Nick & Choose 38: Food Challenge

Published July 27, 2011

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Glutton, Punished
Nick triple-dog dares you to beat his record.

Food challenges hold a peculiar allure. Events like the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest or shows like Man v. Food have earned real followings, and as they require physical exertion and stamina, parallels can be made to traditional sport. But perhaps the biggest difference, among many, is that sports can inspire the onlooker. A child watches David Ortiz smash a homer and vows to become a ballplayer. No one watches a man ingurgitate a wheelbarrow full of pulled pork and thinks, one day, that’s going to be me.

Yet there I was, staring at the Tasty Burger Challenge. On the menu, it reads like a provocation: three half-pound hot dogs topped with a split cheeseburger, chili, cheese sauce and bacon, served on a sub roll. Thinking of it as a schoolyard dare may be the key to understanding why someone would choose to pack their esophagus like a musket. If someone calls you a chicken, sometimes the only proper recourse is to eat a family-size bucket of extra-crispy.

Knowing I’d need help, I turned to Belmont native and competitive eater Crazy Legs Conti. The record holder in such prestigious categories as beef brisket and Twinkies, Conti told me to eat the toppings first in order to save my strength for the frankfurter Cerberus. But what about chugging water beforehand to stretch my stomach? “Don’t chug anything except mental awesomeness,” said my seasoned guide. “Maybe listen to some pump-up music. Something good, like Air Supply or early Menudo.”

Of course, I’d need a partner, someone to share in the pain and potential glory. Thankfully, I know many men with voracious appetites. Barrel-chested heroes who can destroy a hoagie, sub or grinder without pausing to belch. Regretfully, they were all out of town.

So on the big day, I arrived at Tasty Burger with my girlfriend, Susan, a compact young blonde annoyed at not having been considered my first option. I’d paid for my gaffe with a barrage of trash talk, but once we learned that no woman has ever completed the challenge, we came to an understanding. We would support each other through this test, and I would witness her smashing chili-covered meat into her face and still find her attractive.

Contenders have one hour to complete the challenge. Once the timer begins, things progress in a gaseous haze, but these are moments of clarity I’ve been able to scrape together.

HOT DOG #1: As tracks from the Rocky IV soundtrack hit your ears (part of chef Greg Weinstock’s special challenge mix), your mind begins to open to the notion of beating Matthew Hummel’s record of 17 minutes, 31 seconds. Your empty stomach is already on board. And, initially, your tongue raises no protest. When you’re facing 4.5 pounds of food, flavor is a vital factor, and Tasty Burger delivers. First one down in eight minutes.

HOT DOG #2: Crazy Legs’ advice helped my speed, but his plan was abandoned out of necessity halfway through round two. The frank’s flavor, at first meaty, turns salty, then altogether noxious. Chili, bread, lashings of hot sauce, they were all mixed in to cloak the flavor. Second down in 17 minutes.

HOT DOG #3: Susan hit a food wall. Sitting by the corpses of her massacred wieners, I entered a horrible fever-dream. Paying for my sinful gluttony, the last devil dog seemed to extend into infinity. Swallowing turned to choking down, and with each bite, Satan taunted me with the forcemeat’s tumescence. Gathering my strength, I knew that, like Orpheus and Eurydice in their jaunt through the underworld, Susan and I would make it through together as long as I didn’t look back. Finished in 58 minutes, four seconds.

Your body has a lot of questions after a victorious food challenge. The most pressing is, “When can I throw up?” The calorie count is of course a morbid curiosity, but it’s the salt that gets you. Just one hot dog holds about 1,800 milligrams of sodium. I wasn’t hungry for two days after, but I’ve never been thirstier.

It’s achieving this kind of hideous benchmark that makes the experience worthwhile. I’m only the fifth person to complete the Tasty Burger Challenge, and that does give me some level of pride. More importantly, I know that, should my heart pop now or I live the extra 60 years I have planned, I will never eat a bigger, unhealthier meal. I extended myself and found one of my life’s boundaries. It’s not a first kiss or a graduation, but it’s a place I’ve seen and can now never return to, and I’m richer, and slightly fatter, for the experience.

Nick & Choose 34: Burgers

Published March 30, 2011

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Cattle Call
The hamburger enters its prime.

In the 1940s, a casual California eatery with a yellow-and-red color scheme began serving cheap burgers to an eager public. With booming success came expansion and a wave of copycats looking to cash in on the model.

Of course I speak of In-N-Out Burger, the chain that’s captured the hearts and stomachs of both chefs and the foodies who love them. Trying to find the key to its appeal, I asked my Facebook friends for their opinion—and subsequently received more comments in less time than anything I’ve ever posted, including links to my own work. (I in no way found that insulting.) As a coworker later put it, “Imagine if you went to a McDonald’s and it was really clean, and people knew their shit.” Loyalists cite the secret menu, which offers the allure of the esoteric, or the dedication to freshness. In fact, In-N-Out policy requires all new restaurants to be within 500 miles of a distribution center, which is why our area currently lacks an outpost.

But we do have Four Burgers. And Flat Patties. And b.good, and 5 Guys, and Boston Burger Company and other establishments capitalizing on the burger-culture cachet. Each offers a look into why the model is thriving, and why we can expect more iterations.

Uburger is a local chain with three locations in the city. Like In-N-Out, it offers a West Coast-style, flat patty burger made from fresh beef ground daily. And like its forebear, everything on the menu is ordained as free of fillers, additives and preservatives. Owned by Christians, all In-N-Out items arrive with Bible verses, but both companies seem to operate on the principle that eating of the sacred cow is some kind of cleansing act. However, digging into a plain hamburger (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, house spread) wasn’t a revelatory experience. The burger ($4.25) looks pristine, like the photographic lies used in Burger King adverts, but the product doesn’t taste much different than a Whopper. The one distinguishing factor, the house spread, was dolloped in a nearly undetectable amount, but I assume it represents one of the atolls on the Thousand Island archipelago.

While UBurger illustrates the profitable benefits of fast and cheap, other chains appeal to gourmand sensibilities. The hamburger has recently become an object of playful worship for chefs and restaurateurs. Icon Thomas Keller celebrated the anniversary of the French Laundry with In-N-Out. Says Beau Sturm, co-owner of Somerville’s Trina’s Starlite Lounge, “It’s the benchmark for what everyone’s doing,” adding that their house burger is “absolutely ripping off the In-N-Out product.”

Predictably, the hamburger craze struck years ago in New York, with restaurateur Danny Meyer creating an empire of Shake Shacks, and chefs like Daniel Boulud preparing burgers with price tags reading like traffic tickets. Last year, Boston heard rumors of a Shake Shack hitting the Common and witnessed the coming out of its own hamburger aristocracy (Back Bay Social Club’s $21 burger comes to mind).

Into that fold comes 5 Napkin, expanding from three locations in Manhattan with a new spot on Huntington Ave. “We’re not just a burger place,” co-owner Andy D’Amico says. “It’s a concept and a restaurant.” Appropriate, as takeout is geared to the corporate crowd. More stylized than the flip-and-fry flat patties, 5 Napkin’s versions are 10-ounce pucks cooked to temperature. What’s sacrificed in speed is made up for in juiciness, with giant dripping hamburgers ($8.95) requiring a serpentine mandible technique. Conscientious suits may opt for a sixth napkin to tuck under their collars.

After cheap and hedonistic comes the last piece in the procedural: hip. Tasty Burger, by Fenway, embodies that attribute, right down to the remodeled garage location and retro signage. Here the hamburgers ($4) come hot, salty and charred, as if straight from a backyard Weber. (There’s also the In-N-Out-esque option to double the beef.) As you wash it down with a tall boy served by a bartender with funky facial hair, Arthur Fonzarelli gives a thumbs up from his pop-art print on the wall, assuring you this is cool.

When our region finally got a Sonic in 2009, there were three-hour backups on Route 16. The arrival of In-N-Out could create a flame of hysteria unseen since Krispy Kreme landed in Medford. Of course, that donut shop has closed. Flames die out. “For trendy foodstuffs are as roses, whose fair flower, being once display’d, doth fall that very hour,” said Shakespeare through a mouthful of jellied eels. For burger fans, it’s time to strike while the grill is hot.