Best of the Best Burger Battle – Mammoth Lakes, CA
(July 21, 2014) The burger battle in Mammoth Lakes, CA was dubbed the 405 versus the 395. Featuring three chefs with restaurants along California’s Hwy 405, and one from along US 395, this “Best-of-the-Best Burger Battle” was part of the Mammoth Food and Wine Experience.
Hoeltzel’s winning burger tantalized the judge’s taste buds with its combination of red wine vinegar ketchup, Riesling onions, extra sharp cheddar, local organic tomato and a port wine reduction.
CJ’s Grill is owned by Hoeltzel and his wife Carrie. They serve fine, new American cuisine with a focus on cooking from scratch — sauces, dressings, desserts. The menu features fresh salads (with choice of 10 from-scratch dressings) and entrees like Wild Mushroom Marcella, Artichoke and Caper’s Chicken, steaks, fresh and sustainable fish, pasta, and of course burgers.
The Classic Burger at CJ’s Grill is a half pound of certified Angus beef, served with fresh-cut fries. They serve their take on a California Burger, too. The same Angus burger comes topped with avocado, bacon, ranch dressing, tomatoes and sprouts. It’s served on a bed of lettuce; no bun. They also have a Burger of the Month — currently sounding suspiciously like Hoeltzel’s burger battle winner. They also serve a hommade black bean Veggie Burger, a Crab Cake Burger and a 1/3-pound Buffalo Burger.
Stacy Lanson is a foodie. She creates recipes, evaluates new products and writes about food.
You might not know her name because she’s a ghostwriter — mostly for motorcycle mags — but she came out of the closet to give Best Burger Review readers on a burger (and biker) journey through the re-invented ghost town of Jerome, Arizona. Hailing from a long line of Midwestern cattle ranchers, Stacy has boundless enthusiasm for burgers. Best Burger Review talks with her about her best burger experiences.
BBR: What is your current relationship with burgers? As a foodie — I adore burgers! They just make me feel better. I am an emotional eater, and will eat burgers when I am feeling blue, festive, anemic…I really don’t need an excuse. The more vibrant they look, the more I want them. I eat with my eyes first, for sure.
I make my burgers tall generally, and cut them in half to see their juicy souls. ~ Stacy Lanson
As a ghostwriter — I mostly do my foodie ghost writing for motorcycle enthusiast publications, mainly Southwest destination touring stories, especially rally towns. The culinary coverage runs the spectrum from dive joints to the totally upscale. I have found exquisite burgers in all categories. There definitely are venue owners that add in love and take great pride in their burgers. It is really nice to see…and, taste!
As a consultant — I have worked with several food companies over the years. I evaluate new products and give feedback. I usually have suggestions for expanding their market, product line, or new ways for using their offerings. I’ve made cooking videos for their contests, too. A pre-shamed Paula Deen commented that I was “cute as a button” when she saw one of my videos. My 15 s-e-c-o-n-d-s of fame on a celebrity chef’s radar.
As a recipe creator — I am always improving burgers at home. For my home cooking, I follow my whims of the moment, and am often inspired by what is peaking in my garden. No formal (burger) recipes, thus far.
BBR: What’s your best hamburger memory? My best hamburger memory was when I was about four and I was going through my first drive thru car wash in my mother’s Mustang. I had my A&W burger, fries, and Baby (Root) Beer laid before me on the opened door of the glove compartment. The moment was an all sensory experience, and subconsciously I probably associate burgers with fun, new experiences. I do find I leisure-eat a whole bunch of burgers when I travel.
BBR: What’s the Best Burger in your current city? The best burger where I live* is my own creation with a copious side of beer. I live in Sedona, AZ. We have the only McDonald’s with teal arches, which have been know to be stolen from time to time. There are many lovely burgers around town.
BBR: What makes a great burger? What is important to me is that the ingredients are the freshest available. I am all about color, and I like to butter and toast or grill the buns. I frequently make my own guac, caramelize my onions, and I am so pro-bacon. I am not a huge fan of American cheese, when there are so many other hearty varieties on the market. I love quality condiments. I make my burgers tall generally, and cut them in half to see their juicy souls.
BBR: What is your favorite burger? Right now, my favorite burger is whatever my daughter, Scarlett, is making for me. She is 24, and I am glad she finds my burger enthusiasm contagious. Like me, she is very experimental in the kitchen. We iMessage our cooking photos to each other, and we are often surprised that we are making the same dish on the same day. Our taste buds are psychic!
BBR: Which burger is on your bucket list? The one at the pearly gates, if I am so blessed. My halo is a little tarnished.
BBR: What burger do you love but are embarrassed to admit? The magnificent In-N-Out Double-Double Burger..such a cliche. They don’t exist in Sedona, as yet, although a local business man claims he would give commercially zoned land, if they would build. If I am traveling through a town that has one, I stop! My daughter insists she will have an In-N-Out Cookout Trailer as catering at her wedding. I know that will bring out the +1s on the RSVPs!
*Update – Lanson is currently heading to live with the bikers and burgers in California.
[Image credits -Teal arches by Big slick69 at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Other images by Joshua Placa.]
Two serpentine paved roads lead to Jerome. Entering from the north, via Clarkdale and Cottonwood, you spy a flamboyance of lawn flamingos dressed in attire du jour. Passengers can keep their eyes peeled for a vintage Dodge pickup snuggled into a retaining wall’s masonry alcove, off to the right. Coming up from Prescott, the road winds through the heavily forested Prescott Valley.
Cleopatra Hill, on which Jerome is perched, reveals herself slowly, like a new, mysterious lover. Jerome is her very bad boy flame. Together they charm visitors from around Arizona, the nation, the world, and curiously, the afterworld.
“Where’s the best burger?” This is often asked by visitors, and has been known to be met with heated debate by prickly locals.
Jerome has a history as a mining town. The discovery of copper — unearthed in unparalleled plentitude— grew the town’s population to approximately 15,000 at its zenith in the latter part of the 19th Century.
The mines spent out in 1953 and the roughly half-square mile of Jerome seemed destined for a historic footnote. However, Jerome rebounded in the later 1960s and ’70s when various artists and fringe types squatted the crumbling buildings and gradually built a tourism trade. By 2012, the census accounted for 444 living souls in Jerome, not counting, of course, the tens of thousands of tourists who visit each year.
When the tourists make the trek, they can be confident a memorable burger bonanza awaits. The true question is, “Where’s the best burger?” This is often asked by visitors, and has been known to be met with heated debate by prickly locals. More being the meaty merrier, I say, try them all!
An “Elevated” Burger
Mile High Grill and Inn’s owner, Liz Gale, talks up her present burger incarnation, the Diablo Burger (5,280 feet of heat!). It’s made with hand-pressed, never frozen ground beef, and topped with Ghost-Pepperjack cheese (made from ghost peppers that are super hot), Cheddar cheese, house-made chimichurri sauce, green chilies and avocado. It’s served on a warm sourdough bun with your choice of sides for $11.50 (seriously long list of sides including fries, sweet potato fries, tater tots, soup, salad, coleslaw, fresh fruit and their famous onion rings).
Gale’s Mile High Grill and Inn are located in the center of town. Accommodations consist of seven beautifully appointed rooms (sans the interruption of TVs or radios). In line with the town’s haunted infamy, a spectral feline allegedly dwells on property. “Sipps,” the cat is commemorated with a picture above the bar on the first floor.
The restaurant offers three squares a day and a pleasant atmosphere, but taking your burger to go and eating on the city steps of Jerome is most entertaining. It is a premium perch for people watching, rife with colorful characters.
Note: I have not had the pleasure of tasting the aforementioned Diablo Burger, or the Mile High Big Ass Burger, consisting of a pound of beef served with cheddar, bacon and BBQ sauce for $14.99, but did partake in Gale’s Muma Burger — from a previous menu. I found it excellent, as were the fries. I hear very good things about the present menu.
In the 1880s progress was picking up steam in Jerome. A post office, schoolhouse and public library arose from the terra firma, a clear march toward civility. Like most boom-towns, a sordid underbelly had already emerged. Hustling “soiled doves” kept the raucous brothels (and the ladies jail) bustling.
Plaques around town speak of the rough-and-tumble citizenry. One such snarky notice of remembrance gives a nod to the brothels and “Husbands’ Alley”, the passage used to reach the red light district after detractors re-homing the red light district away from prominent Main Street.
The lines are often blurred between craziness and love or lust. Emily Dickinson said it succinctly, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” My heart (and stomach) yearn for the burger at The Asylum Restaurant, at the historic Jerome Grand Hotel. There, cooks put their carnivorous love on their cheeseburger and the mushroom bacon burger. I tried the latter, heeding a recommendation by an in-the-know server. It arrived beautifully plated with vivid fresh fruit, my requested selection. This burger boasts sauteed shitake and button mushrooms commingling with cooked-‘til-translucent onions, mesquite smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, and mayo. Sexy buns round out their feats of yumminess. The ample burger can be had for $14.50, including fresh cut fries from Kennebec potatos, cottage cheese, or seasonal fruit. It left me with a rosy afterglow, without an E-cig.
Note: The Asylum is set apart from the rest of Jerome, which some consider “America’s most vertical city.” It is a manageable walk for the physically fit from Jerome’s epicenter, but not recommended during the times of excess heat, cold, or high heels. Their lofty, expansive view of the Verde Valley is stunning, and definitely worth a visit. Parking is ample.
One of the first things to spring to mind about Jerome is the spooky factor. Mining calamities, opium mishaps, and gunfights would frequently seal the fate of the inhabitants. Local undertakers were at no loss for clientele. It is plausible that their energies are stuck in limbo, munching burgers somewhere between this world and the hereafter.
Recently, the Jerome Grand Hotel has been the focus of several ghost hunting TV shows, and has offered themed tours, arming guests with the ghost busting paraphernalia one would come to expect—digital cameras, EMT meter, and infrared thermometers.
The burger joint most often associated with Jerome is The Haunted Hamburger. The building has a very storied past of eerie poltergeists, who seemingly came out-of-the woodwork when abandoned edifice was sold and renovated. Doors would slam, and hammers disappeared and reappeared. Later, items would fly off the shelves and faucets turned on without the assistance of the living.
Today, the Haunted Hamburger purveys many varieties of the beefy goodness (and a Garden Burger, too) but most notable is the Haunted Burger ($11.59). It is a burger so renowned, it’s recipe can be found on the internet and has been published in such books, as Biker Billy’s Roadhouse Cookbook: Adventures in Roadside Cuisine. It consists of mushrooms, bacon, cheddar, swiss, green chilis, grilled onions, and guacamole. A Double Haunted Burger is available for $13.99.
“We get told all the time by tourists that it’s the best burger they have ever had,” said Nicole Jurisin, a Haunted Hamburger employee.
The restaurant has inside dining, but al fresco dining on the patio offers a view that compliments any burger. They have a fixins’ station, so you may gussy up your charbroiled burger in style. The substantial burgers come with a side: steak fries, baked potato, twice baked potato, or coleslaw. They press the patties themselves, everyday, and the buns are baked in-house.
While one could live by burgers alone, are aptly accented by Arizona craft beers, and wine. In recent years, Jerome has played its part in the burgeoning wine scene. The town anchors one the end of the Verde Valley Wine Trail that runs from Sedona to Jerome.
Local resident and vintner, Maynard James Keenan (and vocalist for the metal band, Tool), has much skin in the wine game. He produces almost 4500 cases of wine a year in “The Bunker” at Caduceus Cellars in Jerome. The results of Keenan’s work can be sampled at the tasting room on Main Street. The staff can guide you to just the right wine pairing for a burger.
For a nontraditional take on a burger that plays to the wine and dine set, the Sourdough Zin Burger ($8.99) at Jerome’s Grapes Restaurant & Bar can be experienced with a choice of house greens, Caesar salad, or Kettle potato chips. The burger is a prime beef patty cooked in red Zinfandel wine, with bacon, cheese, a special sauce and served on thick-sliced grilled sour dough bread.
“If you are looking for the best tasting burger in all of northern Arizona you simply cannot beat Grapes’ Sourdough Zin Burger,” said local businessman and all around man-about-town, Tim McClellan. “Get it with the Caesar side and you have perfection on a plate.”
A note from the author: For this piece, I ordered recommended burgers, or burgers said to be the most popular. Curiously, no servers asked how I would like mine cooked and they all arrived with about the same doneness. If I were to reorder, I would ask they be not cooked as long. I went on a Friday afternoon, and all venues were busy, but the staffers all managed beautifully. Jerome, the burgers, and most importantly their people are all worth a visit, which I highly recommend.
Stacy Lanson is an ardent foodie, frequent culinary ghostwriter, recipe creator and food company advisory panelist. Hailing from a long line of Midwestern cattle ranchers, she has boundless enthusiasm for burgers. Her ongoing pursuit of the holy grail of the genre has taken her as far away as Fiji, and has witnessed such curious spectacles as California seagulls tossing leftover onion rings about their necks.
[Unless noted, photos are by the Lason and Joshua Placa. Panorama of Jerome is by Finetooth (Own work) and used under CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]. Mile High photo via their website.]