For Miami food blogger, Burger Brawl is the nature of the beast

Miami food blogger Sef Gonzalez, a k a Burger Beast, hosts his first Burger Brawl on Friday.

05/05/2014 6:14 PM

05/08/2014 8:53 AM

National Hamburger Month is upon us, which means the Miami comfort-food blogger known as Burger Beast is up to his eyeballs in patty pitches.

“Every restaurant is doing a burger special this month, and they’re all like, ‘Come in and try ours,’ because they want me to write about their burger,” said The Beast, Sef Gonzalez. “There are so many burgers out there right now, if I tried them all I would literally double my weight, and no one wants that.”

Gonzalez and 750 of his blog followers and fellow food enthusiasts will have a chance to sample 20 different burgers — and vote for their favorite — at the first Burger Beast Burger Brawl on Friday night outside Magic City Casino.

Popular vote will determine the winner, but the smart early money is on Swine Southern Table and Bar in Coral Gables, which currently ranks at the top of Burger Beast’s 25 Best Burgers in South Florida (Gonzalez will abstain from voting in the Brawl).

Other strong contenders: Josh’s Deli in Surfside is cooking a pastrami-spiced ground beef patty with Russian dressing and latke crisps, and Pincho Factory is making its toston burger — ground chuck, brisket and short rib topped with jack cheese and cilantro sauce between two tostones.

South Florida had much less of a burger scene in 2008, when Gonzalez started his blog — which he wrote mostly as a diversion from his full-time job in retail management.

“People would ask me all the time where to eat, where to find the best Cuban food or whatever,” he said. “And I always had a good answer for them. So my wife encouraged me to just write about my food experiences.”

What started out as a burgers-only endeavor, hence the name, morphed into something broader.

“Five or six years ago, there wasn’t a burger joint on every corner of Miami like there is today,” Gonzalez said. “I would basically go to any place that had a burger on the menu, which led me to find some really great ones, actually.

“But I found that readers got really excited when I wrote about side dishes like croquetas or pastelitos,” he said. “At that point, the blog sort of changed directions into all comfort food stuff.”

Gonzalez’s timing was perfect.

His focus on comfort food came as the country tried to dig its way out of a deep economic hole. Eaters sought fast-casual over fine-dining, comfort over pretension.

They found both in food trucks, which rolled in to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, slinging burgers — “The first 10 trucks all had a burger on the menu,” Gonzalez said — and tacos and mofongo and empanadas and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Gonzalez tried it all, documenting each frita and every arepa with pictures and words.

“It was cooked a nice medium and was placed on top of the arepa, which was sopping up some of the juices,” read a 2010 Burger Beast post on the carne asada arepafrom Asados El Paisa food cart. “The arepa was doing double duty by oozing some cheese.”

At the time, Gonzalez was the only blogger regularly documenting the South Florida food-truck scene. The number of his online followers swelled as people flocked to his site for information on the trucks and their whereabouts.

He parlayed the popularity — and his comprehensive list of contacts — into gigs organizing food-truck events around town: for the Heat; the Marlins; the Miami Herald; Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino; Magic City Casino; and every Monday night at Hollywood’s ArtsPark at Young Circle.

Gonzalez’s hustle caught the attention of Lee Schrager, founder and director of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

Schrager, a comfort-food fanatic whose Fried & True cookbook (coming out this month) is an ode to fried chicken, has tagged along with Gonzalez for ice cream, Cuban sandwiches and more. Schrager tapped Gonzalez, whom he affectionately calls The Beast, to run the Medianoches & Mixology event at this year’s Wine and Food Festival.

“There is a real kindness and goodness that comes across when I am with The Beast, and I see first-hand how hard he works on all that he does, be it wrangling food trucks or producing his own events,” Schrager said. “It was a no-brainer for me to bring him on to the festival team as he has all the qualities that I respect in people who work with us — not to mention knows literally every hole in the wall in town and outside town.”

For Gonzalez, 40, being Burger Beast is now a full-time gig. He was able to quit his retail job some time ago.

Gonzalez sells small ads on his site to restaurants and food-truck manufacturers, but he said he does not let advertising influence his posts, and he is adamantly opposed to accepting free food.

“I pay for all of my meals, period,” he said. “If someone wants to make it awkward and insists on not letting me pay, then I disclose that in whatever I write.”

He also said he’s serious about maintaining full control of events he produces like Burger Brawl, which has corporate sponsors.

“My only thing was, whatever sponsors we had, I wanted to be sure I got to hand-pick who competes and not have any outside influence,” Gonzalez said.

In an age when many food bloggers are quick to take freebies in exchange for a positive post or write divisive comments for the sake of being controversial, Burger Beast is a breath of fresh air. Charcoal-grilled, cheese-covered, medium-rare air.

With Friday’s Burger Brawl, Gonzalez will continue the mission he set out on nearly six years ago: helping people find the best comfort foods in South Florida.

“Once I started putting together events, my main thing was to keep the prices fair and the quality high, because I never want to abuse the relationship I have with the people who follow my site,” he said. “They trust me, and they know how much love and passion I have for this.”

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