Finding, Then Killing, America's Best Burger Joint
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Last year, a food writer named Kevin Alexander traveled the country on a quest to find the best cheeseburger in America. He tried more than 300 burgers. And the winner came from a 68-year-old diner in Portland, Ore., called Stanich's. Five months later, Stanich's was closed. Now Kevin Alexander has a new essay in Thrillist reckoning with the role of a critic and whether he played a role in closing Stanich's. Hi, Kevin.
KEVIN ALEXANDER: How are you?
SHAPIRO: Good. Before we get into the sad part of this tale, tell us about what made the Stanich's burger so great.
ALEXANDER: I mean, so I love diner-style burgers, you know, on the flat iron, griddled, oozy American cheese, bun that stays out of the way. And everything about the Stanich's burger was exactly that. But it had a little bit more thought and care into how they built the burger. So they had this red relish and mayo and then a mustard on top and these caramelized onions that had been sitting in something - probably bacon grease - for days, maybe years.
ALEXANDER: And yeah, it was just - even thinking about it now makes me a little weepy.
SHAPIRO: When you told the owner that you were going to name Stanich's best burger in America, he was elated. And five months later, he said, it was the worst thing that's ever happened to us - is what he told The Oregonian. So what happened during those months?
ALEXANDER: It - just the crowds of people. That was very much a local spot. Any time that I'd been there, there'd been about 10, 15 people in there. And I think as a family-run spot that had been run for that long, just kind of expecting it to be quiet, when they got that rush of tourists of people who were just kind of, like, coming in one time.
SHAPIRO: You said, at some point, there was a line of, like, five hours. And they would try to give wait times that were even longer than they were to deter people. But people would just stand in line for the privilege of taking a photo and putting it on Instagram.
ALEXANDER: That's what he said in the story. He said that when Tim McGraw, the country music singer, came in to get a burger, he couldn't feed him because it was a five-hour wait. Now, you could argue you could just pull a burger off of the griddle, give it to Tim McGraw.
SHAPIRO: And give it to Tim McGraw.
ALEXANDER: And maybe someone else waits an extra seven minutes. But regardless, what it did is it sort of shone a light on the cracks that were already sort of happening.
SHAPIRO: You felt partially responsible for what happened to Stanich's. And you went to Portland to get the story from the owner, Steve Stanich, himself. What did he tell you?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So I was really nervous to call him, as you would anyone who you think might hate you. But he was surprisingly open and thoughtful. And, you know, he tried to say that it wasn't my fault. But it was clear in sort of the subtext that it was my fault. He talked a little bit about things that were happening personally that he'd asked me to not divulge. And it just kind of - it turned into this emotional, sad story about a life in a restaurant and just it unraveling and it sort of - him not being able to grasp it anymore.
SHAPIRO: I also just need to ask whether the premise that you played a role in destroying the restaurant might be flawed. I mean, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight pointed out that even before you called them best burger in America, they had a three-star review average on Yelp, which doesn't often bode well for restaurant.
ALEXANDER: Right. But that restaurant has been open since 1949. And it closed five months after I wrote about it. And the owner himself blamed me in this story. So I get what needs saying - that statistically speaking, restaurants that have three-star reviews on Yelp don't tend to last. But that restaurant had lasted for a long, long time. I don't think that it was just me who did this. I think what I did was expose some cracks in the foundation and quicken its demise.
SHAPIRO: Beyond this being a story about the closing one burger place, you explore the larger role of a critic and whether. By shining a spotlight on a hidden gem. A critic can kind of destroy that gem.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It just brought up something that I just don't think about a lot. And I was wondering if other restaurant critics do. It's like, what sort of a responsibility do you have to either warn a place or to maybe not even write about a place at all if you get the sense that maybe it'll hurt the restaurant rather than help it?
SHAPIRO: Well, Kevin Alexander, thank you for talking with us today.
ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: You can find his writing at thrillist.com.
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