The toughest, hardest-fought, closest-scoring final in Observer food tournament history boiled down to an unprecedented declaring of co-champions this week, as The Liberty won the New School Bracket and Brooks' Sandwich House reigned in the Old School's.
"I would never be disappointed in either of those, ever, if they were the quality they were today," said taste panelist, reader and passionate burgerist Andy Aldridge, who joined food editor Kathleen Purvis and me in a one-day sweep through the Final Four.
In years past, the tournament has pitted foods of somewhat different styles or techniques - Buffalo wings against other-flavored wings, or Italian-style pizza against New York style. Tasters are encouraged to assess each based on its own style: "Is this Buffalo wing the best a Buffalo wing can be? And is this fried-and-blackened wing the best a fried-and-blackened wing can be?" Though the competition has been tough, one finalist has been deemed best.
Why The Liberty?
But in this case, it was felt overall that The Liberty epitomized the more-expensive-ingredient, larger and more upscale burger ($8 with side).
The owners are Tom Condron and Matthew Pera. Pera says the gastropub uses Painted Hills Farm beef from Oregon - cattle range freely until about 14 months, then are finished on barley, corn and alfalfa - and a brioche bun from the Triangle area's Neomonde Bakery. (You can also have it with cheddar from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia and Niman Ranch apple-smoked bacon.)
"Have you ever had a better quality burger than (that one)?" asked Aldridge? "The pinnacle," agreed Purvis. We noted The Liberty must educate servers and diners about the mandatory cooking to medium; our server thought medium rare was permitted "because it's all-natural meat." No.
Meet our guest panelist
Let's pause and introduce Aldridge, who is vice president for Preconstruction Services at Edifice, a general contracting business in Charlotte. He had offered his services by noting that for the past four years, he has eaten a burger every day during the month of June, and keeps records about them - and a spreadsheet.
He had not been to some of the places in the bracket, and said he could set aside all prior experiences and focus on the burger at hand at each place. He proved thoughtful, analytical and passionate.
The panel declared one could not do better than Brooks' for a classic, inexpensive, well-cooked and -seasoned burger ($2.75 without side), with the tang and crisp edges that only a practiced hand and grill can produce, and the melding with its soft white bun that renders the sandwich more than the sum of its parts. (In 1997, the Observer gave the "best cheeseburger" award to Brooks'.)
The original Brooks' location, at 2719 N. Brevard St. , opened in 1973, and twin brothers David and Scott Brooks have run it since taking over from their father in 1991. There are still no tables, but there's a picnic table/counter outside. "All the way" here means mustard, chopped onions and a salt-tinged chili, and as you order, you'll see the balls of rolled ground beef waiting to be cooked to order. "It makes your mouth water," said Aldridge.
"Real integrity," said Purvis: "The perfect version of the gooshy Carolina burger." (I checked: That's how she spells it.)
Brooks' had defeated Mueller's Neighborhood Grill in the semifinals, a fine backyard-style burger served in a friendly setting that, on this day, fell short on vibrant flavor. The Liberty topped Big Daddy's in the other semifinal, with Big Daddy's proving slightly tough, while part of the bottom bun had turned to mush. Still, that Sam I Am burger - with egg, ham, pesto - is a combination of brilliance.
A few other things from the tournament:
Commenter sign-ons for the play-in blog post (that's where I asked readers to comment on which two places should be added to the bracket). The best: "Concerned Burger Eater" and "the Lord," which made the post appear as "the Lord said... THE BURGER COMPANY SHOULD BE THE ONLY ONE ON THE LIST."
The friendliness and charm at surprise bracket player Hinson's and the pastoral beauty of Jake's Good Eats' surroundings.