When President Obama rolled in to Upland for brunch recently, he made one of the most difficult decisions of his presidency. It may not have been the most impactful, nor longest lasting. The ramifications of his choices that hot summer day probably didn’t emanate much past the blond wooden table topped with a prim green gingham tablecloth. But nevertheless, faced with Justin Smillie's formidable brunch menu he had to choose between the porchetta and egg sandwich spiked with guindilla chilies, the estrella pasta doused in sherry and fortified with chicken liver, and the Upland cheeseburger ($20). These are the sort of decisions that can keep one up at night. President Obama did not equivocate that day, showing the maturity and poise of an experienced commander in chief. He went with the burger.
In the same way that Upland is a rose tinted vision of the city after which it is named, the burger at Smillie and Stephan Starr’s Gramercy charmer is an idyllic interpretation of a California style fast food cheeseburger. It satisfies all of the texture and flavor notes of the form: the double patty stack is seeped in molten American cheese, the viscous mass impregnating the nooks and crannies of the impeccably seared patty surface, while adding a subtle tang.The shredded lettuce, wisps of cilantro, slivers of tomato, and the subtle heat of Peppadew pepper all add a satisfying snap and crunch to the affair, as well a brightness on the palate. They provide a counter to the rich, dense, creaminess of the avocado and, of course, to the beef. Sourced from Bartels Farms in Eugene, OR it is entirely grass fed and antibiotic and hormone free. It displays a robust heartiness and is noticeably more savory than a grain finished product, which tends to have a certain sweetness to it. While grass fed beef is invariably leaner — it is uncommon for it to rate Prime grade for example — this patty is plenty juicy. That is because it is chopped by hamburger hero Pat LaFrieda.
Like all real burgers, it is principally cut from chuck which is buttressed by brisket to bring up fat levels to around an 80 percent / 20 percent lean-to-fat ratio. Each patty clocks in at four ounces, making the stack the same size as an average restaurant burger. There is of course a trade-off when delivering a double stack of burgers even when they are a quarter pound a piece and under and inch thick: it is hard to satisfy a rare order. Even medium rare can be challenging, as was the case when I ordered the burger. Still while it lacked pinkness it didn’t lack juiciness. And the benefit of such an arrangement is that you get twice the browning on a double burger, increasing the dark roasted Maillard flavors. Despite the half pound of beef and the plethora of toppings, the sandwich holds together nicely thanks to the magnificent bun from Orwasher’s. It has the right amount of give and take, conforming where it needs to but also corralling in the gardens-worth of veg and stampede of beef and cheese. Taken as a whole, the burger has great synergy. How could it not? It is based on a tried and true architecture perfected over decades. But Smillie’s burger does indeed benefit from the grass fed beef, garden market veg and the artisanal bun. It is one of the few fast food style burgers from a chef that doesn’t make me wish I was eating the original instead. Also, it has the presidential seal of approval.