THERE'S THE BEEF: Tahlequah's three favorite joints explain how to build a better burger

Grant D. Crawford | Daily Press

Chris Nottingham cooks burgers on his flat-top grill at Southside Drive-In in Tahlequah.

With civil discord dividing Americans over politics and coronavirus measures, one thing most still agree on is the satisfying bite into a mouth-watering hamburger.

Tahlequah residents might only have outdoor grills or stovetop pans to cook their own burgers, but experts say they should consider investing in a flattop grill, otherwise known as a griddle. The top three winners for Best Burgers of Cherokee County 2020, voted for by Tahlequah Daily Press readers, all use the flat-top method to send out their sizzling sandwiches

Chris Nottingham at Southside Drive-In, which won first place in the burger contest, said if aficionados could acquire a grill that's particularly old, they might even turn out better.

"You need to have a grill that's at least 50 or 60 years old," he said. "That's the secret. Ours has been here since day one."

The grill at at Presley's Burgers has also seen its fair share of patties.

"We use a flat-top gas grill that is very seasoned," said Misty Presley. "It's well over 20 years old."

There are several ways to cook a burger, but the experts in town stick with their flat-tops not only because they allow them to prepare multiple patties at once, but they make for a nice, caramelized crust around the beef.

Eric Wells, manager at Boomarang Diner, said it's the best way to get the classic diner taste.

"The flat-top gives you a flavor profile that you can't get elsewhere, just the same as charcoal does," he said. "They both have their flavor profiles, but when you're thinking of a good lunchtime, greasy burger, you're generally thinking of one that came off of a flat-top."

Most folks enjoy a cheese on their burgers. Although greenhorns might wait to throw a slice on after the patties are pulled off the grill, a cheese whiz will know to slap it on while the burger is still on the grill. Employees at the big three burger joints concurred.

"We wait until it's just about done, and then we melt it on the grill," said Nottingham. "We've got American cheese, cheddar cheese, pepper jack cheese, Swiss cheese, and we have a ghost pepper cheese."

Nottingham said his ghost pepper cheese makes for the hottest burger in town and it's not for the faint of heart, with each bite at level of 850,000 Scoville units.

Wells said he won't accept a burger if the cheese wasn't melted while on the grill.

"The cheese has to be melted, definitely," he said. "If the cheese isn't melted don't serve it to me, and if we serve it to you, send it back and make us melt. That's how I feel about it."

Presley said customers will definitely want American or Swiss cheese melted on their burgers, and said said not to forget to toast the bun.

Each burger spot in town has its own way of doing business, and each will claim to have the best burgers in town. At Southside, they attribute their toothsome burgers to the grill. At Boomarang, Wells said the secret is simple.

"We don't salt and pepper our beef; we start with a high-quality beef that's never frozen," he said. "We hand-press our patties and put attention and care into every one that we make."

Presley's has a similar method for its beef burgers.

"There are a lot of good burgers in town," said Presley. "I think what makes ours different is we get our meat ground fresh daily from Save A Lot, and my dad presses them by hand every day."

People will put just about anything on a burger these days. At Southside, the mushroom and Swiss burgers have become popular lately, but Nottingham has also sold a 10-patty burger. He said people can't go wrong with the classic, though: mustard, pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. He admitted there is such a thing as overdoing it.

"I've done that for people several times and it will be just a big mess," he said. "But we'll put whatever on there if you ask for it."

Presley isn't one to load up her burger with too many condiments or toppings, but she doesn't believe there is such as thing as overdoing it.

"I think it's hard to go wrong if you add bacon to a cheeseburger and grilled onions," she said. "I'm a plain hamburger with just pickles and onions only person. But I don't think you can overdo it. A lot of our customers get everything put on theirs."

Since he has worked at Boomarang, Well has gained a preference for not adding too many toppings, and letting the beef do the talking. It should be a little greasy, too.

"We generally don't try to drown our burgers in toppings, because we want to give the beef - the star of the show - a little chance to show off," he said. "If you get heavy with your toppings, you don't give your beef enough time to show off, because that's ultimately what a burger is."

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