Here's the beef

Carnivores flocked en masse to Raley Field on the night of September 18, hungry for the meaty offerings of 15 Sacramento restaurants, all competing for the title of best burger at the 2013 Sacramento Burger Battle.

A vegetarian’s nightmare, the air smelled of backyard barbecues as chefs cooked enough dead-cow flesh to feed a small army. Ticket holders moseyed from tent to tent, nabbing quartered burgers topped with the likes of blue cheese, pickled peppers, pork belly and crispy onion strings, and then stuffed them, one by one, into their gaping mouths, eager to pass judgment.

Americans have such a special relationship with the hamburger. For years, ground beef sandwiched between two sides of a soft bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion has been a standby comfort food that even the most committed health nut sometimes can't resist. Tailgate parties and barbecues have long showcased burgers as the central entree, easy to cook and easy to eat.

Even when health experts started to naysay America's favorite meat pocket, claiming that red meat contributes to high cholesterol and heart disease, people got creative, skirting the health issues by experimenting with chicken, turkey and salmon patties. We even found ways to include the vegetarians with black-bean burgers and tofu patties.

We would never abandon the burger!

But tonight was about the beef. And the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America, the recipient for the event's proceeds, of course. But mostly the beef.

Throughout the evening, some chefs got creative, producing finger-licking burgers bursting with flavor. Others kept it simple, letting the tenderness of the meat speak for itself.

Some stood out as I made my rounds. De Vere's Irish Pub slid out a burger slathered with a bacon-bourbon barbecue sauce on a pretzel bun that was messy and tasty. Formoli's kept it simple with a perfectly cooked patty on a soft bun with a type of balsamic reduction that complemented the meat. Bacon and Butter made a breakfast burger, using pork belly as a topping and sandwiching all the meat between two buttermilk biscuits. All that was missing was the over-easy egg, oozing yolk with that first bite.

Roaming meat-munchers guzzled beer and wine out of small mason jars. Representatives from breweries such as Lagunitas Brewing Company, Crispin Cider and Ruhstaller poured libations freely, easing those burgers down as stomachs filled.

There were many laughs as well. Folks posed in photo booths, and a live band set the mood with its bluesy overtones as people swayed to the music, unable to do much more after chowing down on the smorgasbord.

After deliberation by the judges, which included local chefs Randall Selland and Patrick Mulvaney, Ettore's European Bakery and Restaurant took home the coveted championship belt with its tangy concoction served on a house-made jalapeño-cheddar-scallion bun. West Sacramento's Broderick Roadhouse was voted people's favorite with a messy face-stuffer, topped with smoked cheddar, barbecue sauce and pickled peppers. They did not provide Wet-naps.

As the last stragglers made their way up the stadium stairs, stuffed to the hilt, the cool night air seemed to take the residual smells of grilled meat up and away along with the fading remains of summer. Well, until next year, anyway, when those grills fire up and Sacramento chefs once again compete for the title of reigning burger champ.

I wonder if McDonald's will be there.