Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca and Michaeleats.com
Monday, May 12 2014
I became aware of Michael’s work about a year ago when I found his website Tastyburgers.ca. I immediately marked it down as Toronto’s only “burgerdown” an idea as similar in concept and method to Toronto Phodown as they come.
Michael, moreover, in seeking Toronto’s best burger, tugs at my heartstrings in a different manner. Having spent the bulk of my life in the south of the U.S., a love of burgers was fired within me from a young age (for better and for worse). Long story short (too late): Michael is doing important work by performing an in-depth study of the hamburger in Toronto, both seeking to rate each one on his four-point scale and performing a longitudinal study, tracking trends in burger preparation over time. I should also note he’s been a hell of a lot more consistent than my fledgling project, which has become more travel and general food blog than a proper phodown.
Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.
Michael Nusair (MN): No problem!
TPD: What is the genesis of your love of burgers?
MN: I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember. I honestly don’t think there was one single “aha!” moment for me, burgers have just always been something I’ve been into.
I will say that there are a couple of things that really got me to start thinking more seriously about hamburgers, and provided the impetus for Tasty Burgers. The first thing is the blog Serious Eats, and specifically their sub-blog A Hamburger Today. I’ll admit that Tasty Burgers is more than a little bit inspired by that site.
The second thing is George Motz’s great book, Hamburger America. Obviously there are no Canadian burger joints in that book, but it’s well worth a read regardless.
Between that book and that blog, and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that no one was writing about burgers in Toronto in a way that I deemed satisfactory, Tasty Burgers was born.
TPD: What caused you to settle on the 0-4 omnibus Tyrion scale? As you know, I prefer a more specific set of metrics – I could easily see you considering such a thing at some point in Tastyburger’s history (e.g., 0-4 for the beef; 0-4 for the bun, etc). [Editorial Note: At this point I was under the impression that the images Michael uses for his rating scale were those of Tyrion Lannister. I was mistaken.]
MN: I feel like, for the most part, I want the review to speak for itself. I do get a little bit frustrated with the four star rating system sometimes, because, for example, some places I gave three stars to are markedly better than other places that got the same ranking. But not better enough for a 3.5.
If anything, though, I’d change the rating system to something even less specific. Like a Siskel & Ebert style thumbs up or thumbs down. Obviously the more specific scale is working for you, but I honestly have no idea what the difference would be between, say, a hamburger that deserves 8.5 out of 10, and one that deserves 8.6.
TPD: Speaking of your rating scale, why the Dink?
MN: That’s actually Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction! Hence the name. (“Mmm-hmm, this IS a tasty burger!”)
Speaking of Game of Thrones though, that show and Tasty Burgers are pretty much exactly the same age. Thrones premiered in April of 2011, and I posted my first review in May. Coincidence?? Yes. Yes it is.
[Editorial note: this is very embarrassing for me]
TPD: I noticed you often defer to the restaurant when choosing a burger to rate, ordering their specialty. While this may certainly be a fair way to go about things, do you ever worry you sacrifice some empirical rigor? For instance, the special at each restaurant may be quite different, whereas ordering a plain burger at each would yield more comparable ratings across restaurants.
MN: Yeah, that was definitely on my mind a lot when I first started the blog. My thinking is that I want to review whatever the restaurant feels is their signature item. There have been a few times where I thought that the signature burger was just too heavily condimented, and in those cases I got something simpler. But for the most part I think it’s probably worth sacrificing a little bit of consistency to provide a more generally helpful review; I think more people are going to want the restaurant’s signature burger, and will be looking to see how that tastes.
TPD: Which of the Ten Burger Commandments is most often broken?
MN: A few years ago I would have said the fifth commandment (“Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger”), but I feel like Torontonians have slowly realized over the years that all you need to make a great burger is good quality beef. A lot of older places still serve meatloaf burgers, but very few new ones do. Thankfully.
So now I’d say it’s the third one (“Thou shall not use beef that is too lean”). It’s absolutely insane to me how many places get this wrong. I think a lot of places are under the misguided notion that they should make their burgers leaner so that they can be healthier, which is absurd. I also think that a lot of places like to advertise that they make their burgers out of cuts like sirloin, because it sounds fancier, not realizing that sirloin is probably the worst cut of beef to make a burger out of. Juiciness comes from fat. If you make a burger out of lean beef and cook it past medium (which 90% of Toronto burger joints do), it’s going to be dry ten times out of ten. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. So it happening so often in Toronto is as upsetting as it is baffling.
TPD: You note the smashed/griddled burger is especially popular right now in the GTA. All else equal, do you prefer a smashed griddled burger or one cooked on an open flame?
MN: I don’t know, they’re both pretty great. I guess I’d say griddled, because it’s so much easier to find a really good griddled burger in the GTA. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about a really thick, juicy, flame-grilled burger made with great quality beef.
TPD: Perfect beverage pairing with a burger?
MN: I tend to order Sprite or 7 Up with the burgers I review, so I’ll say that. But really, any soda will do. A burger, fries, and a soda — is there a finer combination? The answer is no.
TPD: A theme of your reviews is your consistently chiding restaurants for their beef (e.g., the sausage texture of processed meat, overcooking, use of frozen patties, etc). Fresh, non-lean beef, simply prepared seems quite easy to do – why are so many Toronto restaurants failing?
MN: I have no idea! It’s madness to me. It really is. A really good burger is so simple — just get really good quality beef, make sure it is sufficiently fatty (preferably in the ballpark of a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio, and certainly nothing leaner than 80/20), grind it coarsely without over-handling it, season it with salt and pepper, and then cook it over high heat so a crust forms. That’s it! Don’t mix stupid gunk in there, don’t use lean beef, and certainly don’t use industrially-made frozen patties. This isn’t high-end French cooking. It’s easy enough that every burger joint should be serving a great burger, and yet most don’t. I don’t get it.
TPD: Besides burgers, do you have any other food-related obsessions?
MN: I think I’m just generally obsessed with food. There are few things in life more satisfying than a really great meal.
TPD: Harder to get right, a bowl of pho, or a burger?
MN: I’d say in theory the pho should be harder to get right, but I’ve seen burgers messed up in so many baffling ways that I think I’d have to go with hamburgers. I’ve never had a bowl of pho even close to as bad as the worst burger I’ve eaten. Then again I’ve had maybe a dozen bowls of pho in my life, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.
TPD: Thanks again!
MN: No problem, Jason.