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Next to apple pie, it’s hard to find a food more American than a burger. So say restaurateurs at eateries cross the Corridor, from dedicated burger joints to higher end eateries serving up American cuisine. Look on any menu, and chances are good you’ll find a burger.

“It’s an American classic. Burgers go with America,” Bata’s Restaurant chef Mon Sayasit said.

Bata’s is known for its blueberry burger, which comes topped with blueberry compote, bacon, jalapenos and goat cheese. It’s an unusual take, but one people love — no matter what else Sayasit puts on the menu, that burger is the best-seller. Even when he’s winning awards for innovative dishes such as deconstructed pork collar tostadas, he can’t ever lose site of the crowd-pleasing burger.

“People try it and love it and then that’s all they order,” Sayasit said. “That burger and our sweet potato fries keep this place alive.”

Featuring a dish that appears everywhere from fast food counters to fine dining menus comes with challenges of its own. Each chef wants their burger to stand out, and they want their burger to live up to the nostalgia-fueled expectations of diners who have been eating the dish since childhood.

“It’s a challenge. When you do something, you want to be the best at it,” Sayasit said. “At the end of the day, it’s got to taste good.”

And that means starting with strong ingredients.

Alan Ouverson is general manager at Shorts Burger & Shine in Iowa City, which serves 26 different burgers.

“Our biggest thing is knowing where the beef comes from. We get the meat fresh six days a week. Our buns are cooked fresh, with no preservatives,” he said.

One of the restaurant’s owners has property outside Iowa City, where they grow produce for Shorts Burger and Shine as well its sister restaurants Stella, Hudson’s Tap and Shorts Eastside. He said getting fresh produce such as tomatoes, lettuce and herbs helps maintain quality.

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From there, it’s all about building flavor profiles to find the right blend of toppings, sauces and cheeses.

“It’s just knowing in general what matches up with what. It’s knowing that garlic and mushrooms go with an egg better than basil would. It’s seeing what works best,” he said. “If you do it right, it all comes together really well.”

For Benjamin Smart, executive chef at Big Grove Brewery in Solon and Iowa City, developing a top burger was a high priority.

He also helped develop the menu at Pullman Bar & Diner in Iowa City. At both restaurants, he said the burger is the top selling item.

When he was first developing the Big Grove burger, he decided to go for two thin patties instead of one thick patty. The amount of meat is the same, but he prefers the blend of textures, the layering of meat, cheese, pickles and sauce.

“If you have a big steak burger, if it’s really well cooked, it’s fantastic. But it’s a big hunk of meat,” he said. “With thin patties, the bite is so much better, in my opinion.”

His restaurants make their own dill pickles and aioli in-house. Those things, plus a quality bun baked fresh daily and a good American cheese, are the keys to a good burger, he said.

George Formaro, the chef behind Des Moines-based Zombie Burger, has a similar attitude. Zombie Burger opened locations in Iowa City and Coralville last year and is known for it’s extravagant toppings like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and fried bananas. Still, Formaro said those toppings don’t matter as much as what they’re layered on.

“It’s easy to cheat and put guacamole and bacon and cheese on a burger, and of course it’s going to be good. But it has to be the best when you strip it down,” Formaro said. “Zombie Burger didn’t start getting crazy with toppings until we nailed the right bun, the right burger, and the right American cheese.”

That combination comes straight from his childhood memory.

“There’s just something nostalgic and iconic about a burger,” he said. “Even as crazy as Zombie Burger is, it’s based on my memories of roadside burgers as a kid. It’s one of the most American foods.”

He also helped develop Des Moines eateries Centro, Django and Malo and is a six-time James Beard Foundation Award nominee. But he said high-end food and burgers don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“These days you have them in every kind of setting, from your home to the finest dining restaurants,” he said. “You have to look hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a burger on the menu.”

He said despite the crazy topping combinations Zombie Burger is known for, at the end of the day his favorite is the basic double Zombie burger or the double cheese burger. They’re also his top recommendation for people trying Zombie Burger for the first time.

“It doesn’t always have to be outlandish. The outlandish stuff is fun, and we enjoy serving those and making those,” he said. “But simple in a very complicated world is kind of a nice thing these days.”

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