Words and Photos by Cory Johnson
Close to the intersection of Ellwood and Thompson in Carytown are two restaurants that specialize in the same thing: burgers and fries. While burger places are only separated by a few blocks in this city, the unique stances on burger making that these two restaurants take, make them the perfect opponents for this month’sBattle of the Burgers.
In one corner is Burger Bach. Opened February of this year, this New Zealand gastro pub is not cheap. Burgers start at $7 but generally hover around $10, and that doesn’t even include fries and a drink. With prices this high, it may be the only burger place acceptable for a date– as you’ll spend at least $40 after tax and tip–, but the price tag does go toward something. This gourmet burger shop does everything in house: making its sauces, chopping its fries and bringing a since of elegance and complexity to the typical comfort food.
Sitting on the other end of the block is long time Richmond staple, Cartyown Burger’s and Fries. Rated the best burger in town numerous times, this more casual eatery offers great food at low prices. What it lacks in gourmet/ upscale design, it makes up in its easy atmosphere and classic Menu.
Most people see fries as just a side order to a sandwich. However, these two restaurants both cut and cook russets like it was an art unto itself.
Carytown Burgers and Fries use a thick meaty cut, keeping the skin on the potato to ensure a nice crisp to each fry. The soft outside of the fry is given a kick with the restaurant’s “famous” seasoning. Every bite of these fries is flavorful and light, a step above most restaurants take on the dish.
Though if Carytown’s fries are a step above most, Burger Bach’s are on the top shelf, being some of the best Richmond has to offer. Void of excess grease, these beauties are crisp on the outside with a mashed texture on the interior. Biting into one is a wonderful experience, as the contrast in texture of this unseasoned fry is perfect.
They only get better when dipped into one of Burger Bach’s 12 sauces. The organic, made in-house, ketchup is safe but special, sweet and fresh, with just enough bite as it leaves your tongue to make you yearn for the next. The small fry cost $3 but is easily worth $5.
Burger Bach takes a studied approach to the hamburger. Where a lot of burgers focus on a rich, saturated flavor, they bring a trained elegance to their sandwiches by going for a more complex, clean taste and working for texture and harmony.
The $10 “The Original” is a testament to this. A perfectly seasoned– nothing heavy, just enough to bring out the flavor of the meat– grass-fed New Zealand beef patty is topped with the standard fixin’s of fresh lettuce, tomato, dill pickle and mayonnaise. Next comes the uncured bacon, which leaves behind all the masking flavors of salt and smoke usually associated with the meat and adds a simple crunch and pork taste. Finally an organic New Zealand cheddar and “Original Sauce”– which taste something like an aioli– go on before the bun.
If all of this sounds slightly ordinary, it’s because it is. Though the texture and the taste of this burger are sophisticatedly clean and defined, it lacks the complexity to make it worth all the money.
Carytown Burgers and Fries, on the other hand, is cheap and delicious; grease and cheese and sauce and bread. Comfort may be an understatement for the sensation received from each bite of these burgers. Savory and sinful, a burger here will cost half as much as Burger Bach’s and be twice as tasty.
A classic Patty Melt costs $5.54. Grilled onions, two slices of white American and Thousand Island dressing envelope the 1/3 lb. patty before the sandwiched inside two buttery pieces of Texas Toast. There is nothing healthy about this burger, like at Burger Bach, but it isn’t trying to be. The patty isn’t going for complexity, the sauce isn’t unique, the cheese is downright ordinary, but it is in all of this that the magic happens. The patty and bread act as anchors, ground the burger in solid, chewable flavor, while your brain tries to wrap around the ultra-contrast of the gooey and rich grilled onion, cheese and dressing combo. Your taste buds implode around each bite; exploding with the immediate realization of good, greasy food and then drawing back in on themselves in preparation of each bite.
Biting in that patty was reminiscent of Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille; it reminded me why I love burgers.
Both have a different approach to food making. Burger Bach is clean and upscale pub food while Carytown is comforting and homey. But in the end, the pure enjoyment of eating a Carytown Burgers and Fries burger far outshines the sophistication of Burger Bach. There really is no such thing as a healthy hamburger, and Carytown capitalizes on that idea by infusing their burgers with all the heart-stopping goodness that one normally looks for in a burger.
Yes, Burger Bach has some of the best fries I’ve eating in Richmond, but Carytown packs the burgers with too much decadence to pass up– and at half the cost of its competitor.