Burgers in his belly, and a song on his lips

Posted: May 27, 2007

'Eat it, Daddy! Eat it! Take a bite of the enchanted burger!"

Through the side of my curly wig and Zorro mask, I could see my kids and their little pals from the block cheering me on. I had been holding a Rouge burger out in front of my face for several minutes like a tempting storybook treasure - the amazingly thick patty dripping with juice and Gruyere cheese that glistened in the midday sun. Eating it sounded like a good idea. It had become an enchanted burger, indeed.

I brought the burger to my lips . . .

"Don't take a bite!" barked the director, Chris Jolissaint, from behind. "I just want you to cup it in your jaws."

So there I was, my mandibles frozen in mid-chomp around a gargantuan sandwich with a panoramic view of the Center City skyline in the background. Jolissaint's camera captured the moment from every angle. And as my jaws began to cramp, the thought occurred to me that maybe this music-video stuff was more than I had bargained for.

I had no one to blame but myself.

A food roundup story is already grueling enough without the distractions of recording studios, TV cameras and a wardrobe of disguises. Over the last six months, my best-burger quest had brought me to devour more than 50 burgers around the region - the results of which were published in Thursday's Food section (see http://go.philly.com/cheeseburger). Some of them, I really liked.

But something else wonderfully unexpected also happened along the way. I had rediscovered a long-dormant hunger for making music.

It began, naturally, with the bite of a burger. But it wasn't just any burger, it turns out. This one, at a Center City bar called the Good Dog, triumphed where so many others had failed, sucessfully stuffing the center with bleu cheese. Inside the Good Dog's signature sandwich was a spring of molten bleu, and it caught me by surprise. It bubbled up from the patty's heart like a Roquefort river of tangy goodness. It seemed like an offering. I was moved.

So in the course of the Good Dog's review last December, I produced my first-ever hamburger haiku: "Cheeseburger, I Hold."

But the little poem just wouldn't leave my head. Suddenly, it latched onto a bouncy tune, and before long it became a chorus. I dusted off the old guitar, and a real song began to take shape, paying homage not simply to the Good Dog, but to all the beautiful burgers of my life (as well as the bitter disappointments). Call me the Julio Iglesias of cheeseburger passion, if you will. I had a lot of material.

This wasn't the first song I've written. I've played guitar since I was young, and sang in high school plays (my parents still tout my role as Curly in Oklahoma! as the high-water mark of my career). I traveled Europe during college with a Martin Dreadnought strapped to my back, and played regular gigs in the bistro across from my Latin Quarter apartment, where they fed me every Wednesday with boudin and pitchers of wine. Music was my currency, my best companion. And there was a brief, deluded moment when I thought: "Maybe . . . just maybe I could . . ."

Like so many passionate amateurs, I wasn't good enough, determined enough, or lucky enough to make a career of my hobby. And it was just as well, as the doors to food journalism soon would open wide.

So many years now after my last song, that music light had suddenly, unexpectedly blinked back on. Would I still know what to do?

It was time to look for help.

"Yes, please ask me whatever it is musically that I can help you with," Phil Roy innocently replied to my seemingly innocuous e-mail.

He had no idea what he was in for. True, we had corresponded over a grilled Thanksgiving turkey recipe I once published, and he was a singer-songwriter with a well-known passion for food, having hosted a series of dinner concerts out of his Center City flat (and soon at Marc Vetri's Osteria). But now I was asking him to help me record a song about . . . cheeseburgers?

"Umm . . . all right . . .," he said sportingly. "I just don't want to be in the movie, OK?"

Roy nonetheless took up the challenge. Despite the steady travel and performances tied to the recent release of his third album, The Great Longing, Roy was suddenly referring to himself cheerily as "your producer," dialing through his list of contacts for a backup band ("Will you play for food?" was a major condition), and booking me recording time at O(h)M Studio, owned by Aaron Levinson, another acquaintance of mine, who became the song's coproducer.

"This is not the kind of thing I normally do," hedged a cautious Levinson, a Grammy-winning producer who specializes in salsa, jazz and blues.

I highly doubt drummer Charlie Patierno and upright bassist Ken Pendergast had done much in the burger genre, either. But they were all business when they arrived at this sprawling subterranean studio complex in downtown Conshohocken.

Patierno and Pendergast - who back rising Philadelphia singer Melody Gardot - had the tune down within minutes. The brush-wielding Patierno had even rigged a plastic storage tub - The Tupperware - to be his kit. I was the one in trouble. The professional session guitarist had called in sick, leaving the task to me. But there's a big difference between strumming on your front porch and having to lay down a song perfectly with the studio clock ticking.

Our recording studio was an unglamorous surprise. It was attached to the larger Studio 4, which is virtually unmarked from the street, and something of an active construction site. Still, there were gold records all over the walls. Bob Dylan and the Fugees had recorded in adjacent studios down here. In a next-door room, a producer who has recorded Janet Jackson and Britney Spears was at work on his latest project.

Meanwhile, my fingers didn't seem to work the way I'd planned. And I had to play the music without singing along - a major obstacle that caused me to keep losing my place. After a few takes, however, the nimble studio engineer, Bill Sullivan, had all he needed. Through the wonders of a little computer assistance, we had a workably smooth music track. Guitarist Ross Bellenoit would later contribute an additional guitar track at Sine Studios in Center City.

My work in Conshohocken, though, wasn't finished. I stood alone inside "the box" and sang the song through five times with everything I had, trying to stay in key over the music in my headphones. It felt awkward. I felt out of place. It was exhausting. I was hungry. Wasn't it lunchtime yet?

But when I finished, I also felt a chill. Would they like it?

I peered through the glass wall into the control room, where Phil Roy reclined regally in a big easy chair, his golden Lab Travis curled up beside him in the dim light. Roy's wrap-around sunglasses perched over a beaming, goateed smile.

My producer then leaned forward and spoke into the control-room mic: "That was beautiful, darlin'."

There would be a movie after all. In this YouTube age, the video had to be done.

And Chris Jolissaint, a former Knight-Ridder Video staffer who now runs his own production company, ShiftVideo, understood his mission: to tell the story of a restaurant critic caught between two worlds.

Of course, he also had the tall challenge of protecting my anonymity during the filming - thus the disguise. It would be as "classy" as it could be (for a guy crooning over cheeseburgers in a Zorro mask), he promised. But saving me a shred of dignity would also be nice. The song is meant to be playful; we weren't shooting for Weird Al Yankovic.

In retrospect, Weird Al might have really appreciated the woolly gray wig I wore for several hours around Rittenhouse Square on one of the hottest afternoons of spring. But it attracted only a few odd stares as I wandered in and out of Restaurant Row's finest establishments for the video camera.

The Zorro mask was reserved for the video's finale shot from a private rooftop deck: the climactic burger bite.

"He's going to eat it! He's going to eat the enchanted burger!"

My kids and their friends were screaming, worked into a frenzy by the torturous wait. And Jolissaint finally gave the green light.

I leaned forward for the close-up and plunged my teeth deep into the thick burger. The juices ran down my hands as the audience cheered and the camera rolled.

And it was so luscious, I could hear the music in my head.

Drumroll, please: The 6 top burgers

Here are Craig LaBan's six favorite burgers in the Philadelphia area:

The Good Dog burger, $9, comes stuffed with bleu cheese at the Good Dog Bar and Restaurant, 224 S. 15th St., 215-985-9600.

The tiny but decadent kobe sliders for $16 at Barclay Prime, 237 S. 18th St., 215-732-7560.

The giant $15 burger at Rouge, 205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622.

The classic $4 luncheonette bacon cheeseburger at Snow White, 1901 Chestnut St., 215-569-0909.

The well-seasoned brie and wild mushroom burger for $9 at Blackfish, 119 Fayette St., Conshohocken, 610-397-0888.

The old-school bitty-patty double cheeseburgers with raw onions for $3.28 at Charlie's Hamburgers, 336 Kedron Ave., Folsom, 610-461-4228.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com or 215-854-2682.

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