Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Getting A Good Burger At The National Hamburger Festival

This is going to be a long post. Enjoy!

I'm always in the mood for a good festival, especially one that focuses on food. The problem I find at most festivals, however, is that there are usually only one or two vendors selling food that is related to the main theme and a ton of other vendors selling food that has nothing to do with the theme. Cuyahoga Falls hosts a number of these festivals every summer and whether it is the Irish Festival, the Italian Festival, or the German Festival, plenty of elephant ears, burritos, and gyros can be found strewn throughout the festival space.

It was at the suggestion of my friend and fellow food blogger Kathy that we meet up for the 4th Annual National Hamburger Festival held right here in Akron, Ohio. She and her husband had attended the first two years of the festival but had missed last year's festivities. While the weather forecast did call for rain, fortunately we were spared Mother Nature's wrath, at least while we were there. And in fact, the weather was quite nice, mid-70's with a gentle breeze that kept the sweating to a minimum.

The festival has been held every year in Akron's Lock 3 park right on Main Street. The event organizers also cordoned off Main Street between University and Church Streets for the food vendors. Here is a shot of the banner as I approached the entrance at University Street:

While I know what this sign is supposed to say, doesn't the word "STOP" with the circle and line through it actually take on the opposite meaning ... "Don't STOP"? But I digress.

Once inside you approach the Food Ticket stand and purchase $1 tickets in whatever amount you wish:

I've seen this approach used at many festivals in the past and I suppose this works on two levels. First, vendors don't have to worry about maintaining a cash box or running out of $10 or $5 bills. Second, by parting with your money up front and receiving paper tickets, you are more prone to experience the "credit card" effect; that is, you don't really feel like you are spending money, just tickets, so you tend to spend more. However, the concern I have with the ticketing system is that generally you don't get refunds for unused tickets. Thus, if you buy $15 in tickets and only use $12, you end up with three fairly expensive pieces of paper to take home with you.

Because I had gotten there prior to Kathy and her husband, I decided to walk down Main Street and check out the various vendors. First up, White Castle:

They were selling their sliders for 1 ticket each, making them the cheapest place to get a burger. Oddly enough, other than the guy in the gray t-shirt, there was no else in line for these. Hmmm, I wonder why.

Further down the road, I noticed an enormous line that had formed for the Windsor Pub stand:

The sheer length of the line amazed all three of us. While none of us had ever eaten at this Tallmadge-based pub, clearly the line indicated that they must be doing something right. Or perhaps people just assumed that if there was a line, whatever is at the end of that line MUST be good. While none of us actually had the burger from the Windsor, we actually agreed that at some point in the near future, we needed to venture to the actual establishment and try one out.

The first burger I decided to try was from the Midway Oh Boy cart based out of Elyria, Ohio:

For some reason, the cart and the description of the burger evoked my memory of Swenson's. Not that I was expecting Swenson's, but it had that sort of local mom-and-pop type feel to it. Their signature sandwich is the Oh Boy, but for the same amount of tickets, I could get three sliders (called Baby Boys) that were identical to the Oh Boy, just smaller. Since there were three of us, I figured it would be the best way for all of us to give it a try.

Here is a picture of the Baby Boys:

These were so-so. The "sauce" that was advertised on the menu was really more of a doctored up mayonnaise and there was quite a bit of it on the burgers. So much that it become kind of a hindrance when trying to eat the burger as big gobs of it kept oozing out of the sides when you took a bite. The bun was fresh and lightly grilled, but the meat had a very odd texture to it. It was sort of compressed, for lack of a better term. It reminded me very much of the texture of a breakfast sausage patty. When ordering my Baby Boys, the woman taking my tickets did give me a 10% off coupon for their actual store in Elyria. I think I may hold onto it and stop in to give them a formal review some time in the future.

The second burger I decided to have was at the stand Crave Restaurant was working:

This was the other burger vendor that had as long a line as the Windsor Pub did. The difference, however, was that Crave had won several of the professional burger tasting categories the day before; the Windsor hadn't won any. Crave was also different in that they were offering pre-set burgers. In other words, you couldn't get a burger done "your way". There were three different burgers from which you could choose:

I decided to go with the Prairie Dog burger and my friend Kathy went for the Muffaletta burger. Each was a 4 ounce burger and cost 3 tickets. Once you made your order and paid your tickets, you moved to the right where the food was being assembled:

I have to say that these guys were operating like a well oiled machine. The guy in charge of grilling the burgers in the back would pass the finished ones to the guys in the assembly area. Here the various cheeses and toppings were added, wrapped up and handed to the customers. Even though the line was long for Crave, once I placed my order and moved to the pick-up area, I probably only waited about two minutes before my burger was ready.

The three of us took our burgers and walked to a tented area with tables closer to the Lock 3 stage. Here is a shot of my Prairie Dog burger wrapped:

And unwrapped:

The Prairie Dog burger had a mixture of American and Pepper Jack cheeses, grilled salami, spicy 1000 Island dressing, and fried onions. While this was much better than the Baby Boys I had eaten from Midway, this still didn't come across as a remarkable burger. Presentation issues aside (they were producing these at a very rapid pace), the flavor combination just seemed a little odd to me, especially the grilled salami. The spice level of the 1000 Island dressing was nice and added a dimension of flavor that was missing in my first burger. This wasn't a bad burger per se, it just occurred to me as I was standing there eating this that if this was the winner, do I even want to try the losers?

As we walked the entire length of the food carts, I was struck by an observation: no gyros, no burritos, no elephant ears! The organizers had wisely decided to make this festival about one thing, hamburgers and their various forms. In fact, none of the hamburger vendors were even allowed to sell drinks. That being said, there were some other carts available for non-hamburger purchases.

First up, WaffleMan and his hot waffle and ice cream sandwiches:

While this sounds like a good idea in theory, all three of us wondered how you would hold onto the hot waffle without burning yourself.

As with almost any festival or carnival you go to, the variety of fried foods was abundant:

The next cart was more specialized, French fries and freshly-squeezed lemonade:

By the time I got around to the next cart, I had pretty much already eaten my fill and was looking to leave the festival, but I thought I would stop and chat:

When I saw an Akron, Ohio location printed on the side of the cart, I figured they actually had a real building where they sold their ice cream and gelato. Unfortunately, this cart was all there was. The address on the side of the cart was actually for a refrigeration company, which the cart proudly displayed at the various festivals and carnivals it attended. So, sadly, I didn't and probably won't have a chance to sample their goodies until next year, assuming that they return.

The final non-hamburger stand I saw that looked interesting was this one in which a cooking demonstration was going on:

I didn't linger too long listening to the presentation going on under the tent, but I did manage to hear Rachel Ray's name bantered about, so who knows what they were talking about.

The final topic I wanted to cover in this post was the amateur burger tasting competition sponsored by the Akron Beacon Journal. There were two categories with five contestants in each category. You can read about the different finalists and get recipes in the Beacon article here. The competition was located right down at the Lock 3 stage. Here is another shot of a banner for the hamburger festival:

To the left of the banner is the stage where the judges sat and to the right is the grilling area where the contestants had to make their award-worthy entries. Here are a couple of photos of the grilling area:

It turned out that the woman in the orange tank top in the above photo was a relative of a friend of mine who was also in attendance. She had submitted the Farmers Market Bison Burger in the non-traditional category. Unfortunately, she only received third place.

The judges sat at the opposite end of the stage and awaited the presentation of the burgers to begin:

Judging today were (from left to right) chef Catherine St. John, owner of the Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson; chef David Russo, owner of Russo's restaurant in Peninsula; chef Louis Prpich, owner of Akron's Creative Catering; and Tom Loraditch, executive chef for the West Point Market in Akron. They didn't talk during the judging, but did share some words with the contestants and the audience before the winners were announced.

Finally, all ten finalists on stage eagerly awaiting the news of who won in each category:

So who won? In the traditional burger category, the Peppy Burger won. In the non-traditional category, the Asian Salmon and Shrimp Burger won. Unfortunately, the only people to try any of these burgers were the judges, so I can't really comment on their flavor. However, since the recipes were published in the Beacon, perhaps you can try them out for yourself.

With two different burgers in my stomach and a burger tasting contest under my belt, I decided it was time to pack up and move on. While some things impressed me about my experience at the 4th Annual National Burger Festival, my actual burger eating experience left me a bit underwhelmed. That being said, I do have a date with my friends to try out the Windsor Pub's burger sometime soon, so maybe there is hope for redemption.

I encourage all of my readers out there to support your local establishments, burger or otherwise. I know that attending today's festivities has at least given me several other places to try, and that's always a great outcome. Who wants to help me spend my 10% discount coupon at Midway Oh Boy?


Bernadine said...

Great post. thanks for sharing. please feature this on the bizymoms Elyria community page, I am sure the mom’s will really enjoy reading this

Tino said...

@Bernadine: Thanks so much for the compliment. I did take a look at the Bizymoms Elyria page that you linked to and there wasn't an obvious link to the "community page". I'm assuming you are a member, so if you'd like to submit my blog yourself, I'd be very happy if you did so.

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