Eighteen days of beef in search of Columbus' premier patty

Getting paid to eat burgers sounds like a cushy gig, and in many ways it was. In Columbus Monthly’s recent search for the city’s best, I spent a lot of time in diners and bars during the slow midafternoon stretch of the day with nothing more than a hamburger, a notebook and a TV to occupy my time. Lips greasy, belly full, I sat and pondered. Is this patty too dense? Is the crispness of this iceberg lettuce enough to make up for its lacking flavor? Is anyone else in America watching this middling college basketball game at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday? It was a peaceful and mostly delicious time.

By the time I got to Gahanna Grill for my ninth burger, however, I realized the insanity of the whole endeavor. Friends, family and co-workers alike had looked at me with the same expression—skepticism mixed with whatever the opposite of jealousy is—ever since I’d started telling people that I’d be eating untold numbers of hamburgers in a few short weeks as part of our March Madness-inspired bracket. Gahanna Grill’s juicy behemoth opened my eyes to the absurdity. Four hours later I had another burger. And then I ate at the legendary Thurman Café the next day for lunch. Madness indeed.

If we’d had more time, it could have been different. But alas, there are other stories to report and write, and no one seemed keen on stopping the presses solely for this harebrained idea. So by the time our team—myself, dining editor Erin Edwards and fearless freelancers G.A. Benton and Nicholas Dekker—launched our quest, it was less of a marathon and more of a sprint. (And yes, I’m well aware that using physical activity as a metaphor for stuffing my face with beef is a questionable editorial decision.) All told, I ate 15 burgers in 18 days—plus fries, because how could I not?

The logistics complicated matters further. My region of the bracket was on the other side of the city from where I live and work. I put more than 200 miles on my car in less than three weeks just making burger trips. Even the weather conspired against me, with two big snowstorms that rendered the roads nearly undriveable and left my precious burgers out of reach. Eating two or three burgers a day became routine. I had five in one 32-hour stint. In the end, it became Man v. Food v. Time.

And yet I never lost my taste for them. There were times I didn’t want to eat anything at all, much less another burger, but once I took the first bite I genuinely enjoyed it. In an ideal world, I would have been equally hungry for each one—for the fairness of this serious journalistic undertaking—but it turns out it didn’t matter much. The burger I rated highest came from my third stop one day, Harvest Moon Craft Kitchen. Second place went to the fifth spot I visited during that 32-hour stretch, Street Thyme food truck. It says a lot about the seductive qualities of a truly great burger, and probably even more about me.

But despite the breakneck eating toward the end, there were still moments of reflection and enjoyment, just me and a mouthwatering burger at a nearly empty establishment while the snow swirled outside. I’d sit there and cut off a little chunk of burger patty to taste on its own, hoping that the few other patrons wouldn’t notice I was eating like a psychopath. Is this patty a little too thin, I’d wonder, or is that what makes the ratio of ingredients exactly right? Is the crunch of this onion worth dealing with the fact that the whole pile falls off every time I take a bite? I ate and scribbled notes and looked at the muted TVs and ate some more.

In the end, we scored the burgers and declared losers and winners of each bracket matchup, which are all documented in the March issue, on newsstands now and available online in the first week of April. But, in the spirit of democracy and the basketball fever that grips the nation every March, if you disagree with our collective picks, you can choose your favorites in our public online bracket that’s live right now. If you need to taste for yourself first, the actual March Madness tournament begins today, and there are plenty of places around the city to enjoy a delicious burger and watch the games. And, if the spirit moves you, have another a few hours after that.

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