Burger Meister

Meet Kevin Pang, cheeseburger critic for the Chicago Tribune

Kevin Pang reviews cheeseburgers for the Chicago Tribune—in print, online, and as the creator and host of a video program called, aptly, The Cheeseburger Show. In the process of pursuing his beat, he has become adept at assessing patty construction, meat density, grind caliber, and the many other variables that can make or break a cheeseburger. “It’s gotten to the point where I can dissect a burger better than anybody in this town,” he boasts.

Although officially a features reporter, the twenty-eight-year-old Pang has taken to calling himself the Tribune’s “cheeseburger bureau chief.” In person, he exudes affability, with a quick wit that serves to disguise the extent of his professional ambition. (He’s prone to pulling all-nighters in the Tribune Tower.) He is thick-set, but not as much as you might think, a feat he attributes to the “taste-and-toss” method of burger reviewing.

Pang has a showman’s knack for spectacle. In college, he spent his weekends performing impromptu magic shows at fraternity parties. Last year, he coordinated the Tribune’s efforts to sabotage a contest sponsored by the rival Chicago Sun-Times. (The Sun-Times asked readers to submit videos explaining, in song, why the Tribune Company shouldn’t sell naming rights to Wrigley Field; Pang put a cute intern into a Cubs jersey and produced a video that won the contest.) “People were cheering [in the newsroom],” he says, recalling the scene upon learning that the Tribune had successfully punked the Sun-Times. “Kind of like a dugout when somebody hits a home run.”

He started at the Tribune in 2005, spending a year on the metro desk until a benevolent editor spirited him away “to write about food and get massages.” The burger beat began when Pang noticed that Web readers loved the Tribune’s fast-food reviews. “Any time we wrote about fast food, it’d become the most-read story that day,” he recalls. “Forget Obama, forget North Korea. People wanted to read about burgers.”

His cheeseburger coverage varies according to his medium. In his written reviews, Pang grades the burgers on more-or-less objective criteria. Because, after a certain point, all burgers start to look the same, he has taken to photographing each sandwich as it is served, which helps him remember what he ate and where. When reviewing, he eschews pad and pen and takes notes on his BlackBerry, as if he were composing a quick lunchtime e-mail. This is done not so much for anonymity as for cleanliness: “Usually, when I write, it gets really greasy,” he says.

Pang can be a staunch cheeseburger traditionalist, as in a recent review of Phil’s Kastle Monster Burger with Cheese: “There is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘no frills.’ I, seeker of meat-filled wonder, need not the next incarnation of sliced bread to be enlightened.”

He is often effusive when praising impressive sandwiches: “At some point (probably around the black truffle mayo), this burger ceased to be just a burger and became a Maserati between two buns.”

Occasionally, he is severe: “The syrupy sweet glaze masked a rubbery beef patty that tasted as if it came in bulk from the Costco freezer.”

That last line, from a review of Bennigan’s Guinness Glazed Bacon Cheeseburger, is an outlier. As a general principle, Pang avoids writing negative reviews. “Restaurants are struggling,” he reasons. “One bad review can still shut the whole thing down.” (Don’t blame Pang for Bennigan’s financial troubles—the chain was in bankruptcy well before he savaged their bacon burger.)

His work with The Cheeseburger Show is more digressive. As host, he affects a persona that is equal parts Tom Green and Alton Brown. The show, which can be found both online and as fifteen-minute segments on the Tribune-owned cable station CLTV, usually begins with a brief comedy bit, followed by interviews with local food experts, followed by Pang eating a cheeseburger and describing how it tastes.

There is room for variation within that template. In one episode, he visited an expensive restaurant with the rapper Rhymefest, who was pressed into performing an impromptu verse about his meal. (Sample line: “This was not just a Super Bowl Shuffle. You’ve never had a fry ‘til you’ve tried it with a truffle.”) “Rhymefest is very articulate about food,” says Pang. In another episode, after a montage in which he availed himself of the free beer, wine, and cocktails on offer at the National Restaurant Show, Pang drunkenly accosted Chicago’s mayor in the convention hall. (Pang: “Bra bra bra bra bra bra bra. Mayor. Mayor. Why won’t you answer my questions?”)

The show is still a side project for Pang, who enlisted some newsroom colleagues and shot the first six episodes in his spare time. But the Tribune has embraced it nevertheless. In April, to promote the program’s debut episode, a photograph of a grinning, cheeseburger-wielding Pang ran adjacent to the nameplate on the paper’s front page. “It scared the shit out of me,” he says. “The only time you should be on the front page is if you commit a murder or win a Pulitzer. This was neither.”

Still, it’s something. Ratings are high, reviews are positive (“I’m a vegetarian who hasn’t had a cheeseburger since maybe 1996. And yet I still find The Cheeseburger Show to be educational and entertaining on a level with the best programming in this medium”), and his bosses are enthusiastic. While Pang can sound somewhat bemused on the turn his career has taken—“Burgers aren’t even my favorite food,” he admits. “I’d rather have a nice piece of well-done fried chicken, or a porterhouse steak”—he nevertheless knows a good gig when he sees one. “I have to step back and realize that I’m getting paid to eat burgers,” he says. “Thank you, Mr. Zell.”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.