Burger pop-up Goldburger’s foray into Auckland had Samuel Flynn Scott excited – and apprehensive.
I have a very difficult relationship with burgers. They kinda make me insane. Nothing lives up to my ridiculous standards and stupid rules. Plus you kinda know they are killing you slowly with each juicy bite. But I soldier on.
Chef Shepherd Elliott is a real burgy boi – his porky creations at Ti Kouka in Wellington were mesmerising. He stepped away from Ti Kouka to open Shepherd in Hannah’s Laneway with Sean Golding. It’s a classy joint, one of my favourite Wellington restaurants for sure, but it’s not really a burgy spot. So when they announced they were shuttering usual operations for Wellington On A Plate and becoming a burger joint, locals went nuts. I got to eat one of the 5000 Goldburgers they made that fortnight and my honest thought was, hmm, yeah, tasty, maybe, fine. I would give it a B+, would trade again, but I expected more.
Part of the problem for me was that it was a straight-up, classic cheeseburger. In a post-Shake Shack world, everyone wants to nail their own version of the classic. It comes with rules and Shepherd broke one of the big ones; he made his own buns. The commercially produced burger bun is preferred by “burger idiots” like me because of that all important structural integrity. Also my burger was very under-seasoned. That can happen in any restaurant at any time, it’s no biggie, but it does rather spoil a burger.
I also had this dumb, weird and particular problem. I had a magical experience at a Tokyo spot called Whoopi Goldburger, where they do Hibachi-grilled patties like some kind of yakitori/burger hybrid. Somehow that complicated my take on things.
However, I loved the branding, I loved the chips, I loved the feel of it all. I felt it would come back and knew that good chefs always make things better. Also, taste is weird, and sometimes I’m just wrong. So when I heard that Shep was bringing Goldburger to Auckland for a collab with the restaurant Culprit, I was in 100%.
The first thing that caught me when I arrived at Culprit was the branding – it had gone next level. I like things that look cool, so sue me. Sean Golding, Elliott’s business partner, is some kind of secret design genius and has hit on this 1989 Johnsonville McDonald’s look that just gets to me on a deep nostalgic level. McDonald’s is world-destroying trash but all the hipster burger joints owe something to the Big Mac. A Big Mac isn’t that great a burger but they have voodoo. Goldburger, image-wise, seems to be able to tap into that voodoo.
The first burger that I dig into is the Culprit chicken number. I like their chicken sandwich at sister eatery Lowbrow but this is much better. The crunch is ridiculous. I don’t have the words to describe it but Albert Cho (Eat Lit Food) wrote: “Cady Heron from Mean Girls yelling out ‘the limit does not exist’ was me inside Culprit after biting into this boiga.” Which sums it up. If this burger went on the menu at Lowbrow I’d find it hard to go anywhere else for chicken-in-a-bun action in Auckland.
Now we get to the Goldburger. I’m actually pretty nervous. Sean and Shepherd are cool dudes, everything feels right about this pop-up, the wine and beer matches from Wine Diamonds and Garage Project are perfect… so what if I still don’t like it?
To start with, it’s seasoned very well. Secondly, the meat has a good whack of smoky umami from a touch of house-smoked pork through the beef. To me this feels less like a Shake Shack or In & Out homage (Burger Fuel is doing that already with Shake Out, lol) and has echoes of that mastery of the swine that Elliott is known for. Thirdly, it’s cooked a wonderful medium-rare; charred crisp on the outside and bloody in the middle. We so often overcook our burgers in New Zealand and this is what I want. BLOOD. The pickles are great, the sauce is great. It’s feeling like a classic cheeseburger in a way but also it is its own beast.
And the bun. OK, so I was pretty unloving towards the soft milk bun the first time around. And it still doesn’t have that structural integrity that would make this into a fast-food, eat-it-in-your-car kind of burger. But I was wrong. It feels to me now like it’s Elliott’s signature. It’s just so light. I’ve done a 360 on the bun, I love it.
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The chips are crinkle cut (a nod to Shake Shack?), and seem to have chicken salt or MSG on them. I’m not the biggest fan of crinkle cut, but these are working for me tonight. They don’t have that frozen bitter edge I associate with crinkle cuts.
I love that Goldburger felt better this time around. They have clearly tweaked a few things, which has helped, but also my headspace was right. I had my kids with me, and they were loving it. The glass of Jumpin’ Juice natural wine hit the spot. I was hungry. We put a lot of pressure on chefs to make us happy, to drag us out of the doldrums, to pitch everything exactly right for our palate. But the truth is, like music or theatre or art, the audience is part of the experience. Goldburger and Culprit don’t just make food, they create miniature food experiences full of little nods to the past. I’m on board. I dig it.
One footnote though; not offering a vege burger option feels weird. Sure, you don’t have to, but you just should. Who knows, maybe I’d even break out of my beefy burger trance and order it.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.