saltworks | serial eater

A Burger Done Right

By Jason Frye

Over the course of one week, the azaleas in my yard budded, bloomed and fell back to their deep summer green, sending up shoots here and there that begged me to grab some pruners and shape things up. I would, but I’ve been too busy. See, I spend a good portion of my day thinking about food. This has only gotten worse, since every bite I’ve eaten has come from my own kitchen as of late.

I think about Cap’n Crunch and Khmer noodles, salade Lyonnais and slice-and-bake-cookies, my mother-in-law’s pancakes and this exquisite margarita I once had at the Kentucky Club in Juarez. And a cone of salty frites and juicy, juicy burgers. Especially burgers.

Like I said, I spend a lot of time thinking about food. For the most part, these thoughts come and go like the azalea blooms — here, then gone — but this burger thing, it stuck. I found myself fantasizing about one of the piled-so-high-it-might-topple, seared-on-the-flat-top, cheesy, toasty-bun miracles that is the Fork n Cork burger.

Which burger? Doesn’t matter. The thought of every one of them set my mouth to watering, so I texted James Smith, burgermeister and mastermind behind the Fork n Cork, for some advice. After all, between two Forks — Downtown and the soon-to-open Carolina Beach location — Smoke on the Water, and Bone & Bean BBQ, Smith’s flipped a few thousand patties. If anyone in this town could help silence my growling stomach and create the at-home version of my favorite burger, he was my guy.

“The best burger is simple,” Smith said, when I got him on the phone. “Be liberal with the salt and pepper — and I mean liberal. Salt everything — the meat, the tomatoes and onions and whatever toppings — because it really helps wake up the flavors.”

Salt. Check.

“Toast your bun. A brioche roll is best, the eggy-ness and the light sweetness are a good contrast to the salt and fat of the burger and cheese. If you can’t do brioche, try a potato roll; it’s a great substitute. Still gotta toast it, though.”

Buns. Check.

Sort of. With store shelves running a little thin, all I could find were tiny brioche buns (fit only for a slider, and a child-size burger wasn’t going to put a dent in my growing hunger), and potato rolls were nowhere to be found, so I made due with a simple knot roll.

“And meat. It has to be high quality and it has to be ground fresh. Period. No frozen meat, no premade patties, fresh only. At the restaurant, we use a custom blend from the Veggie Wagon, but that blend’s a secret I’ll never tell.”

High-quality meat. Check. Custom blend. No check. I opted for freshly ground Certified Angus Beef — available from Pine Valley Market and Lowes Foods — for my patties.

The Fork n Cork serves whopping half-pound burgers, so I followed suit with two hefty patties, each one seasoned with plenty of salt, white pepper and freshly cracked black pepper.

I don’t have a flat top at home, so I did the next best thing: built a fire in my Weber and waited. When the grill was ready, I dropped the patties and heard that satisfying sizzle and the first drips of fat onto the coals. I closed the lid and got to work on the rest of the meal.

Slice and salt the tomatoes; set aside. Make a Negroni. Get the fries in the oven. Flip the burgers. Finish the first Negroni and make a second. Pick some lettuce. Slip a slice of cheese on each burger, sip my Negroni and watch the cheese melt. Pull the burgers and assemble.

I took the first bite and everything — the juicy meat, the melty cheese, the salty slices of tomato, the smear of Duke’s mayo, the fresh lettuce — stood up and announced itself. This burger was everything. I focused on each bite, planning my next as I savored the one I’d just taken. I forgot about my fries. I forgot about my drink. I forgot about my wife, for whom I’d made the second burger, but eventually her voice pulled me from my gastronomic glee.

“Thought I lost you there,” she said.

“You did. This burger . . .” I said around a mouthful of food.

We both nodded. And chewed. And took another bite. It was no Fork n Cork, but it was damn fine all the same.

Still, I can’t wait to see James and get a burger done right. 

Jason Frye daydreams about food from his home in Wilmington. Check out what he’s cooking, eating and drinking, and where he’s traveling on Instagram, where he’s known as @beardedwriter.

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