King of burgers

My lunch with Rodney ‘Burger Junkie' Blackwell, founder of the Sacramento Burger Battle

Rodney Blackwell burgers harder than you.

Rodney Blackwell burgers harder than you.

photo by ryan donahue

Rodney Blackwell's got a death grip on a burger. He more than just really likes burgers, so perhaps that explains his unwillingness to let go. Or maybe it's because the meal-between-two-buns set him back $26. “It's pretty juicy,” he eventually squeezes in, between bites. Put it down, it may fall apart. There you go.

No joke, the burger Blackwell and I ate at Ella this week was pushing 30 bucks: truffled short rib ragu, bone marrow butter, carmelized onions, heirloom tomatoes, triple cream brie inside a buttermilk brioche bun with a house-ground burger. Fries and maple-bacon aioli on the side, too.

“I think $26 is the tops. This might be the record,” he says of the special burger, available only this September.

That's actually surprising, given that Blackwell is better known by his 16,000 Instagram followers simply as the Burger Junkie. He's posted hundreds of bun pics, and reviewed even more on his website. The dad and husband travels the world to rub elbows at burger festivals and competitions. And he's the founder of this week's fourth-annual Sacramento Burger Battle).

Blackwell's reputation is such that, when he strolls into the neighborhood butcher shop, “They don't judge me too much when I order like seven different meats,” which he'll grind into his special burger patty.

The soft-spoken Blackwell launched his site in 2005 and the Burger Battle in 2012, as a fundraiser for the local Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. His oldest daughter was diagnosed with Crohn's at age 5, six years ago. Now, his Battle donation tally is inching toward $100,000.

We met last week to eat the most expensive burger in recent Sacramento memory.

So, you’re like “Hell no, I’m not splitting a burger.”

It would feel like I'm not doing my job, splitting a burger.

I’m excited. What’s the cheapest burger you’ve ever had?

How much is a McDonald's cheeseburger?

I don’t even know. Weren’t we gonna go get a Quarter Pounder?

I think that's probably the cheapest. But I haven't had a cheap, cheap, cheap burger in a while. You have to wonder how they can even make it for 99 cents. Bread costs so much, and meat's supposed to cost so much. What's going on in there?

What’s your burger pet peeve?

Not toasting the buns is one of my pet peeves. Overcooked burgers.

I’m surprised at how many burgers I’ve had this summer that weren’t cooked properly.

Most of the time it's over. You'll order medium-rare, but it's not.

I wish chefs would just cook it how it should be cooked. No asking customers.

There was this burger in L.A. that I had, and the guy just stuck to his guns. He would not cook it medium-well. Or well done. “I'm not going to cook my wagyu beef to well-done. Yelp reviews be damned.”

What do you crave about a burger?

It has to all go together and make sense, flavor-wise. Sometimes burgers throw a lot of things in there. And I'm OK with experimentation, or the occasional crazy burger. But not just for the sake of being crazy. It has to make sense. Say, if you're doing a burger with truffles on it, you can't throw wasabi in there, something that's totally off base.

What seals the deal?

I still like American cheese. I've seen a lot of fancy cheeses and smoked Cheddar. But I like the melt, the salt of an American cheese. It looks good on a burger, contrast-wise. … If I had my druthers, I'd use American cheese pretty much over any cheese.

You’re talking, like, Kraft slices?

Yeah, Kraft deli slices.

That’s sick.

Some nice American cheese from the deli counter, that works, too. … But the one I use at home is called Kraft Deli Deluxe. There's no plastic between the slices, it's just a big slab of cheese.

What’s your favorite burger add-on?

Are onions considered an add-on? They're definitely essential for me. Some form of diced, or sliced.

Oh, another burger pet peeve is onion straws. Like, I've seen them done so many times. Crispy onion straws, they seem overused now.

If you opened a restaurant, describe your chef burger.

Mine would be something like a blend that I put together from Taylor's, with probably the bun from Freeport Bakery, American cheese on it, maybe I'd do an In-N-Out, “animal-style” sort of take, fried mustard on one side with shaved onions. You put the fried mustard on top with the onions, so basically when you flip it over, the onions steam into the burger.

What’s a fair price for a chef burger?

Someone asked me if the burger at Magpie is worth 15. I said, “They're making their own buns, it's got really dope beef. It's worth 15.” When you're using all the right ingredients, 15 is a good price point.

If I was going to open my own restaurant, I would try to do a really good burger for 10 or less. … People associate burgers with affordable, easy food, so I'd want to adhere to that, a sort of burger-joint style burger. … But of course I don't know a lick about food costs.

So many of these restaurants, they don’t put the burgers on their night menus, out of fear of them taking over the grill. They’ve created a monster.

I think chefs make them because they like them, they eat burgers themselves. But they didn't become chefs to make burgers, and most of these are not “burger restaurants.”

Are we at Peak Burger?

When I started my blog, and that was 2011, I thought it would soon hit the peak. … But it's still going. And I don't think burgers are going anywhere any time soon.

What’d your family say when you were like, “Hey, I want to do a burger battle.”

They were surprised. Laughs. But they knew I had just come from the one in Denver, so they knew I at least had the idea of what one would look like. … My daughter loved the idea because she knew I was doing it for her.

How many burgers do you eat in a week?

Too many. Probably, on an all-in week, maybe three to five. On a slow week, probably one.

Does your doctor get pissed at you?

Yeah, he's like, “Maybe cut back.” I try to do a little side salad every now and then.