Burger Quest: Can Original Joe’s execution match its vision and reputation?

Wonderbun’s Review

Dusting off the taste buds to break the premature cryofreeze that became of Burger Quest is not without its reservations. Not unlike that old trunk you find in your grandparents’ attic that burps a cloud of dust when you open it, smells of mildew, mothballs and rot have you thinking that some things are better left alone. Problem is that burgers smell way better than farty ol’ trunks so what the hell am I trying to write a piece of descriptive fiction for? BURGER TIME.

Original Joes — or OJ’s, as those with a propensity for “Bro” hockey-esque acronyms call it — has never been a burger stop for me.  Paradoxically it has always been one of my trusted wiener haunts. The first time I ordered there I was recommended the Double Dog. It is so consistently good, that in the handful of times that I have been to OJ’s, I have never ordered anything else. A baguette loaded with goodness that nestles two garlic and peppery Polish dogs grilled to a crisp … yada yada yada.

Unfortunately, this isn’t wiener quest. Instead I zeroed in on their “The A.C.E Cheese Burger” — A.C.E. decoded stands for American Classic Edition. So, in keeping with the spirit of things, lets dig into the OJ’s A.C.E. A.S.A.P.

The sedimentary layers of this burger start with, what I would describe as, a hybrid brioche-meets-standard fast food bun. The bun holds American cheese, tomato, onion, pickle, shredded lettuce and “house made burger sauce.” (Everyone loves to make Thousand Island dressing and call it their own. I would be cynical about this but If you’re making the American Classic Edition Cheese Burger it’s kind of a must.)

Nestled in the middle of this stack are two flat grilled patties that total the same overall weight as a five-seven ounce burger. By making two small patties instead of one larger patty you double the surface area that touches the grill, doubling the potential amount of delectable savoury sear or jewels on your burger meat — a very pro burger move. This is much more clever and precise than just having two patties on a burger. The attention towards maximizing flavour and maintaining a proper meat-to-bun ratio is in play here. Again, very pro.

Consciously or not the OJs’ A.C.E. Cheese Burger is an elevated tribute to the Double Double from In-N-Out Burger. To go deeper, anytime you use two thin double patties and special sauce you have to nod to the granddaddy that inspired both of these burgers — the Big Mac. Double Double or Big Mac, for good or bad, are very predictable in the quality and taste by which they are delivered at any time of day or night across the continent and beyond. By their formula, I know what kind of quality to expect with those burgers. I don’t expect the meat to deliver at In-N-Out or McDonalds, but I did expect it to at OJ’s.

We love the corporate classics for what they were when we first tried them not the GMO shadow that they have become. The A.C.E Cheese Burger has the perfect elements in a pile to take us back to the best burger of our childhood by simply making them like they used to. Unfortunately, on my visit the A.C.E. fell back towards the ranks of burgers that it aspires to transcend.

By its very description, it hits my B spot for a blue ribbon at the burger fair. However, by execution it was just pretty good. Specifically because whoever was manning the grill was either preoccupied with an E.A.R.L.Y.  E.X.I.T.  F.O.R. T.H.E. F.L.A.M.E.S. T.H.I.S.  S.E.A.S.O.N. or was simply not qualified to be handling a high-quality burger meat and ended up grilling my patties into pucks.

Turn the heat up on the grill, the right amount of salt and pepper (usually more than is considered healthy), sear hot and fast. The patties are thin enough that once your jewels have formed on both sides the inside will be to health and taste standards. You will have the perfect little jewel bombs as the centrepiece for a classic.

I love the idea of this burger. For my ideals, it shows respect and an understanding of burger history, balance in its design and attention to fresh quality ingredients. I want this burger to be an upper echelon burger in town. Many echoes of this OJ’s NumNum stack had reached my ears before I actually ate one. My hope was that I would be turning whispers into legend. There will be a next time and perhaps next time I can.

White Gravy’s Review

Good execution is more important than good strategy.

True in business.

True in burgers.

Over the last number of year, I’ve observed that execution is criminally underrated. Everyone wants to be “strategic” and part of coming up with the big idea. But in reality, it doesn’t matter if you can’t execute it.

I’ll go even further and say that if you have a terrible idea, but execute it incredibly well you will succeed. But if you have a great idea and execute it horribly, you will fail.

Execution matters. Always.

And it is on execution that Original Joe’s fails.

When we were selecting our first quest, we wanted to come out of the gate with something solid. OJ’s burger held promise, based on their reputation and strong word of mouth about this burger.

And on paper, it looks good.

I went with The Original – lettuce, tomato, red onion (held), dill pickle and OJ’s own “burger sauce”. No cheese was included (minor foul) so I added a slice of Swiss. As a burger traditionalist, the fact this burger didn’t have any fancy schmancy spin didn’t bother me. I respect a burger that isn’t over thought. There is a place in this world for burgers with truffle oil, blue cheese or even avocado. Actually scratch that – keep avocado on your toast and off my burger. So by no means am I going to penalize a joint for having the discipline and courage to keep things simple. But then you have to pull it off.

There is perhaps no greater sin than over-cooking a burger. It robs the meat of the taste that we are all craving, leaving you with a dry, flavourless hockey puck, thats only value is some odd nostalgia for choking down “Salisbury Steak” fried up by your mom when you were eight years old. My single patty was over cooked to the point that I would nearly call it burnt. One could argue that it is unfair to penalize OJ’s too severely for what was perhaps just an off day. But from the moment we started BQ we agreed that one of the foundations would be that we would not give anyone a head’s up. The Quest can happen anytime. Be ready. Expect us.

The poor execution also manifested itself in a bun that was over-toasted, taking it well beyond a pleasant crispiness.

It is hard to look past these egregious errors, but it is easy to see the potential this burger failed to realize. The toppings are fresh and flavourful.

But here again I point to some executional errors that is the over-arching weakness of OJ’s entry.

The pickle was placed on top of the bun, held in place by a single tooth pick. I guess that looks cool, but forces you to take that pickle and put it where it belongs – inside the burger. Form over function, in the world of burgers, is rarely a good decision. I care very little about how nifty your burger looks, I care mainly about how it tastes as it leaves this world via my gullet.

Almost everyone has their own sauce nowadays. I found the OJ Sauce to be neither a standout or a drawback – it was simply there. 

OJ’s is a great Calgary success story. It was started by some local entrepreneurs who believed that good service, good food, good location and good atmosphere would be the recipe for success in the city’s eatery scene. And they were right. OJ’s has done extremely well just by delivering on that very basic promise with consistent execution. So it is both surprising and disappointing that the very thing that allowed OJ’s to carve out a reputation for one of this city’s most dependable eateries, is what prevented them from receiving a positive review.

By all means continue to go to Original Joe’s.

Just have the wings instead.

As an infant, and long before smoking bylaws, Wonderbun could be found in a baby carrier, abandoned on a formica table top closest to the jukebox at the Blackfoot Truckstop. Swaddled in a blanket of American cheese he survived on small morsels of cheeseburgers fed to him by do-good patrons. White Gravy has been eating burgers for 45 years, even though he’s only 41 years old. His doctor is opposed to him re-starting Burger Quest and has strongly advised against it.