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This ain’t a scene, it’s a hamburger arms race.

Vegas already knows what you’re going to do. After the poker hand you thought was a sure thing and all that free whiskey you got while playing, and after whatever comes next, you’re going to wake up with an anvil wedged into your forehead and there will be only one way to get it out: a big-ass burger, ideally couched next to a similarly enormous pile of fries.

Your choices for this meal will be as vast as the array of slot machines along the Strip. You can get your burger grilled over cherry wood, topped with mac and cheese, or marinated in ponzu sauce. You can get one from Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, or Bobby Flay. And they’re all going to be way more over-the-top than the standard patty you’re used to ordering at home.

Vegas’ Strip used to be one long buffet of steak and shrimp cocktail, but now even the fish joints shout from the billboards about their towers of bacon and grade-A patties. The city has experienced an arms race of the burger variety, with each celebrity chef trying to top his competitor not only in flavor but in frills.

How did Sin City shift from a Rat Pack watering hole to the corral where celeb chefs square off to be the king of burgers? One Frenchman with a hail Mary idea wound up changing the way Americans eat their favorite meal, in Vegas and beyond.

In 2004, Vegas developer Bill Richardson planned to open a shopping mall at Mandalay Bay, which he then owned. Richardson had also convinced chef Hubert Keller to recreate his upscale French restaurant Fleur de Lys, and had one more big favor to ask: A restaurant had dropped out of the casino’s shopping center last-minute, and the empty space would look like an open sore in the glitzy mall. Could Keller take it on?

“Before even seeing the space, I said yes,” recalls Keller, mostly because he liked Richardson a lot and knew the casino needed the help. But his go-to idea was already taken: a brasserie was opening elsewhere in the building. Then he remembered that, in Manhattan, Daniel Boulud had introduced his foie-gras-and-short-rib stuffed DB burger to great acclaim. America’s favorite patty was getting the gourmet treatment.

“That was like a brushfire across the country,” says Keller. A French chef hawking an upscale burger was both the trigger and permission to do Burger Bar, a restaurant with handmade patties, toppings inspired by classic French cooking, and craft beers on tap.

“When my friends heard we were doing that concept, they called me up and said, ‘What are you doing? What do you know about burgers?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know anything, that’s the problem.’” When Keller lifted the Burger Bar’s electric gate on the first day, he thought: “This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

It wasn’t, of course; it just took some tweaking to better serve the Vegas eater. Keller quickly learned he had to give people the classic toppings they expected, like American cheese and bacon, as well as novel and fancier alternatives such as foie gras and black truffles. Vegas’ gourmet burger scene had officially arrived. Ever since, these over-the-top combinations have grown to represent what Vegas is really about, for better or for worse: all-American, all-out indulgence. It’s down-home and upscale: comfort food you can proudly post to your Instagram feed.

Soon, burger joints were anchoring almost every new casino; these days, Joel Robuchon, Wolfgang Puck, and Guy Fieri all have their take on the hand sandwich. Michael Mina’s Pub 1842 serves a Peanut Butter Crunch Burger loaded with bacon jam, potato chips, pimento cheese, and peanut butter. Fieri’s versions, quite fittingly, come with toppings such as onion rings, pastrami, and mac and cheese. Even Keller gets into the novelty game at his upscale French restaurant Fleur de Lys, with a $5,000 burger. (Technically, he explains, you’re shelling out for a $5,000 bottle of Petrus Bordeaux. The burger that comes with it is free.)

For many Vegas celeb chefs, burgers are also an opportunity to capture a customer that would never stumble into a restaurant where the filet mignon costs $55. Mario Batali explains that the ones sold at his B&B Burger & Beer restaurant in the Venetian use the remains of the beef that’s served at the Carnevino steakhouse, located in the same casino, to make a house blend that’s both high-quality and cost-effective. The pub’s location is also closer to the poker tables than the Venetian’s restaurant row, so it “attracts people who want a quick bite before they head back to the tables.” That’s the Vegas strategy: you gotta win over both the high-rolling diners and the hungry slots players.

Flipping burgers in Vegas isn’t the same ballgame as, say, opening a burger spot elsewhere; Sin City has its own hamburger learning curve. “I had no idea how competitive or big the burger scene was out here,” says Christina Wilson, who moved from Philly to work for Gordon Ramsay at Steak and headed up the opening of Gordon Ramsay Burger at Planet Hollywood. She also realized that serving burgers at a Vegas-sized restaurant is different than serving them anywhere else.

“Some people say it’s just burgers,” explains Wilson, “but when you’re cranking out 1,500 to 1,800 a day, the [allowable] margin of error is a lot smaller than if we had an a la carte restaurant.” Before opening the restaurant, the BurGR team spent five months studying meat combinations, grills, and cooking times so the mass production is now down to a science. When a BurGR grill cook has a service with no returned plates, it’s proudly called “throwing a no hitter.”

While plenty of chefs go to Vegas to cash in on a restaurant idea they’ve proven elsewhere, burgers are one of the few menu items where Vegas innovates. Colin Fukunaga grew up working in his grandfather’s L.A. sandwich shop and regularly eating at In-N-Out. After moving to Las Vegas and working for Planet Hollywood and P.F. Chang’s, he had the idea to launch a Japanese burger truck, Fuku Burger, where the beef is marinated in a combination of soy sauce, lemon-pepper seasoning, and sesame oil.

Because of its new-ish concept and lack of a celebrity name, Fuku Burger wasn’t an immediate hit. In order to survive, Fukunaga depends on a following of local foodies, parking his truck where hospitality people go when off-duty. He attempted to open Fuku Burger as a restaurant in three different locations before finally thriving in Chinatown.

Many of the Vegas chefs who’ve made a good living flipping burgers eat them at other restaurants, to stay up on trends and keep tabs on the competition. Andre Rochat, a 35-year veteran of the Vegas food scene, regularly goes to the Burger Bar for Keller’s spicy lamb burger. Wilson loves the house-cured ground beef at The Old Homestead Steakhouse. Even with all of Vegas’ options, Fukunaga still favors the pure joy of a trip to In-N-Out. As ever, Vegas remains the perfect place for a mix of high- and low-brow comforts; you can have your foie-topped burger for dinner and some In-N-Out to soak things up the next day.


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