Drive-In Burger Champion Mike Johnson Teaches Us How To Master The Perfect Burger This Grilling Season

With Memorial Day behind us and summer coming, we’re officially in grilling season, and no food brings as much joy as a delicious homemade burger. Yes, you can make the argument for carne asada or hot dogs but, you’d be wrong, burgers for the win! If you’ve attended any backyard BBQs, we’re willing to bet you’ve encountered a few bad burgers. Despite being one of the simplest foods to make, it’s incredibly easy to f*ck up a homemade burger.

Considering food prices are high and there are only so many excuses in the summer to get together with friends or family to grill, we don’t want you to have a bad burger. So to guide you into the absolute best way to grill a burger we tapped an absolute burger master, Chef Mike Johnson, for some tips.

Mike Johnson is the founder and main chef behind St. Louis Missouri’s Hi-Pointe Drive-In and has appeared on screen on a number of cooking-based shows, from Travel Channel’s Food Paradise to Beat Bobby Flay, and TLC’s BBQ Pitmaster. He’s also a certified burger champion, winning the World’s Best Burger award at the 2021 World Food Championship and has competed in several international burger and barbecue competitions around the world.

If that isn’t enough to convince you of Johnson’s bonafides, he has also fed Snoop Dogg bacon-wrapped mac and cheese blunts — need we say more? Dudes a master of good eats.

We talked to Chef Johnson about the best way to grill a burger (both on a flat top and over grates) and covered some of the best toppings, sides, and techniques to elevate your burger game.

Just to start off I wanted to ask a little bit about your story and about Hi-Pointe Drive-In. What’s the philosophy of the restaurant?

I used to be a fine dining chef and then that did it for years. I worked in LA for a little bit, a long time ago, but it didn’t work out. So 12 years ago I started opening barbecue restaurants. We got about 15 of those called Sugarfire, and we had a smash burger there and we kept winning Best Burger in Missouri and Best Burger in St. Louis. So the idea for Hi-Pointe came up maybe seven or eight years ago.

It’s in the Hi-Pointe neighborhood, that’s why it’s called the Hi-Pointe and it was perfect for a burger spot. So we just did that same burger. We’re already winning the Best burger in Missouri with Hi-Pointe. So the philosophy is chef inspired smash burgers. It’s still cheap. A burger is still six bucks at Hi-Pointe.

It’s just a basic smash patty with a really good bun and really good condiments. And then we do some bun specials and honestly, a lot of the specials have a marijuana kind of nuance to them. Not in it, but just the names and stuff just because we’re just playing on the term Hi-Pointe.

So do you hold the smash patties above all other burger forms?

I like all kinds of burgers. I’ll eat any kind of burger. I try to eat a burger a day, but I prefer smashed because I like to get a really high quality beef like we get and I like that crispy crust. I love grilled. I know somebody last year came out and said “grilled burgers suck,” I think it was David Chang. But I love grilled burgers, if you do them properly.

I’m an ambassador for a big charcoal company, Royal Oak Charcoal. I think we’re the second-biggest charcoal company. I do a lot of burgers on live fire grills with their charcoal. It just depends on what I’m the mood for really. But mostly I guess I’m in the mood for a smash burger, but I’ll eat them anyway.

To start, I’m just guessing here but I’m willing to bet you prefer charcoal over propane?

Charcoal. I just love the flavor. It’s a more dense woody smoke flavor. It’s really just most of the charcoal from the US, the stuff that’s not shipped in from out of the country is grown here in Missouri where I live in The Ozarks and I go down there and visit. I see the quality of the product. I think the charcoal gives a much higher heat than propane can ever give, which enables a better crust on it, which I think is very important for a burger.

And it also gives that good char flavor and smoke flavor too that you’re never going to get from propane.


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Let’s dive in a little bit into the specifics of how to make a good grilled burger. Let’s start with meat ratio. What’s the best ratio and why?

I don’t use Wagyu, it’s a little fatty for me. We use what’s called Creekstone beef. It’s like a prime beef. Our ratio, and we worked on this for a long time, is 50% chuck and that provides the body I would say in the chew. It’s more of just the density of the meat and the bite in your mouth. We use 25% brisket, that’s fat content. And then we use 25% short rib meat because to me that’s the real beef. That’s the beefiest flavor on a cow so we use a 50-25-25 ratio. 80-20 fat blend is what we try to — I’m sorry, 85-15 is what we try and achieve because if it gets a little fattier than that, you start to lose too much on your grill so that’s our blend right there.

Interesting. So you say 80 is just a little too fatty?

Yeah, I mean it’s funny because we test them all the time and we’re always trying new products and stuff. It seems like once you start dipping below 85 especially, we have these really big fancy high-end flat top grills, and if you got a little bit too much fat in there, you lose them on the grill.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done a smash burger before, but they kind of stretch out too far and there’s holes everywhere and stuff. And then the grill’s messy and it’s just too hard to do, especially when you’re trying to pump out a lot of them, if that makes sense. I mean some places are just so crazy all day there’ll be 25 patties going at once, nonstop popping them off. And when you’re pushing them out like that and there’s grease everywhere, it’s not good.

What’s something you should never do when you’re making a grilled burger?

I would say the main mistake is don’t season too much. I say if you’re doing anything more than salt and pepper, you’re making meatloaf. So I just like good fresh ground white or black pepper. And I like to use ground sea salt and I really try and make sure I blend them 50/50.

We have this other saying in barbecue, if you’re looking, you’re not cooking. I like to let it sit on the grill, on the flat top, smash it down, and then don’t fuck with it. Don’t sit there and jiggle it around or flip it and check it. You know and I cook it on one side until I can almost see that it’s cooked all the way through because I’m trying to get that good crust on there.

So when it comes to grilled burgers, are you using a flat top in that situation?

Oh are we talking about outdoor grilled burgers? I use grates. So let me back up a little bit. So in that case, yeah, I would definitely use 80. I’m sorry, I talk about our burgers at Hi-Pointe so much those are on flat top grills. So on the grill, yes, 100%.

You can even creep it up into a 90-10 blend is what I even do so there’s not too much drip coming down. Because when the oil hits the charcoal and it really kind of burns, it leaves an unpleasant flavor for a little bit. I use grates, but you can do them cast iron. I’ve done cast iron skillets. If you really want a smash burger on an outdoor grill, I mean by all means throw a cast iron on there. I even throw the cast iron right in the coals sometimes.

And that’s seasoned the same way, just salt and pepper?

Some people try might put a little powdered garlic or something there, but I just like to go with the classic and let the beef really taste like beef. I’m not trying to make it taste like anything else. I just think it should taste beefy and cheesy really.

Is that both sides seasoning or just one side?

I do a little on both. Without over salting.

Do you have a patty forming technique?

Well, we do balls. At work we have a machine that’s called Patti-O-Matic. We grind the meat and it just pumps up. But at home I prefer a ball. And then I let that ball sit out and I have them cold in the fridge in balls. And when I’m doing a grill with the outdoor grill, with the charcoal, you can’t really smash them down beforehand. So I like to make the patties a little bit bigger than my burger bun. And I do them thicker than maybe about I would say 3/8 of an inch thick, a little less than 1/2 an inch thick on the grill because you can’t smash it down on the grill, it just disappears. So I just form them ahead of time into I would say pucks. Some people have these lid things and they kind of smash them in there and flip them out. I haven’t really done that.

So you’re doing it just by hand?

A hand patty, yep. And I don’t mind if they’re ugly.

You mentioned having the meat chilled, so I want to talk a little bit about temperature. Do you want those burgers to hit the grill cold?

Yeah, cold. That’s how I do it. That’s the way, plus I’m always scared about food poisoning. I do some of these steak contests sometimes and everybody in the steak gets their steak hot. I mean 100 degrees hot. They let it kind of sit in a warm place before they cook it and I don’t really understand why they do that. I’m not scientist. I don’t know, but I like to go on cold. I don’t know why.

I mean, you’re a burger champion, so don’t question the method.

I don’t know why I do that. It just feels like it might stick a little easier on the grill. When you have it on these hot outdoor grills with the grates, I don’t want it to stick.

So I’ll have the charcoal pile on say half the grill and I’ll start the burger away from the direct heat so it’s not dripping and getting burnt. And then at some point when I figure out it’s not going to stick to the grill, then I’ll move it over for char because you don’t want it to get all stuck on the grates.

So is this just a one flip kind of situation?

No, I usually end up flipping them a bunch when I’m outside. I don’t really care about grill marks because I would personally never eat a burger without American cheese on it because that’d be Communist.

I don’t really care about if you’re looking for marks, some people think that’s cool, I don’t know. It might be cool, but no, I’ll flip it and then I’ll flip it again and then make sure it doesn’t stick and then I’ll move it around on the heat. It just depends on what temp, and however whoever I’m cooking for likes it. I like a burger medium, unless I’m eating a really delicious, crazy fresh kind of wagyu burger or something, micro medium rare or something but I pretty much do all my burgers medium.


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As we’re approaching grill season, can you walk us through how to make the best grilled burger that we’ll ever have? How are we preparing it? What’s on it? Be as detailed as possible.

Okay, I’m going to sound probably like a psycho with all the detail. The first thing is you need a good bun and I think a potato roll is the perfect softness ratio. I don’t like a bun that’s too doughy and I don’t like a bun that’s too big. My favorite bun is a Martin’s Potato Roll. I don’t know if you guys can get those in LA, but it’s a company out of Pennsylvania. They make the best burger bun of all the time.

That’s almost just as important to me as everything else. I think the bun needs to be butter toasted. So I’ll butter toast that and I don’t do it on the grill. I want the whole thing crispy. I’ll do it in a cast iron on the side or on some kind of a flat surface because the crust, it provides crunch so it’s like a textural thing. And it also protects that bun from getting soggy.

So when people don’t toast their buns, it makes me think they’re lazy and I don’t like them anymore. I really judge. It’s like my judgiest thing about a burger is if you’re not toasting a bun, I’m already like, “I’m done with you.” I mean, I’ll still eat it, but I’ll be upset. So you got to have that bun really golden brown toasted on both sides.

I prefer a yellow onion, very thin slice, one layer. And that’s the one thing that I put on the bottom bun below the burger. Because it not only protects that bottom bun from getting soggy, but it also soaks up the juices from the burger really well. And that’s another textural thing for me that I really enjoy. So I’ve got that butter toasted bun on the bottom, very thin shaved one thin slice of onion. I mean it can cover the bun if you want, but I don’t like a lot of stuff on there like tomato.

So then I would go burger and cheese, American cheese, obviously. I think American cheese is the best. I mean obviously people can do whatever they want. I do shredded iceberg lettuce only. And I like to just cut that paper thin, like julienne style and I’ll put that on top with one slice of tomato.

The tomato doesn’t have to cover the whole burger, it just needs to be on there. And I prefer that thinner than… Some people like a thick tomato on there. But tomato to me — that’s the worst part of the burger, but it needs to be on there. And so I do a really thin sliced tomato, one tomato only, that’s it. And then pickles, I prefer a really good crunchy fresh dill pickle and I like to cut them oblong, oval-shaped.

I don’t know why. I just like those and I’ll put just two of those, nothing crazy.

Personally, I like Duke’s Mayo on there. To me that’s the ultimate burger, very simple. Duke’s Mayo and you might get some heat for this but I also love a little Heinz 57 on there. That’s just for me personally. I wouldn’t do that to everybody, but this is always the way I’ve eaten my favorite burger. I’ll put a little bit of Heinz 57 or even make a little Heinz 57 mayo with the Duke’s. So I’ll do one part Heinz 57, three parts Duke’s. And to me that really sets it off and that’s pretty much it.

How do you feel about brioche?

Yeah, it’s my second favorite. If I can’t find potato rolls, I go to brioche every time.

You mentioned Sugarfire and I know you did some barbecue competitions and you gave Snoop Dogg some bacon wrapped mac and cheese blunts. So I just wanted you to hit us with the perfect side for the burger you just created.

Oh, fries, crinkle cut fries. And they’re impossible to make yourself. I’ve been trying in the restaurants for years. There’s one machine that can make them and it’s 50,000 bucks. But we buy really top quality fries and then this is even going to sound crazier. I work in Australia a lot and in Australia, every french fry in Australia… Have you ever been to Australia?


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No, I wish.

You got to go. You’re in LA. You just pop down. There’s flights there all day long.

18-hour flight.

I know, brutal. I mean I’ve been working there probably three, four times a year for seven, eight years. They love barbecue down there. So I go down and do these barbecue kind of festival things with them. But the one thing I brought back from Australia was chicken salt. Have you heard of chicken salt?


Every french fry in Australia goes out with this stuff called chicken salt on it and it’s a really umami kind of like you know ramen seasoning kind of a salt that they put on the french fries and no one would ever make it in the States so I brought some home a few years ago. We have a fried chicken small chain called Chicken Out and we sell it out of there. It’s amazing. I shake that in those crinkle cut fries and it’s the best fry you’ve ever had. I’m sure somebody in LA has it somewhere. All the hipsters out there making their fancy food. But you know what? Give me your address. I’ll send you a bottle.

All right, I’ll take it!

Okay, I’m going to get a chicken salt out there. It’s going to blow your mind.

Oh, dude, I put it on pasta. And the funny thing is we just made it for our little chicken chain and now all the famous barbecue guys that win the World Championship Barbecue shit whenever they do chicken, they shake a little bit on the edge of their chicken so when the judge bites it, their first bite is chicken salt. It’s pretty funny.

As my last question to close out, and you’ve kind of hinted at this already, and I’m right there with you. Make the case for why American cheese is the best burger cheese over cheddar.

It’s the flavor. It’s the melting. It melts better. It sticks. It’s the way it sticks in your teeth. I think when you put cheddar on the burger, you’re tasting cheddar more. When you taste American cheese, it’s like the cheese and burger come together. I’m more crazy about burgers than other people, but to me it’s just a magical ingredient. I can’t imagine having a burger and not having cheese. That’s the other way I judge people is if they don’t want cheese on their burger.

But I mean I’ll eat a cheddar burger. If somebody gives me one I’m like, “Okay.”

I was at my neighbor’s house grilling, he asked me to come grill some stuff for his family the other day. We’re hanging out and he had American cheese in the fridge and he had cheddar cheese out and I went in the fridge and I got American cheese. He was like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Dude, I’m putting American cheese on the burger.” He’s like, “Why? I got this really nice cheddar.” And so I’m never going over there again.

That’s how I feel about people who put cheddar on their burger. It’s like, “What are you doing?

Yeah, dude, why would you do that?

My brother prefers cheddar.

No. Your ex-brother. He’s not family.