One of the most upsetting things I’ve eaten in Dallas was a cheeseburger with Eggo waffles as buns. Like the Doritos Loaded, which was less food and more a melted, cheese-flavored crayon rolled in bird seed, it was clearly stunt eating. It’s not meant to be taken seriously or given some pretentious Michelin star-level review. I remember thinking, “Why not?” at the time; I’d eaten weirder things. It was fine. Then, afterwards, I kept stewing on it. I kept thinking about how inherently wrong it felt to surround a cheeseburger with waffles.
Messing with the bun code is obviously not a new trend, but lately we’ve reached leave-Planet Earth-for-a-while levels of bun madness. There are buns injected with scalding cheese magma and avocado halves, which looks so wrong it hurts. Recently, I had a bun that was filled with a reservoir of hot Gouda. A burger in between a reversed glazed doughnut even has a name. On the less insane scale, one of the most-attempted bun alternatives around is Texas Toast. They’re meant to be fun, but they usually end up being a towering waterfall of bummers.
There’s no form of art on Earth that hasn’t been improved by rule-breaking. Food, like any medium, shouldn’t be an insufferably serious event. When artist Marcel Duchamp named a porcelain toilet “Fountain,” he was trying to shift the interpretation of the medium. Is injecting an ocean of cheese into a bun forever wrong? No. Did I feel weird ordering it? Honestly, a little. The point is: The not-bun always loses. Any overwrought creativity that might go into a loaded bun or a bun made of radishes or tiny pizzas glued together dies a quick death when you take a bite.
The simple truth is that a buttered, toasted bun, handmade or those little generic squishy ones, will win every time. Over-thought bread alternatives to burger buns is like when George Lucas made the Star Wars prequels: He messed with a good thing until it was a stiff punch in the junk. A simple Martin’s potato roll is like Empire Strikes Back compared with the Phantom Menace that is Texas toast as a bun.
One of the best burgers in the city, at Knife, has a bun that’s no different than anything you can buy at Kroger. The best handmade buns are always the scratch-made versions of the stuff we grew up with, like the fresh, butter-sheened, sesame seed-showered Parker House roll at Small Brewpub or Top Knot.
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There’s a reason why they work. A good, old-fashioned bun soaks up a thin layer of burger grease, but is sturdy enough to maintain its integrity. They’re humble enough to keep the focus on the main event: the beef.
In other words: The enemy to a good burger eating experience is an ironic bun. It’s the foundation: Imagine a time (surely it’s happened to you) when your bottom bun’s been soggy and blown apart like dandelion spores when you’ve tried to pick it up. All you feel like doing is giving up. You feel like throwing everything in the trash and heating up a Lean Cuisine.
When a chef challenges some annoyingly rigid ironclad rule, there’s often adventure in the change. The bun is the one thing on a burger that truly doesn’t work when you mess with it, so let’s stick to the most fun option: The bun.
Unless it’s a patty melt.