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Patties on Parade

Local food scribes judge a battle of the burgers at Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival Slider Slam

by B.A. Nilsson on January 19, 2012

Who first served the sandwich of cooked ground beef on a bun? Plenty of claimants vie for the title. Although the idea of serving chopped, seasoned meat products has a basis in Germany’s Hamburg, here in New York, the so-named Buffalo suburb throws an annual party to congratulate itself on inventing the item, which it dates to 1885. But that same year, teenaged Charlie Nagreen served a meatball sandwich at a Wisconsin fair.

It could have been Oklahoman Oscar Bilby in 1891. Or Louis Lassen in Connecticut in 1895, at a New Haven luncheonette that still operates. Then there’s Texan Fletcher Davis, who was fooling around with the sandwiches in the 1880s before bringing them to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which itself would be an appropriate birthplace, because most of the early 20th century was introduced at that fair, everything from hot dogs to washing machines. What’s not disputed is that the hamburger bun as we know it was invented by Walter Anderson in 1916. He put it around a small, squared-off patty and, a few years later, parlayed that into the White Castle chain.

A White Castle slider may be the perfect 3 AM fare, but sliders have within the past decade proved to be handy beer-companion bar fare. They offer a quick burst of flavorful surprise. With the classic burger recipe as a jumping-off point, they offer the chance to wreak a myriad of combinations between the buns—or whatever serves as housing.

Thus it was that the dozen offerings at the Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival Slider Slam last Friday roamed a world of differences. Ten chefs competed for recognition by a trio of judges: me and Times Union stalwarts Steve Barnes and Ruth Fantasia. We recognized “best” and “most creative,” but I thought you might like to learn more of the details.

The sold-out event was held in a ballroom at the Hotel Albany (the former Crowne Plaza), a room which had been transformed for the event into a horrifically noisy bar, with a DJ deafening the room and comely beer-ad babes to help move the hooch. But the unflappable chefs and their teams worked like mad at a ring of stations, popping the comestibles out as fast as the hungry crowd could down ’em.

When, you might inquire, is a meatball not a meatball, expecting the reply, when it’s part of a slider—yet you’d be forced to recognize that a good meatball’s identity remains firmly meatball-esque. So it was with the beef-veal-pork combo that characterized the meatball slider from Paul Valente (Valente’s Restaurant). I liked the use of mascarpone among the cheeses, but it fought against a big bun, and I wasn’t in a position (lousy aim, nice shirt) to squish it into compliance.

Likewise with the veal meatball slider from Jim Kavanaugh (Bellini’s Italian Eatery), the meat had a great, if meatballish, flavor, and the fresh mozzarella and marinara were a boon. But a meatball already offers resistance, and there was a too-large bun that it got lost in.

Pork was the most popular of the meat items, usually in some shredded form. Creo’s Brian Bowden braised his pork in beer and mixed in sofrito, serving it with citrus-pickled onions and a chili-lime aioli. Here I found a good bun-to-meat ratio, and the flavors came through nicely. I missed the chocolate-plantain milkshake being served alongside, but I was taking only a bite or two of each slider in order to survive the evening.

Scott Krause (Marche at 74 State) called his offering a “mojo pork plantain jibaito slider,” using a technique (which is what jibaito is all about) of using fried plantain strips as the bun. While the pork had some dramatic seasonings enhanced by garlic mayo, the plantain strips were too unyielding for easy access to the innards.

Homemade duck pastrami was a genius touch from Dimitrios Menagias (City Beer Hall), part of his Farmhouse Slider assembly that featured Hennepin beer-enhanced pulled pork, a cherry tomato and walnut sauce, and crunchy yucca shoestring fries. But there was so much goodness that the pork flavor threatened to disappear.

Central Steak’s Devin Ziemann went to the belly of the beast, but his strips of pork belly, even when surrounded by pickled cucumber and a hoisin glaze, were tough enough to fight back. His other two entries were a Fatburger Slider, with brisket and taleggio cheese topped with a bacon-and-onion jam and foie gras sauce—great flavors swimming in a too-big bun—and a Lamb Slider with aioli, pickled onion, cotija cheese and an avocado spread: very juicy, not a big flavor, but satisfying all around.

I give Nick Foster (All Good Bakers) lots of credit for going the seitan route, but even his tangy cider-mustard-whisky barbecue sauce and smoked mozzarella couldn’t conceal the fact that not much flavor was lurking within.

The most unusual and tangiest of the entries was from right there at Hotel Albany: Jonathan Crean’s andouille sausage and lobster patty, with a superb heat level and a good soft bun. It was edged out by our “most creative” winner, A. J. Jayapal’s sumptuous turkey slider. Chickpea flour helped give it moistness, and his kebab spice mix added flavor. That’s a spice mix soon to appear under his “Miss Sydney’s” label, which is where you’ll find the chutney applied as a sauce.

Funny how old-fashioned can prevail, however. For his “best”-winning Chimichurri Truck Burger, Jaime Ortiz (Angelo’s Prime Bar & Grill) used good ground beef and topped it with garlicky chimichurri. Cilantro and roasted onion helped fill out the flavor. Underneath the exotics was a classic hamburger flavor, and sometimes that’s all you need.