“I feel like burgers kind of fell off the map,” says John Gorham. “It seems like it's been pizza and ramen for a long time.”
That may seem like an odd thing to say just after WWeek’s 64-patty “Burger Madness,” in which Gorham’s own entry from Toro Bravo won the “bistro burger” bracket (and finished second overall). But Gorham has been looking for something he can’t find: a classic American burger reminiscent of his North Carolina upbringing.
Enter Bless Your Heart Burgers—BYH Burgers for short—which Toro Bravo Inc. opened inside Pine Street Market in February. It’s a joint venture by Gorham and former Toro Bravo chef Drew Sprouse, with co-owners Jamal Hassan and Kasey Mills (Shalom Y’all, Mediterranean Exploration Company).
“We’ve seen the same kind of bistro burger for so long now,” says Sprouse. “Goat cheese and blue cheese are delicious and totally amazing, but when you serve them on a half-inch patty cooked to rare or medium-rare, you’re isolating a certain sort of diner. What we’re doing here is hitting that sensory memory of the burgers of our childhood, or from places we’ve traveled.”
Gorham and Sprouse are from, respectively, Greenville, North Carolina and Edisto Island, South Carolina, and the name “Bless Your Heart” comes from the classic passive-aggressive Southernism (for more on that, head over to Gorham’s hometown Daily Reflector). BYH’s eponymous burger recreates the two chefs’ griddled ground beef madeleine: a burger with mustard, pickles, and cheese, crowned with just a little bit of chili, plus the barbecue-like addition of coleslaw.
You can call it a chili burger, but Carolinians don’t. “I grew up with chili on my burgers all the time,” says Gorham. “We just called 'em burgers.” Sprouse’s favorite came from a converted gas station (which went through a number of names, owners, and hurricane-wrecked roofs), while Gorham still goes back to Cubby’s in Greenville, and also the classic beach town drive-in El’s in Morehead City.
But those memories (and the name) aside, BYH is also devoted to the sort of classic (if not quite Ozersky-pure) burger that gets people to spend an hour standing outside Shake Shack, or in the drive-thru line for In-N-Out. “[Shake Shack founder] Danny Meyer’s an amazing guy, and he does his research,” says Gorham. “We do ours as well.”
Sprouse and Gorham tested but rejected the idea of single burger sauce, a la Shake Shack, but BYH otherwise follows the Shake Shack template pretty closely: a custom ground beef blend (20% fat, and equal parts brisket, short rib, and chuck), with “enough fat that you can get a good squish and sear on it.” It comes on Martin’s potato rolls. “I don’t think there's anyone in the culinary world that won't say they're one of the greatest rolls for a burger,” says Gorham.
Early on, when daily sales were better than anticipated, Bless Your Heart almost ran out of rolls, forcing them to choose between closing the restaurant for a couple of days or paying a premium for dedicated freight. “Our distributor was like, can we just substitute?” Gorham says. “We're like, no, no! This is our identity!”
On the restaurant’s menu sign, the “single” and “double” appear first. The cheeseburgers are simple, but carefully composed, with mustard, ketchup, pickle, and onion on the bottom. “That way the heat from the meat mellows out the onion bite, while still having it,” says Sprouse. On the top, Duke’s mayonnaise joins shredded lettuce, almost like a salad dressing (which, in the South, it is).
The pickles are the same house-made bread-and-butters on the Toro Bravo and Tasty & Alder burgers, and there’s no tomato (though it may be a secret menu item in-season). The meat is cooked on an Accu-Steam griddle, which provides a constant, no-hot-spot, 375-degree temperature, while the rolls are butter-wheeled and lightly toasted on a separate, dedicated flattop.
When asked whether he prefers Shake Shack or In-N-Out, Gorham gives a surprise answer. “I’d say Five Guys over both,” he says. “There's just something about the Five Guys smash. I like the flavor better.”