In Battle Of The Burgers, Temecula Culinary Students The Real Winners

TEMECULA, CA — Southwest Riverside County chefs threw their hats in the collective ring Saturday to see once and for all who has the best burger around. The “Battle of the Burgers” event, held by Visit Temecula Valley at Pechanga Resort Casino, returned after a four-year hiatus. Chefs and students of the Temecula Valley Unified School District’s CTE Culinary Arts program drew a sold-out crowd on a soggy Saturday to create 18 separate dishes for judging the best in two different categories: Burgers and Loaded Fries.

The student winners of the day were Kelsey’s Pechanga Head Chef and his students, who won both Judge’s and People’s Choice awards for their creation, Loaded Cowboy Fries. The sweet potato fries are topped with smoked pulled pork, spicy barbecue sauce, and candied bacon. But there were hours of preparation and plating to get to the award ceremony.

The main ballroom was set up in a booth style as guests would be able to taste each offering and then vote for a People’s Choice award.

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Outside, in the main Pechanga Ballroom, restaurants from Murrieta and Temecula set up their displays to trade samples to the masses. At the same time, we tasted and voted on the seven Best Burger offerings and 11 Loaded French fries samples in a private tasting. All would be judged based on three categories: presentation, timing, temperature, and flavor: umami, balance, and use of varied ingredients’ levels of uniqueness.

Guests of the sold-out event were served by student volunteers and restaurant workers, who were professional and amicable throughout the hours-long competition. Lines at each booth in the main ballroom wrapped so the hundreds could sample and share their thoughts about who would be considered “the best.”

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The “Loaded Fries” were brought to the table in the judge’s room, plate by plate, and all 11 we sampled were unique, many menu-ready creations.

The aura of competition was palpable from the ballroom to the judge’s room as students brought their dishes to the table. As the first fries appeared, I called my restaurant review experience and the Food Network competition I’ve ever watched. I considered each bite, each subtlety of presentation, texture, and balance, to cast a knowledgeable vote.

This was serious business.

Luckily, I was paired with Priscilla Tapia, known locally as the founder of Temecula Foodies, whose culinary palate and food photography know-how helped me up my game. Also judging were Inland Empire/IE Explorer – Joel Greene, San Diego Union-Tribune – Pam Kragen, Chief Dining, Arts & Entertainment Editor, Temecula Mayor – James ‘Stew’ Stewart and Executive Chef – Andre Pinto, Pechanga Resort Casino.

My wing-woman, Tapia, and I tasted sweet and savory loaded fries, judging each on its merit. Chefs and students varied their cooking techniques and the multi-faceted main element: the potato. We sampled waffle fries, thin slices of russet, and a thin potato spaghetti turned ultra-crispy in the fryer.

The dishes with a sweet flare linger in memory — The chocolate churropotes – or loaded chocolate churrito gnocchis. These tiny cinnamon sugar-dusted gnocchi over chocolate ganache paired with a strawberry compote. and another “Pillow Brunch” potato filled with brie, which I would frankly love to know how to make at home.

Then, there were the savory loaded fries, such as the steak fries smothered in a Wagyu Putine, the pizza-topped shoestring fries, and even one covered in shrimp.

The “Cowboy Fries,” served smothered in pulled pork and more mouth-watering toppings and a spicy barbecue sauce, was tops in the pure balance of flavor, in this judge’s opinion.

As the burgers arrived, we sampled dishes with unique meats and seasonings, various toppings, and homemade bread, from brioche to Hawaiian rolls to pretzel buns.

All were inventive. However, the burgers with a proper “umami” balance of flavors of salt, sugar, acid, and heat rose to the top.

Redneck Burger, a half-pound fresh 100% beef patty layered with pulled pork rib meat, spiced with pepper jack, flavorful onion jam, crispy onions, and a vinegar-based coleslaw on a buttered bun. (Photo: Temecula Foodies/Priscilla Tapia)

According to Marlowe, just one vote was the difference between first and second place in choosing the “Best Burger” winner.

The below-winning burgers are available at their restaurants through March 31, 2024.

The winners are as follows in the Best Burger category:
Judge’s Choice:

First Place: Devilicious Eatery Wawahi Burger
Second Place; Mad Madeline’s Grill Redneck Burger
Third Place: 8 Bit Brewing Co. Super Smash Burger

People’s Choice:

Mad Madeline’s brought home the People’s Choice award for their Redneck Burger – a must try in Old Town Temecula until March. (Photo: Visit Temecula Valley)

First Place: Mad Madeline’s Grill Redneck Burger
Second Place: Baily’s Old Town Classic Burger
Third Place: 8 Bit Brewing Co. Super Smash Burger

The best “Loaded Fries” were for the event only, according to Visit Temecula, as chefs worked with students to develop the entries for the event.

Judge’s Choice:

First Place: Kelsey’s and students Ian Dalebout, Tanner Olson, and Diego Romero – Cowboy Fries
Second Place: Blazing Noodles, and students Carter Crouse and Hailey Mellinger, Philly Cheesesteak Fries
Third Place: Banquets & Catering/Pechanga and students Kimberly Bazan, Brian Sheridan, and Zachary Truong, Spicy Spaghetti Fries

People’s Choice:
First Place: Kelsey’s Cowboy Fries
Second Place: Banquets & Catering/Pechanga, Spicy Spaghetti Fries
Third Place: Blazing Noodles, Philly Cheesesteak Fries.

“What an amazing afternoon watching students, chefs, families, and more than 400 attendees from around the region enjoy this friendly competition,” said Scott A. Wilson, CEO of Visit Temecula Valley. “Our judges and attendees eagerly taste-tested through 18 samples of delicious burgers and loaded fries, all for a great cause.”

CTE Director Tim Dignan commented on the event and what it means to the culinary students.

“It was a huge success. CTE Culinary students worked side by side with amazing chefs from Pechanga’s restaurants, creating a wide variety of unique ‘loaded fries,’ and learning firsthand the intensity of a commercial kitchen and true work-based learning,” he told Patch. “Funds raised from the event will allow the culinary students the opportunity to visit more restaurants and venues as well as supplement much-needed culinary supplies and materials.”

Each entry was inventive both in concept and in the quality of ingredients that the chefs and students brought to the table. A few pushed the envelope beyond the education of this editor’s palate, but still, when you tasted a winner, you knew it.

The votes were monitored by Visit Temecula Valley, which tabulated both the judge’s selections and the people’s choice awards during the event.

A special thanks to Visit Temecula Valley, the CTE student chefs, the restaurant chefs, and my fellow judges, who made the day a delight:

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