One of the best things about being me is that I get to judge food competitions! The annual Wing War, various Food Truck rallies and showdowns, and my all-time favorite: The WNC Battle of the Burger! I love being a judge, and organizing contests myself, so stay tuned to this site to read reviews, tips, and insights from the judges’ table, and the more!
2018 WNC BATTLE OF THE BURGER
Full Break Down: Winners and… not winners.
Above: The Judges’ Table (L-R) Chef Duane Fernandez, Kevin Tuomy, Jonathan Ammons, Ali McGhee – selfie by St Helm
Oh what a day, what a glorious day!
The annual WNC Battle of the Burger, produced by Kelly Denson, is one of the best, most exciting, most delicious, and most FILLING days of my food-calendar year. I’ve attended as a civilian, and have also had the honor of being a judge more than once. It’s great being a food competition judge, although there are real responsibilities, and if you’re not careful, real possibilities for complete misery. Judges can’t “tap out’ halfway through the contest, or three quarters of the way… or 99.999% of the way… the judges have to tough it out to the very end, tasting every single competitor’s entry, with no exceptions, no cheating, no skimping, no whining or groaning about it! Well, actually, there might be some groaning, but after trying TWELVE burgers, we’re allowed to groan a li’l bit. C’mon! Now, it’s true that most of the contenders serve sliders, or small versions of their burgers, and for sure the judges do not eat entire burgers or even entire sliders during the competition, but instead we take between one and five bites of each offering.
So, How Many Bites are in a Burger?
I estimate that it takes me about a dozen bites to get through the average, full size burger. At the judges table, I took around 34 or 35 bites of the 12 contending burgers, which would equal about 2.91666 full-sized burgers, which is not really that many. Just shy of three. So, let’s say three. Yeah, that is kind of a lot of meat and bun for one small person such as me to push into myself at one sitting, but of course, I love it!
Anyhoo… let’s cut to the chase, and get to the winners, as well as those contenders who did not win this year, but many of whom, I’d like to point out, put forth an excellent product none the less. There were very few clunkers in my opinion.
First Place Winners: Sand Hill Kitchen!
Jamie Wade and her crew at Sand Hill Kitchen sure are wowing the people of Asheville these days! You might recall that Sand Hill crushed the competition in the tournament-style Asheville Fried Chicken Challenge, beating out 7 other contestants for a really exciting win. Now here they are taking home GOLD in the most important food throw-down in town, edging out the long-time favorites, Rankin Vault, by just ONE point! The judges gave Sand Hill’s slider 46 out a possible 50 points, and I myself gave it a perfect 10.
Sand Hill is a relatively new player in town, they’ve been open for about a year and a half, but it’s clear that they are already a heavy-hitter in the Asheville food scene. If you haven’t tried their food yet, drive way on out to West Asheville, pull into the BP Station on the corner of Sardis and Sand Hill roads, walk on in, and there, to the left of the convenient store, you’ll find some of the best food in Asheville, and THEE best burger at the Battle of the Burger. Yerp. You read that right. This restaurant is inside of a gas station.
Sand Hill Kitchen / Orange Plate
My notes on this burger said, “Wow. So GOOD!!! Great flavor, texture, taste. Meat was perfect. Bun was simple. Toppings were excellent.”
FYI: The judges are not given a description of the burger, or list of ingredients, so we truly have no idea what to expect upon our first bite!
(L-R) Kelly Denson hands Sand Hill Kitchen’s chef and owner, Jamie Wade the most coveted award in Asheville’s competitive cooking scene: Best Burger.
Second Place Winners (and the “People’s Choice”)
The Rankin Vault
Year after year, Chef Scott Wallace and his crew at The Rankin Vault have taken home high accolades from the WNC Battle of the Burger, and this year they received two more! The judges scored them 45 out of a possible 50 points, ranking them the 2nd highest, and only one point behind the leader, Sand Hill Kitchen. The People (aka YOU) voted Rankin’s burger their #1 favorite, so I guess you could say that Asheville kinda likes this dang burger!
Last year was an anomalous Battle of the Burger, because for the first time in many years, Rankin was nudged out of the top spot at the judge’s table, by The Salvage Station, and then the Montford Pull-up (RIP) stole the hearts of crowd, and won The People’s Choice. In MMA they say you learn from your loses, and they build resolve, and I think that might have been the case with Scott and The Vault, because they came back with a vengeance, and took home two well-deserved awards for their efforts.
Pro tip: The colored plate system is great for keeping things anonymous, but the various colors can clash with the burger! We all “eat with our eyes” before we take a bite, so if a contender is unhappy with the way their burger looks on the color plate they were assigned, they can and should throw a black napkin under it. Smart move, Rankin.
The Rankin Vault / Pink Plate
From my notes: “SO GOOD!!! Juicy, cooked perfectly. Arugula was perfect. The bun was grilled / perfect.”
“I l♥ved it!”
As I wrote over and over in my notes, this slider was “perfect.”
Rankin Vault chef/manager/bartender Scott Wallace accepts not one, but TWO awards from Kelly Denson
Third Place Winner
It’s nice to see the Brinehaus truck show up at food events these days! It’s run by Chef Steven Goff, who co-owns the brand new AUX Bar on N. Lexington Ave, downtown. Chef Goff (formerly of King James Pub) is one of my all-time favorite cooks, and his Animal House Burger is currently holding the #2 spot on my 2018 Asheville Burger Survey. So, I was very happy and not surprised at all, when I saw the color key, and learned that the red plate was AUX Bar, and Steven had garnered a solid spot in our top three burgers of the day!
To me, AUX Bar is the restaurant that most exemplifies the Asheville food scene: Traditional Southern fare with hipster influences, very high end ingredients, combined with low-brow “trashy” ingredients, comfort foods that hit all the right notes, bring up fond memories, and welcome us to enjoy them, guilt free, but might also challenge us with something new and exciting. This burger was Judge Jon Ammons’ choice for #1, and he raved about how it provided everything he likes about a burger. All of the judges were very impressed with its simplicity, crafted with deftness and executed with skill. Great burger!
AUX Bar (Brinehaus) / Red Plate
My notes for this burger called it a “Dad burger,” and a “picnic burger,” which are both terms of very high praise from me. I also called it, “very all-American,” and “good stuff all around.”
Pro Tip: Hitting all the right nostalgic nails on the head is never a bad approach when entering food competitions.
Above: Chef Steven Goff accepts his award from Kelly Denson.
…and The Rest!
Below are the rest of the contenders, listed in the order that they were brought to our table. Keep in mind that, as is the case every year, the judges are given no indication of who’s burger is who’s. This is a blind taste test. The entries are served on color-coded plates that match to a score sheet that the judges take notes on, and rate the competitors on a 1 – 10 scale, with 10 being best. Judges do occasionally dip into the negative numbers, but that’s rare. My scores this year went from a disappointing 3 to a perfect 10. My personal top five, in descending order, were: Sand Hill Kitchen, The Rankin Vault, AUX Bar, D.O.G.S. and Ambrozia. Congrats to all the contenders! Any and all efforts are very much appreciated, and anyone willing to put their work on the line in a heated competition such as this has earned my respect for sure!
(Light Blue Plate)
If there were a “Most Improved” category, D.O.G.S. would have won that hands-down. Last year, they more or less came in last place in terms of the judge’s opinions. This year they were in my top 5! My notes said, “nice bun, great spice, the beef tasted great, I wanted to finish it.”
Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck
(Dark Blue Plate)
My notes said “nice size, looks great,” and “the meat was good.” Unfortch, I also wrote, “a little too garlicky for me,” and “a little too sweet.”
(Light Green Plate)
Even though this was a totally blind taste test (the judges are given no indication of who’s burger is who’s), we do like to guess, and Judges Tuomy and Fernandez called this one as the Chop Shop’s entry, because the meat was frickin’ excellent, but the bun was a total fail (it was cold and dry!) and the other ingredients were pretty average, so it was “all about the meat,” which one might expect form the local butcher shop! My notes said, “If not for the bun, it could have been a winner!” DOH!
(Dark Green Plate)
This time it was me who guessed correctly that this burger was from the Ultra Star at Harrah’s Casino! I could tell because it came on a pretzel bun, which is slightly dated, and seems like something a casino restaurant would do! Ha ha! The bun was soft and tasty though, and my notes said “good pretzel bun.” I also wrote, “good texture for meat,” but added, “too many sweet onions,” and “too much herby flavor.” All-in-all it was a good effort from an newcomer, and a decided underdog.
The judges could not decide what the heck was on top of this one, and Jon Ammons was particularly flummoxed. In the end, I decided it was some form of beef stew, with carrots, braised pot roast, and some sort of gravy. I admit it was a little weird, but I didn’t hate it! My notes indicted however, that “the topping was cold,” and “the beef was good but slightly over-cooked.” As for the bun, I noted that it was “good.”
Salvage Station won the Battle of the Burger last year, with a burger that was perfect in every way. I gave it a 10, and I had pretty high expectations for them this year, but was also aware that the head chef had since moved on, and that it probably wouldn’t be the exact same burger as last year. It wasn’t. It was much different, and it didn’t win. It was real good though, and my notes indicate that I enjoyed it. “Good meat, good sear, nice heat, nice toppings.” I even wrote, “I like the corn strips,” which I admit looked a little tacky to me at first, but added a nice crunch in my opinion. My one critical note said, “the cheese was a little goopy,” but as I said, it was a good burger! Salvage Station, I wish you luck coming back next year!
None of the judges had heard of Stack House, nor did we know this was their burger, of course, but the entry on white plates was fairly popular, and I believe that Judge Tuomy had it in his top 3. I enjoyed it myself, although my notes did critique the mustard seeds for having an “odd tapioca texture.” I also wrote that “there were a lot of flavors going on,” which is my way of saying that it was perhaps a little bit much, and the burger got lost among the myriad toppings and add-ons. I also wrote “good meat, well cooked.”
Unfortunately, consistency from burger-to-burger was an issue with the entry on the silver plates, with some judges at the table having a much different experiences with it than others. My slider was “dry,” according to my notes, with a “dry bun.” The meat had an “interesting” flavor that the judges could not pin-point. I wrote “Lamb?” in my notes, and Chef Duane thought he may have detected organ meats, describing an iron flavor. My only other notes said, “the herbs didn’t do it for me.”
Last year Ambrozia sent the judges a HUGE burger, that wasn’t all that great to be honest, but this year they came at us with a really cute little slider that was a vast improvement, and made it into my own Top 5. My notes said “Nice and juicy sweet but not too sweet,” and “well cooked.” I also gave them 1 extra point for the chips, which were really tasty, and the perfect end to the long day of eating meat, bread, cheese, and pickles. On the negative side, I wrote, “bun was the weak point.”
And then of course, there’s ice cream…
I always like to end a day of judging at Battle of the Burger with a kiddie cone from my good friends at The Hop. Yes, of course I was full by the time I got done with my 35 bites of burger, but as someone’s dad once said, “There’s always room for ice cream, because it melts, and fills in all the little spaces.” Hell yes. I got the salted caramel and it was awesome
And there you have it, you 2018 WNC Battle of the Burger breakdown! I hope you enjoyed the day if you were there, and the pictures if you weren’t! Try the winning burgers, and let me know what you think!
Hell, try ’em all! I did!!!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.