SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The USDA reports Americans consume 2.4 burgers a day — or around 50 billion a year. To say the handheld is popular nationwide would be a vast understatement.
Port City Taste is celebrating it in all its flavors and styles across the Cape Fear this week, with the inaugural Burger Week. A Port City Daily event, it kicks off Monday, May 17, and ends Sunday, May 23, providing seven days for diners to eat their way through upward of 30 participating restaurants in southeastern N.C. Burgers will be served at eateries from north to south Wilmington, Carolina to Wrightsville beaches, midtown to downtown to Leland.
“I feel like the burger is a perfect canvas,” James Smith, owner of the participating Fork n Cork, said. “It’s so versatile.”
Though Smith’s restaurant focuses on conceptualizing the burger beyond normal expectations — “I mean, we’ve done a Peking duck burger with crab rangoons” — his team is taking it back old school for Burger Week. Both Fork n Corks are offering a classic double-bacon cheeseburger for $12, served with fries. Funny enough, the classic isn’t on the Fork n Cork menu.
“Two quarter-pound patties, double bacon, American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickled onion — man, it’s just what burgers should be,” Smith said.
Burgers featured during the foodie week will be varied: beef, lamb, bison, shrimp, crab, mushrooms, veggie, and black-bean burgers. Each will be dressed in more ways than imaginable — with pimento cheese, topped with brisket, smothered in BBQ sauce and onion rings, served on tostone or between a cheese quesadilla. One even includes a famed Britts donut smashed between two patties.
Sam Steger, the owner of Mess Hall, said he came up with the sweet-and-savory treat, well, from always being “on” and thinking of how to concoct out-of-the ordinary flavors.
“I can’t turn my brain off, so I’m always thinking up weird stuff,” Steger said, “and sometimes I can’t stop thinking about something, so I have to make it happen. Then we end up with things like the ‘Britt Mac.'”
The burger contains two patties, with a Britts donut smashed between, cheddar, secret sauce, lettuce, pickles and onion.
“And it’s the perfect mix of sweet, local nostalgia and savory goodness,” Steger said.
East at Blockade Runner has resurrected its lamb burger — featured on the menu two years ago — served with homemade tzatziki, curried onions, tomato, arugula, and feta. The hotel’s restaurant also will offer its classic smashburger ($16), made with Braveheart Beef — the same company the James Beard Foundation uses.
Head chef Jessica Cabo and sous chef Shaun Fenix created a vegan burger that Cabo is especially excited to show off. Cabo said the mushroom banh mi balances earthiness and umami with a brightness of Asian flavors. The burger goes beyond putting a large portobella cap on a bun with toppings. The East team roasted shitake and cremini mushrooms with garlic oil, thyme, sea salt and pepper, white cherry-blossom Shoya, for a “light, not over-caramelized soy flavor,” mirin, sambal, and yuzu kosho.
“And then Fenix asked, ‘Well, what are we going to bind it with?'” Cabo explained.
She cooked quinoa, green garbanzo beans, edamame, and peas — all partially chopped and ground — to fold into the mushroom mixture. She then added added potato starch and rice flour with herbs to create the patty, which then takes a dunk in the fryer for added crispness.
“It just glistens — it’s literally shiny,” Cabo described.
The sauce that takes place of cheese consists of whipped coconut milk and silken tofu “to give it body,” according to the chef. Chives, basil, cilantro, charred green onion, and roasted garlic round it out for sweet and herbaceous flavors. It’s topped with a combination of housemade nuoc-cham pickles, radish, cucumber and carrots.
“It eats like a really good burger,” Cabo described. “And it’s completely vegan — you don’t miss the cheese with that sauce. I’ve been craving it ever since we tested it.”
Cabo’s considering permanent placement of the banh mi on East’s menu, which she changes multiple times a year. For now, diners can get it this coming week for only $16, served with a choice of side.
Burger Week items are as low as $7 and go up to $17, in an effort to support all budgets. It’s one of the most important aspects of the program: being affordable to diners who in turn support local restaurants. After such a tough year of endured hardships because of shutdowns during the pandemic, restaurant patronage is needed more than ever.
Smith admitted Fork n Cork lost 50% revenue in 2020 because of Covid-19. He shut down his restaurants for 10 weeks last spring and upon reopening had a slow return. The downtown Fork n Cork could only seat 20 people and the beach location could only seat 50 under capacity limitations.
“We tried to do takeout a little bit in the beginning, but it just wasn’t viable,” Smith said. “It really wasn’t going to sustain people.”
Now that capacity limits have dropped, as well as the mask mandate in most indoor locations, Smith is figuring out how to handle the return to normalcy. He allowed his staff to make the choice whether or not to wear a mask during weekend service.
“It’s been tough on them,” Smith said. “People say it’s not a hard thing to do — to wear a mask in a restaurant — but when you’re standing over a hot grill for eight hours, it is.”
The restaurateur wanted to garner feedback from his customers. “It was a litmus test to see, because we have a really wide demographic there, if people were upset about it and what they wanted,” he noted. “And, honestly, we haven’t seen too much opposition to ‘no mask.'”
The dining public will need to inquire and follow participating restaurant’s requirements when it comes to masks. All participants in 2021 Burger Week (asterisk denotes vegetarian/vegan options) include:
- The Original Salt Works
- Fork n Cork
- Front Street Brewery
- The Husk
- Pilot House Restaurant & Marina
- Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar (downtown Wilmington only)
- Hops Supply Co.
- P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grille
- East at Blockade Runner*
- Rude Bwoys Jerk BBQ
- CAM Café
- True Blue Butcher & Table
- Watermans Brewing
- Carolina Ale House
- Anne Bonny’s
- Panacea Brewing Company*
- Rebellion NC
- Catawba Brewing
- Mess Hall*
- Mellow Mushroom
- Cast Iron Kitchen
- South Beach Grill
- Wild Wing Cafe
- Poe’s Tavern*
- Pop’s Diner
It’s easy for diners to participate: No coupons, no special passwords, no tickets are needed. Just head to one of the listed eateries, ask for the Burger Week menu and order up all the specials (call to ask if options are available for takeout).
“You know, everybody’s been in love with a burger at some point in their life,” Smith said, “whether it’s a kid at McDonald’s, or when you’re in your 20s and a greasy burger is what’s needed to cure what ails you, or when you’re older and you want a $30 Wagyu burger.”
Interested diners can check out most menus offered during Burger Week below, and check in throughout the week for updates by clicking the Port City Taste tab on the Port City Daily website. At the end of each menu featured under the Port City Taste tab, readers can choose to print, download or email it to friends to plan their week of eats.
Port City Taste is founded and sponsored by Port City Daily. Click on the first image to scroll through the menus or thumb down:
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