And the best burger in the Northland goes to…One brave soul's account of the third annual Grill Wars, in which five whole burgers had to be consumed to determine who makes the best in Northland.
By: Ben Johnson, Budgeteer News
When I first heard about the annual Grill Wars event at Fitger’s, I was ecstatic. As a full-fledged burger enthusiast and connoisseur, I knew I had to try them all to find the best burger in the Northland.
When the day finally came, I walked down to Fitger’s, trying to work up an appetite. I hadn’t eaten all day. Upon opening the front door a sweet, smoky scent filled my nostrils. Often I’ve found the Fitger’s complex to be a bewildering labyrinth, but this time the entrance to the courtyard was sniffed out quickly.
I arrived with a few friends and an empty stomach, 10 minutes early to get a head start on the crowd. Much to our dismay, about 50 people had the same idea, and we shuffled to the back of the growing, winding line.
Luckily, once 5 o’clock rolled around, the line moved quickly. By 10 after 5, I had dropped off my cans of beans,* received a black “X” on my hand and a small paper ballot and was released into burger paradise. A guy next to me finished and discarded his beer, rubbed his hands together, took a deep breath, turned to his friend and said, “OK, let’s do this.”
My thoughts exactly.
There were 20 entries in all, 11 professional and seven amateur, in addition to 94X and 95 KQDS’s competing entries. Everyone cut their burgers into fourths for sampling, which meant, in order to try them all, I would be eating five whole burgers — no small task, even for a large man.
The professional division was first. Right away it became clear that the entries for both divisions could be roughly divided into two categories: The first was to go with a classic burger, like Chasers’ BBQ Cowboy Burger or David Scheall’s smoked-bacon cheeseburger. The other strategy was to try something really different and unique, like Duluth Grill’s Java Burger or the Big Fat Greek Burger from Bridgeman’s.
The “classic” entries ranged from decent to audibly-groaning-in-delight.
My favorite classic entry was Adolph Store’s Bacon Three-Cheese Burger (the bacon and three cheeses were ground into the beef), which was served on a fluffy, slightly crispy gourmet bun. Buns are quite underrated when it comes to elite sandwich making, and Adolph Store’s were top-notch.
Another one of my favorites from the pros was Superior Meats’ Italian Blue Cheese Burger. The beef was marinated in Italian dressing, ground with peppers and topped with pepperoni, blue cheese, tomato and lettuce. Its flavor reminded me of a gourmet sausage.
Superior Meats came in second place among the professionals.
The first-place nod went to Lighthouse on Homestead’s Beacon Burger.
It featured barbecue sauce, cream cheese and “Beacon Berries,” which was really a blueberry/cranberry compote. At first I was skeptical, as adding fruit to meat can be hit-or-miss, but this burger was seriously tasty. It was tangy and sweet, but the cream cheese subdued the tartness, and it still retained its beefy flavor. It was Lighthouse on Homestead’s second straight victory at Grill Wars, and the Beacon Burger was entirely different from its entry last year, the Strom Burger.
A trip up Highway 61 may be warranted later this summer.
One burger that didn’t pan out in the unique column was Duluth Grill’s Java Burger. They combined coffee grounds with their beef, and the result was a black, bitter burger with Dippin’ Dots-sized balls of coffee mixed in. Maybe coffee lovers dug it, but it really just wasn’t good. It definitely earned points for creativity, though.
After chowing through the pro section, a short break was needed. I leaned against a railing overlooking Lakewalk and, between belches and deep breaths, admired the view.
It was a perfect Duluth day, despite the tornado sirens shrieking an hour earlier. The Lift Bridge could be seen through a fragrant fog of grill smoke; it was just an all-around magnificent scene.
People-watching was even better than the scenery.
Fitger’s courtyard was swarming with a wide cross-section of Duluthians: wrinkly and smooth-skinned, beer-bellied and thickly muscled, mulleted and hair-gelled. Event organizers estimated 1,500 people attended this year, up from 1,200 last year.
My stomach full — but not yet near max capacity — I pressed on through the throng of people to the amateur section. The first entry I tried was the best one I had all day: Kevin Ilenda’s caramelized onion, mushroom and Swiss burger was unbelievable. I’ve never had caramelized onions before, so it was quite an eye-opener for me. It was sweet with a strong onion presence, which the mushroom and Swiss flavors perfectly complemented.
Somehow it placed second to Giff Tretheway’s “Eliminator,” which was also a repeat champion.
With a name like the Eliminator, one would think that it would be totally “bad to the bone.” I was thinking it would be either powerfully spicy or stuffed with at least seven different forms of meat. Ironically, however, the Eliminator was topped with Brussels sprouts and a whole host of other vegetables, along with a sauce similar to Thousand Island dressing. Needless to say, it was one of my least favorite burgers of the day.
As I slogged through the amateur section, I started to feel like Augustus Gloop from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Cholesterol pumped rhythmically through my veins, but I pressed forward, spurred on by my love for ground beef.
I eventually finished off the amateurs, popping in the last bit of Cory Oestreich’s Mini Ocho Burger (which was a very strong entry) and headed for the last two burgers.
After slowly worming into position to get my paws on the unimpressive Blowtorch Burger, I inched toward my last burger of the day, Frank Befera’s Beefera Burger. The line was long and moving slowly — much more so than the fast-approaching storm. After waiting in light, yet foreboding, rain for a few minutes, I decided to seek refuge.
After spending a half hour reminiscing with friends about our favorite entries, I returned to the courtyard.
The rain had stopped, but most of the burger enthusiasts had left. The competitors were packing up their supplies and pockets of drenched latecomers were snapping up any leftovers. True champions, if you ask me.
*Grill Wars also serves as a fundraiser for Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank.
This is freelancer Ben Johnson’s first piece for the Budgeteer.