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Philadelphia rode buses for beer on St. Patrick’s Day and ran more than a mile in the heat for booze at Misconduct Tavern, but will it brave the winter elements for a month of burgers?
That’s what the Philadelphia Burger Brawl — now Burger Crawl — is asking after the Fightins’ surprise World Series trip caused the bacchanal’s 10-year anniversary event to be rescheduled, twice.
How the new format works: You have the entire month of January to eat through burgers from over 50 participating restaurants and vote for your favorite via the Let’s Rallie app. From there, 10 finalists will compete in traditional brawl-style at Xfinity Live on Feb. 5. for the intangible currency that is clout.
Current Burger Brawl ticket-holders are already set for the Feb. 5 event, but you can still purchase general admission tickets for $50. More info to come, but if it’s anything like years past, expect meat sweats (non derogatory), day drinking, and lots of trash talk.
The brainchild of Rouge co-owners Rob and Kelly Wasserman, this pivot comes after a two-year hiatus for this event. Proceeds go to the School District of Philadelphia and the Parks & Recreation Department — this time to build esports centers and establish esports teams.
Rob Wasserman said he doesn’t have hard and fast criteria for what makes a winning burger.
Past champs have included Gayborhood Mexican restaurant Lolita and Manayunk/Queen Village’s Lucky’s Last Chance, which won in 2019 with a quarter-pounder topped with fried pickles, pickle aioli, and pickle relish. Lucky’s has won so many times — a previous winner was a burger with PB&J — that chef-owner Chris Barnes is taking up the judging mantle this year instead.
“It’s the creativity of the restaurateur that takes it up and above the standard of a backyard burger,” Wasserman said, noting that victory often rests on the bun. “You don’t want it to disintegrate under the juice of the meat.”
And yet after years of putting out their best patties, Philly’s burger devotees have not determined what would constitute a Philly version.
Chefs themselves are undecided. For example: The burger at South Philly’s Fountain Porter, which its $6 price tag has made famous, comes with a potato bun, American cheese, lettuce, and tomato. But the vaunted burger at Village Whiskey in Rittenhouse is all types of fancy, with foie gras, blue cheese, and maple-glazed cipollini onions.
Some argue Philly is too diverse to settle on something as constricting as a standard burger.
“To me, Philly food is very neighborhood-related,” said Joe Ranakoski, who took over as head chef at South Street mainstay Bridget Foy’s in 2021. “Every neighborhood changes yearly and culinary … so it’s hard to say there’s one specific burger.”
Billy Penn was unsatisfied with this answer, so we boldly asked: “If you were forced to create a burger so distinctly Philly, what would you put on it?”
Five chefs were brave enough to answer — and even gave us a sneak peak at what they’re showcasing during the crawl.
Brawl Burger: A double smash patty sourced from East Passyunk butchery Primal Meats, topped with American cheese, housemade pickles, and Louisiana-inspired remoulade, on a Hawaiian roll.
The Philly Special? “Something with a bit of South Philly-ness,” chef-owner Strauss told Billy Penn. What does that mean? Shaved roast pork, sharp provolone and garlicky spinach spread on a “sturdy” Conshohocken potato roll.
Brawl Burger: Montana Hudson, head chef at the buzzy Rittenhouse restaurant, is going with a short rib and chuck patty, served on a brioche bun with a bevy of rich toppings that are still being worked out — think bacon jam, crispy shallots, jalapeños, garlic aioli — plus the standard LTO (aka lettuce, tomato, and onions).
The Philly Special? A chopped cheese, even though Hudson knows that’s the official sandwich of New York City bodegas. It’s meant to be a play on the Philly cheesesteak, he said, and he would build it on a Cuban roll with a generous amount of Cooper Sharp.
Brawl Burger: Culinary VP Johnson, who helped develop Village Whiskey’s slate of burgers, called this entry “a departure” from the usual decadence. He’s going with a lamb burger topped with housemade tzatziki, smoked gouda, cucumber, red onion, and butter lettuce.
The Philly Special? That foie burger at Village Whiskey, of course. “Our burger is 150% emblematic of Philly,” Johnson said (mic-drop implied).
Brawl Burger: Head chef Ranakoski said the goal for this burger is to mimic the vibe of a hot, messy wheel of raclette. The blend includes brisket and short rib, for a patty that gets topped with smoked cheddar sauce, cheese curds, pork belly, barbecue sauce, and fried onion rings. It’s all on Liscio’s seeded bun, because “it’s the one all the cheesesteak places use,” according to Bridget Foy herself.
The Philly Special? A tribute to Jim’s Steaks, which Ranakoski used to visit with his father, would call for a burger with Whiz, fried onions, and canned mushrooms.
Brawl Burger: Chef-owner Yehuda Sichel is trotting out the Huda Smashburger, which comes with caramelized onions and pickled green tomatoes. It’s served on the Rittenhouse cafe’s famed housemade milk bun, but Sichel thinks his pickles will put him over the edge. “There’s an argument about if people want pickles on their burger, or they want tomatoes, or both, so we figured we could kill two birds with one stone,” said the first time competitor.
The Philly Special? Sichel wouldn’t get too specific, but said he’s already conducted an extensive vibe check: a little spicy, and definitely “loud and obnoxious.”