter? I haven’t had those in a long time. This is making me want that, weirdly.

George on Steve’s Dish:

I too have never truly understood chicken and waffles as a dish, except when drunk then it makes perfect sense. I’ve also never had good chicken and waffles, ever. Fried chicken is hard to get right, so when you find a great place you chow down on savory fried chicken. There’s no place for sweet waffles in this scenario.

Steve’s 18-hour-marinade fried chicken, however, looks damn tasty and I’d crush that for sure, even though it looks burnt. The molasses was likely the culprit. And again, my granny made the BEST DAMNED FRIED CHICKEN so nothing else compares. I’ll be testing this brine for sure though, minus the big chunks of fruit.

Your waffle recipe, however, is borderline insanity. What the hell are you doing putting cheddar and apple cider into waffles for?? And why the kitchen sink of vanilla flavoring that all taste the same in the end? I think my recipe has 5 ingredients. That’s all you need to make great waffles. And a waffle maker.

ZACH’S PATTY MELT

Zach Johnston

The patty melt is a hamburger sandwich dialed up to eleven in my humble opinion. It takes the best parts of the burger and focuses in on that: patty, butter toasted bread, melty cheese, and onions. It’s simple yet incredibly easy to screw up if you’re not paying attention.

There’s no secret to this recipe. I’m simply taking great ingredients and combining them into a single, almost-perfect dish. No reinventing the wheel here. I’m just working off my nostalgia for my go-to American diner order (though, I do love a good French Dip every now and then too). This is Zach laid bare for y’all to judge.

Ingredients:

Zach Johnston

I know. Everyone is baking bread right now. That’s great. I’m not because my oven is broken. There’s a bakery in my neighborhood that does a “farmhouse” style sourdough rye that I’ll never be able to replicate with my meager home oven that I can barely control the temperature of. So I’m going with that. It has a nuttiness that’s crucial for this recipe as I’m going to braise off my onions in a nut-forward Spanish brandy. The bread is also just so damn good. I ate two slices with just butter and salt when I got this loaf home and I regret nothing.

So, anyway, my ingredients:

  • Two Yellow Onions
  • Unsalted Irish Butter
  • Swiss High-Elevation Aged Emmentaler
  • Irish 6-Month Aged Yellow Cheddar
  • 80/20 Beef Grind
  • Neutral Oil
  • Sea Salt and White Pepper
  • Cardenal Mendoza Brandy
  • Farmhouse Rye

Prep:

Zach Johnston

The first thing you have to do is get your onions going. They’re going to need at least 45 minutes to really cook down into a jam. Just browning them off does not break down the sugars enough to create a real caramelization. Chef Roy Choi calls that “fool’s gold.” So, I’m taking a page from chef Choi’s playbook and making a sort of onion jam that he uses for the base of his French Onion soup.

I’m using two yellow onions that I cut roughly from pole to pole, this helps to maintain the integrity of the structure of the onion. I heat up a medium pan on medium-low heat with a glug of vegetable oil. I drop in the onions and salt generously. Then, you basically just let them do their thing while stirring with a wooden spoon until this …

Zach Johnston

looks like this:

Zach Johnston

Once the onions have cooked down and a nice brown fond has formed from the sugars (at least 30 minutes), I deglaze with maybe one-eighth cup of brandy. I let that cook off completely and we’re done.

Cook:

Zach Johnston

In the meantime, I’ve formed three-ounce balls with the ground meat. I’m careful not to compress the ground meat too much. Keeping it loose will help the integrity of the patty down the road.

Zach Johnston

I’m doing a standard smash burger. Heat skillet to smoking hot with veg oil, add in meat, smash with a large spatula, salt and pepper generously. As soon as I get the great Maillard reaction on the patty, I flip.

Zach Johnston

I don’t want to overcook these patties. So they’re only in the skillet for about two minutes tops (probably closer to 90 seconds).

Zach Johnston

Now, it’s time to melt some fat and make this masterpiece. I turn the heat down to medium-low. I use a paper towel to clean out the still-hot skillet. I then place a buttered slice of bread in the pan. I then build.

Emmentaler, patty, onions, cheddar, buttered slice of bread up top. I’m only using one, large patty here. Having two patties on a sandwich this stacked makes it hard to finish. And, trust me, the single patty was more than enough.

I then cover the skillet and let it grill off for about two minutes. As soon as the bottom is well-toasted, I flip the whole affair over to toast off the top. I put the lid back on and let it melt all that cheese until the bottom is as toasted as the top and it looks like this…

Zach Johnston

Serve:

Zach Johnston

I shuffle the Patty Melt onto a cutting board, making sure to bring along all the melted and crispy cheese. I let it sit for two to three minutes and then slice it in half.

The result is damn-near perfect. The bread is buttery toasted, nutty, and has a hint of bitterness thanks to the crust. The cheese is a melty mess, which is what you want from a Patty Melt. The onions have a beautiful sense of pure onion sweetness with an underlying nuttiness thanks to the brandy, tying it to the rye. The patty is juicy on the inside with a nice crunch on the edges.

This took me straight to a diner where the only thing on the menu was comfort and joy.

Vince on Zach’s Dish:

Damn, you just love a nut-forward brandy, don’t you. You must’ve inherited your mother’s palate for nut. Sorry, I’m trying to think of things to criticize here. But I have to admit, this looks god damn delicious. Folks can keep their thicc drippy burgers, I’m a thin-patty daddy until the day I die. It’s not a steak, give me that surface area, baby. I will say, the only thing that keeps me from ordering patty melts more (which was my go-to as a kid) is the lack of fresh veg. Is it lame to say that the fresh veg is a big part of what I love about hamburger?

That being said, fuck I want that German dark rye bread in my belly right now. I know, I’m supposed to be roasting. Your mother shares her bed with unwashed sailors.

Steve on Zach’s Dish:

I have never ordered a patty melt in my life, but I would order this. It’s actually kind of my dream food. Cheesy with exceptional bread, some onions, and a thin patty (I’m with you and Vince on the flat burger train). It looks delicious.

But yo…

You reduced down some onions and laid a patty on bread you didn’t make. I know we tease you about three-day projects and you’re probably still busy eating pate twice daily to get through the excess you made last month, but this is like you did the quickfire challenge rather than the main course.

Last month you had three sauces. This month: None. I love this dish, but the most inventive thing is “I picked a really good bread.” And maybe “I used cool cheese.”

Sorry, I like my Zach Johnston like I like my lovemaking — creative, overly verbose, and left dripping with various sauces. Too far? Probably too far.

George on Zach’s Dish:

Ok, now we are in my wheelhouse, which is good and bad. Zach, love you, but this patty melt looks like a disaster. A deeply tasty disaster! But let me start at the beginning.

The beef — yes, thank you for using fresh ground beef and smashing a loosely formed ball to make a patty. The only issue here is that the beef looks a bit too lean. It could be 80/20 but looks a little leaner. Fat is flavor.

And why did you wipe out the pan with a paper towel?? That rendered beef fat is pure GOLD man. Cook in it! And I’m not sure what you did here with the hot pan but the temperature difference between searing a smashed patty and a grilled cheese is dramatic. I actually take the pan off the burner for a few minutes to cool with the constructed patty melt inside, then return to a super-low/slow heat to finish. Also, sourdough and burgers should never be a thing. Good old white bread is your friend.

And let’s talk cheese – get that goddamn cheddar away from your patty melt. Cheddar won’t do the thing you actually need to make a magical patty melt…MELT. The swiss is fine, but I’m reaching for American Cheese every time for real reliability. American Cheese melts fast, which is what you need here otherwise you’ll overcook that patty and burn your bread.

This brings me to the disaster part of this evaluation — I’m sure it tasted fantastic but from the photo, this thing looks impossible to pick up. This is always the biggest turn off for me. If I can’t get the thing in my mouth I’m pissed off.

The onions look amazing though.

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