Talking Bao Buns, Duck Burgers & Meat Buckets with Alex McCoy
Duke’s Grocery. Crisp. Alfie’s. Three D.C. joints with three ridiculously good burgers that all have one thing in common: Alex McCoy.
When it comes to burgers, McCoy can seemingly do no wrong. He created the highly touted and much-loved Proper burger at Duke’s in Dupont. His patty melt and Burger Royale at Crisp are getting rave reviews from not only the D.C. media, but his Throwdown competition as well. And the OG burger at Alfie’s, his Thai concept in Park View, is our latest burger crush.
Bottom line – the guy is killing it with the ground beef.
Heading into the final days before it all goes down on Sunday, it’s clear McCoy has his burger game on lock. So it may come as a surprise to hear he’s skipping the beef this weekend and, instead, is going with a different protein for his Throwdown burger. Also in our one-on-one interview, McCoy professes his love for mustard, schools us on burger simplicity and opens up about his rugby days and meat bucket adventures.
Yes, we said meat bucket.
This is one in a seven-part interview series with the competitors in the 2016 D.C. Burger Throwdown taking place Sunday, May 15, 2016. Additional interviews will be linked here as they are published: Matt Adler, Scott Drewno, Travis Weiss, Alex McCoy, Ryan Hackney.
Without giving away any secrets, can you give me an idea of what you’ve got planned for the Throwdown?
We have our burgers that we do on our menu but we really wanted to have fun with it, being that it’s a burger battle, and not go the contemporary route. We wanted to play around and have some fun.
What we were really influenced by was Peking duck and bao buns. We made this homemade sesame seed bao burger bun and we’re doing a duck burger. We’ve enhanced that with some different things which I won’t go into – trade secrets. Then we’re putting on accoutrements familiar with a Peking duck. You’re going to find the crispy skin. What we’re going to do is take the duck prosciutto and crisp it up like bacon and then put that on top with cheese, though, we haven’t decided which one we’re going to use. And then we’ll have a hoisin-based sauce. We’re still playing around with the recipe there. And then the typical cucumbers, the spring onions.
I haven’t 100% locked down what we want to do but that’s the essence behind it. We wanted to throw a little Asian twist to it and we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to reimagine what a burger is and really just have some fun with it.
How much time do you think you’ve spent planning the burger?
We’ve been doing this over the past couple of weeks. At least three weeks we’ve been planning it. We’ve tried a couple of incarnations. Some I was happy with, some I wasn’t happy with. We’re really not going to stop until we have something we’re really excited about.
The bao bun we’re using is our own version of bao so we’ve had to adjust the recipe so it feels more like a burger bun. Then, of course, the duck itself – getting the right grind, the right fat content. We’ve practiced with sous vide, we’ve practiced with cooking on the flat top. We’ve done a whole bunch of different ways cooking the duck trying to figure out the best result there. I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do. It’s just about finding the right balance and putting it all together and seeing how the flavors work with one another.
So, I’ve been eating a lot of duck burgers over the past couple of weeks for sure.
There’s nothing wrong with that!
No, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Who do you think is your biggest competition in the Throwdown?
I want to say Travis just because he talks a real big game. There’s no one I want to beat more than Travis Weiss. Merely for bragging rights. But I honestly think it’s anyone’s game. We’ve got a lot of great chefs with really great minds and great teams behind them — the same way that I have a great team — and those things together make for some really incredible products. I know Scott [Drewno] is working hard and he puts 100% in. And the burgers over at the other places are incredible. I know all of those chefs are going to amp it up and take it to another level. I’m excited to see what everyone is going to do but I think this is a big one for Travis. He’s really excited about it and he’s going to go balls to the wall with this one.
Having said that, has there been some trash talking?
I don’t talk trash, I just throw facts out there. The other day [Travis] put up a burger called the “Hot Like McCoy.”
I saw that.
Yeah, so we’ve got little jabs going back and forth. But I think at this point we’re going to see each other on the field of battle. The proof is in the pudding. That’s where it’s going to be decided. I also was also very happy to pass along the [Burger Days] review of our burgers to him. I wanted him to take that in.
Have you done a burger-cooking competition before?
I’ve done other competitions but never a burger competition. I think this is really unique. I love what you guys have put together. We’re all working on our entrances, our outfits. All very important. There’s a lot on the line here.
What’s the key to a great burger? If there’s one component you’d pick, what would it be?
If you’re going to pick one component, good bread is the most important part. There’s a lot of good meat out there. There are house blends – we use Creekstone Farms – and all that good stuff but a bad bun can destroy a burger made with delicious meat. But a good bun can really elevate sub par ingredients. I think the most important thing is to have a nice, fresh-baked bun.
When you’re talking about technique, simplicity is the most important thing. Burgers shouldn’t have rules but there are some rules that are inherent: you need a hit of acidity from a pickled source, there needs to be some crispness from a vegetable or whatever, there needs to be a level of richness from the nice meat and something nice and sharp coming from the cheese or another ingredient. I try to keep it very simple and not put too much into any burger that I do. Even the Aussie burger which seems like it’s so gratuitous – and there’s a lot – it actually follows the same rules. You’re going to get a little acidity, you’re going to get some of the richness, you’re getting the sweetness, too, and then there’s the nice, perfectly baked bun. I think that simple framework is always best.
Thick, ½ lb. patties or diner-style, smash-griddled patties?
Diner style, all day long.
Ketchup on a burger? Yes or no?
No. Mustard. I’m a big mustard fan.
How do you prefer your burgers cooked?
Depends on the meat but I generally do mine rare-medium rare.
What’s your favorite burger in the D.C. area, outside of your own, of course?
Oh man, that’s a tough one. Palena used to have a great burger that I’m mourning the loss of. When it comes to me and burgers, I’m a real salt of the earth guy. I love a good diner burger and I think that the environment is as important as the burger itself. I’ve gotta say if I’m splurging and getting a gratuitous burger, I’m going to Five Guys. I generally don’t order burgers when I eat out because I eat 10,000 of them when I’m working, so when I do I just get real sloppy with it. I’ll go to Tastee Diner and get a Royale with cheese or go to Five Guys and really do it up. I need to expand my burger horizons. I know Beuchert’s is supposed to have a really good burger but I haven’t been there yet.
What is the best burger cheese?
I love smoked cheddar. But it depends. If you’re cooking in the backyard, you’ve got to use American cheese. But if I’m cooking in a restaurant, smoked cheddar is the way to go. I also love gouda, it’s a great cheese. Again, it really depends on the theme of the burger. I generally stick to non-fancy cheeses.
What are your ideal burger toppings? Let’s say you go to Five Guys, what do you get?
If I make burgers for myself, I love sliced red onions, mustard and pickles. And some cheddar. That’s how I like my burgers.
What is the best beer to pair with a burger?
I’m a stout guy. I like a nice, light, deep stout. For most people, a good English-style ale. Little bit bitter, a nice bit of barley sweetness in there that doesn’t overpower. But I generally go for stouts when I’m eating burgers. I go big.
Fries or tots?
That’s a hard one. I’m gonna go with fries.
The way Burger Days started was we wanted to discover all the burgers of D.C., so my friends and I would go out and bar and restaurant hop around D.C, eating burgers all day. The most we ever got down in a day were six or seven. What are the most burgers you’ve eaten a day?
I’ve probably done about eight. Not big ones, but backyard barbecue burgers, I’ve probably put down eight or nine burgers in a day.
Wow, I’m thoroughly impressed.
I used to play rugby and we used to have these crazy barbecues. We had this tradition called the meat bucket. We would go out to the Amish market and buy all this meat and then put a big bowl in the middle of the room with all these hunks of meat. It was almost like fondue. You’d have a fork and just eat meat. I was a lot bigger back in those days and we would just sit there and drink beer and eat meat with the whole team, along with the other team that was coming in.
One of the guys that played with us was a professional eater on the side. His name was Brian “Eatin’” Keaton, so we would always have these competitions amongst ourselves. He did a hot dog eating contest against a pit bull one time. So anytime Keaton was like “let’s eat some burgers,” everyone was throwing back burgers.
So when we did seven, eight or nine, he was rocking like 15 or 20, just smashing everybody.
Oh, man. Ok, well, and finally, anything you want to say to your competition in the Throwdown?
I’m gonna wrap them in a melty cheesy blanket and send them packing.
The 2016 D.C. Burger Throwdown is this Sunday, May 15, from 3 – 7 p.m. at The Commodore Public House & Kitchen. Tickets are available at bit.do/bbthrowdown.