Sitting in the downstairs dining room at Lefty’s Grill, Ralph Andersson ordered the Baja burger made with green chilies and pepper jack cheese.
He took it as a good sign when the waitress asked him how he would like his burger cooked.
“If they don’t ask, they don’t care … I want to see red in my burger,” Andersson said.
Andersson and his band of high-tech company coworkers are on the search for the best burger in town.
The yearlong “Burger Quest” involves 20 local eateries, score sheets and a stringent policy that disallows fries from entering into the equation for scoring.
“This isn’t fry quest. This is Burger Quest,” said Andersson.
It’s the second such Burger Quest. The first took place in 2008.
This year’s list is double that of the original hunt. They can’t guarantee that they’ve been everywhere in town, but they say they’ve given it their best try.
Started last May, participants gather at a different restaurant every other Wednesday.
The idea is to find a place people can stop and grab a great burger while on a long lunch break.
The majority of burger joints on the list fall within Grass Valley and Nevada City with one exception — The Tack Room located in Penn Valley.
The group is choosing only to include local establishments on the list and not franchises.
Though he says the contest is a team-building exercise and meant “just for fun,” Andersson maintains a straight face and no-nonsense attitude when he goes over the rules.
While the first Burger Quest was more “free form” in nature, this year the judges are getting down to business.
“This is the first time we’ve really quantified rules,” Andersson said. He’s known for his attention to detail and being thorough.
“I put a lot of thought into things,” he said.
Burgers are graded on a scale from one to 10 for juiciness, taste, bun choice, toppings and patty. Scores are then entered onto spreadsheets and divided by the number of participants to find the average. The number of tasters has ranged from as few as four to as many as 13.
French fries are no longer considered when judging a burger even though to some the two go hand in hand. In the 2008 Burger Quest, it was fries that determined the final winner — a call that Andersson felt was unfair.
“I was a little upset when the place I thought was clear and away the best place lost because of fries,” he said.
Sometimes the results come as a surprise. Several are no longer in business, and one of the top-burger winners from 2008 has changed dramatically for the worse.
Cost-cutting measures like switching from a hand-formed patty to a preformed Sysco variety and changing the signature sauce has caused the former top contender’s score to drop significantly.
“It was horrible. Nowadays we see a bad place and we rake it over the coals,” Andersson said, citing that critiques have grown harsher as the year has progressed. Consistency is key, he said.
At the end of the contest, the group’s top three will be re-evaluated to see if they still cut the mustard.
For Andersson, juiciness is the most important gauge of a burger’s worth. Next comes taste, followed by patty.
A preformed patty just won’t do. Alas, an estimated 25 percent of the restaurants Andersson and his colleagues have tried use preformed patties to the detriment of their burger-making reputation.
“Preformed is very obvious. They stamp them in a factory. Once you have a pre-formed patty, it’s hard to do medium rare,” he said.
While he’s not a trained food critic, the past 10 months have refined Andersson’s burger palate. He’s a man who knows what he likes.
A waitress returned to the table and set down a plate of steaming food. Andersson picked up his burger in two hands and took a bite.
“Now this,” he said through a mouthful, “is a good burger.”
A full list of winners will be revealed this spring. Stay tuned.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-401-4877.