Burgers, Northern Pennsylvania & He-Men


Not long after taking on four burgers in less than an hour, I found myself knocking back beers in a crowd of complete strangers while listening to a band called Two for Flinching belt out a Justin Bieber cover on stage. While "Baby" poured from the speakers, the only song playing in my mind was by the Talking Heads.

Don't flinch.

Seriously, how the hell did I get here? Doing this blog has led me on some pretty spectacular adventures. From beach-filled burger bonanzas in Miami to local burger-research panels, not to mention our day-long boozy and beefy escapades through the streets of D.C.-- it's all been a complete and utter blast. I rarely turn down an opportunity to expand my burger-eating experience, so when I was asked to judge the Allegheny Burger Festival in Pennsylvania, I jumped at the chance. Now the Keystone State isn't that far away-- shit, the Nats had to put out an official campaign to get Phillies fans from buying up all the seats here in town. But Warren, Pennsylvania, home of the Allegheny Burger Fest? Yeah, it just about the farthest away from D.C. you can get in the state. But "too far" isn't in our vocabulary when it comes to burgers. The trek up north isn't all that bad. It's just shy of six hours away and traffic is pretty clear once you get out of D.C. There's plenty good eating along the way too and if not for a date with a plethora of burgers at the end of the trip, stops at Denny's Beer Barrel Pub, Gio's and The Pub & Restaurant would have been a given. With Pittsburgh and Philly being about the extent of my Pennsylvania experience, I really had no idea what to expect from Warren. As I got closer to my destination, driving on one-lane roads through the Allegheny National Forest,  I realized this was going to be totally different; Warren makes the most rural parts of the D.M.V. look like D.C. during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Honest-to-God best turkey burger I've had in recent memory.

The burger competition was split into both amateur and professional categories, with the amateurs slinging their meat Friday evening. With four entrants, we got hooked up with a veritable barnyard of animals: turkey, elk, pig and cow all came to us on buns. To my surprise, the turkey burger --a  juicy and spicy hunk of goodness named The Dirty Bird-- was my favorite of the bunch. It edged out the cow and pork which were both hurt by dense homemade buns and easily trumped the dry-as-a-bone elk.  My opinion, however, was not in the majority as the Bastie Boyz and their au jus infused beef burg took home the amateur title (and 50 pounds of beef courtesy the Warren Bi-Lo) for the second consecutive year.

The Bastie Boyz took home the amateur title and 50 pounds of beef for their burger.

Lutherin' it up in Warren.

While the amateurs shied away from the beef, the pros went all in with the cow when they took to the grill Saturday afternoon. Five burgers (down from a scheduled eight) were on the menu for the main event. Saturday also marked the start of the other half of the weekend's festivities: a 3-on-3 basketball tournament called the Gus Macker. I had never heard of it before and was just glad to be elbow deep in ground beef and not sweating my ass off on the 90+ degree blacktop. I'll take a few extra lbs. and indigestion over heat stroke any day. As much as I'd like to say the professional burger competition was a knock-down-drag-out battle of amazingness, it really wasn't much of a contest. I held out hope for the Krispy Kreme burger only to be let down by a bland tasting patty and sub par strips of  bacon. Two half-hearted attempts at jalapeno burgers fell flat too and a Tex-Mex style burg just missed being a hit because the guacamole, salsa, sour cream and tortilla strips completely overwhelmed the beef.

A little too much fiesta and not enough burger.

Easily the star of the day --and the whole weekend-- was the Big Hog from Hog Wild BBQ Co. A home-made patty of ground steak trimmings and pork was topped with smoked pulled pork, Carolina slaw, beer battered onion rings and an incredibly tasty sweet BBQ sauce; the burger easily trumped the competition and took home the Allegheny Burger Fest title.

The victorious Big Hog burg.

And check this out-- the above meat bomb wasn't even the biggest burger Hog Wild served up that weekend. Their Punisher burg includes everything in the Big Hog with a minor adjustment-- instead of just one patty, it comes to your face with triple the beef. And cheese.

Punishers in the making.

"One of my guys said we should add bacon and I was like 'that would be kind of going overboard,'" said Hog Wild owner Dean Wells, "Then I realized how absurd I sounded." Wells first put the harbinger of high cholesterol on the menu as a joke, "I thought we'd get like two or three He-Men ordering it to prove their manhood," he said. Well Skeletor better keep his bony ass out of Warren because Hog Wild sold 38 Punishers at the festival. Now that's a Burger Days kinda crowd. Not long after my ninth burger of the weekend, I packed up my stuff, checked out of the Super 8 and made my way back home to D.C. with a belly full of beef and fond, greasy-tinged memories of my brief time spent in Northern Pennsylvania. I owe a big thank you to Melissa Anderson, Director of Operations for the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, organizer of the festival and the answer to the question of "how the hell did I get here?" Spotting some of my burger ramblings on the web last year, Melissa extended the invitation to judge the event and for that, I am extremely grateful. The countdown has begun: only 11 months to go 'till the 2013 Allegheny Burger Festival and, by the power of Greyskull, this time I'm tackling that Punisher burger.

'Til next year...


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