The problem with a really good craft beer is that it ups the ante on anything else you happen to be consuming at the time. This can be annoying as Hell when you really start to play with intriguing flavors on the palate in a way that makes you notice the complexity elsewhere. That pre-formed burger goes from being just bland to truly awful. You start to have thoughts like, “I wouldn’t wash down a saddle of grass-fed lamb with a grape Nehi. Conversely, why would I wash down this turd of a burger with a damn good beer? I mean other than to wash the taste out of my mouth.” Which is not really the point, is it?
There are times, certainly if you happen to be writing a book about the craft beer movement, that you get really sick of talking to “enthusiasts.” They tend to love it too much. I find myself resisting the urge to ask, “Don’t you people have lives?” Until I realize that it isn’t the beer, exactly, that they are talking endlessly about – it’s all that goes into it, the pedantic process followed by the discovery of failure either glorious, scrumptious victory.
Which brings us to the point where craft beer met the craft burger. I first wandered into The Neon Pig in Tupelo, Mississippi, lured by a good selection of local beers. I was with a friend who was making some point or another. When the burgers arrived, I took a bite and blurted out, “Dear God!” He continued on until he took a bite and interrupted himself with an enthusiastic “Oh. My. God!” Profane, maybe. Eloquent, certainly not – but you get the point.
The Neon Pig has opened another location in Oxford, where I took the charming Mrs. M last week. Both are first and foremost butcher shops – the only restaurants in Mississippi that break down animals from 25-30 local farmers. Their burger, called the Famous Smash is, the waitress told me, a “combination of aged filet, sirloin, rib-eye, New York and Benton bacon.”
But of course it is! Local seemed to be the key world. From the coolers of local beer, I opted for a Yalobusha Brewing’s Blues Trail Ale – a zesty and refreshing farmhouse ale made in nearby Water Valley. Then this monument to pedantic burger making was set before me on a piece of brown butcher paper: a ciabatta bun with quick pickles and pickled onions.
The Smash doesn’t taste like a bacon burger. The Benton just gives the rough patty a bit of smoke that elevates the whole thing. That complexity strikes the perfect balance with the Yolabusha farmhouse ale. For one thing it was –literally – 96 degrees outside, and that hint of lemon zest lightened the whole thing up a bit.
Which is about the point you suddenly see that a meal is only as good as the most slap shod part. On the other hand, a great meal – even something as basic and universal as beer and a burger – is better than the sum of it’s parts.
Or as the long-suffering Mrs. M gracefully put it: “That was lovely.”