JOBURG, Aug 2018 – Some time in early 2017, BGR ruined the perfect burger.
I had discovered the place months before, when it was still hidden in the Engen on Jan Smuts Avenue, lured by a scent of caramelising beef so strong that it overpowered the petrol fumes.
There, in the back of the forecourt, was a takeaway counter and a few cheap chairs. A menu that offered two options: burger, or double burger. Fries on the side, and choose your own toppings, from an entirely traditional selection. No blue cheese or avocado or, god forbid, “chilli cheese bombs” here (I’m looking at you, Rocomamas) – only cheese, pickles, onions, tomatoes and some decorative lettuce.
The meal came on a plastic tray, the Coke in a styrofoam cup. Free refills, of course. This is how burgers are supposed to be. Cheap and dirty, greasy and guilty. The simplest of pleasures.
In the taxonomy of hamburgers, there are two kingdoms: the gourmet and the fast-food. A gourmet burger is anything served with a knife and fork. A fast-food burger is – well, I’m never entirely sure that it’s real food, but we’ve all been there, walking into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 1am praising the gods of 21st century industrial food technology.
BGR’s genius is to blend the two. This is unashamedly a fast-food burger, but one with gourmet sensibilities.
Secret #1: the meat, which is where most chefs go wrong. Thicker is not better, and rare is for steaks, not burgers. BGR pound their patties thin, and then fry them at a scorching heat until the whole thing develops a craggy, charred crust. Juicy inside, crunchy outside, it delivers a beefy punch to the taste buds.
Secret #2: the bun. Don’t overthink this. The only purpose of the bun is to hold the pattie in place. There’s nothing worse than a burger that has been overwhelmed by bread. BGR’s are soft and fresh, a delicate accompaniment rather than a distraction from the main event.
Secret #3: the fries, which should never be an afterthought. They are as essential to a good burger as the patty itself. These are thin-cut, super crispy, salted and piping hot. Just like McDonald’s, and this is the highest possible compliment, because the fast food giant has spent untold millions of dollars in developing the perfect crunch-to-potato ratio – a ratio that BGR has shamelessly ripped off.
I wasn’t the only one impressed with BGR. Queues grew, and eventually much larger and more glamorous new premises were acquired in nearby Keyes Avenue.
This is where things began to go wrong. In a fit of burger-induced hubris, the management decided to mess with a good thing.
I walked in that lunchtime in early 2017, leaving all my troubles at the door as I contemplated the perfect burger that lay in my immediate future.
“With fries, please,” I concluded my order, my eyes straying from the till to the open burger-laden grills behind it.
“Sorry sir, we don’t do regular fries anymore.” Oh no. “We only do waffle fries.”
Waffles are wonderful. Fries are delicious. But some things don’t mix, and waffle fries – these ones, at least – were an abomination. Think thick, porous disks of starch, slowly congealing in their own steam. Undercooked, undersalted and entirely underwhelming, I could not even bring myself to finish the meagre serving, and left in a haze of disappointment and introspection: maybe the universe had decided I no longer deserved good things; maybe pleasure can only be tasted once, and perfection is, like the rest of us, a slave to the law of diminishing returns.
But the universe changed its mind. Several months later, it gave me a sign. Literally. Walking past BGR one lunch time, I saw a handwritten poster that said something along the lines of: “Dear Customers, due to supply issues we have had to discontinue the waffle fries, and will be making regular fries instead”.
I walked straight in, ordered myself the perfect burger, and once again praised the gods of 21st century food technology. I’ve been praising them religiously ever since.