by Megan Leigh Barnard

No. 1 Smash

I just had a fresh beef quarter-pounder from McDonald’s. It was delicious. I’m shook.”

And with that post, chef Matthew Heaggans proved his quest for the perfect burger has few boundaries.

Of course, Heaggans was prepared for some light chiding from online commentators who were surprised to hear a Columbus culinary champ complimenting the evil empire, but that didn’t stop him from deflecting the naysayers with absolutes.

“I eat fast food sometimes. I’m fully aware of the ins and outs of it. A lot of cooks do and if you look closely you can see its reflection in a lot of upscale dining.”

Before the thread comes to an end, Heaggans assures the world that, while McDonald’s may be good, his current burger iteration, launched at Preston’s, is in an entirely different league. In a very small amount of time, Preston’s: A Burger Joint, Heaggans’ latest playground opened with Challah’s Catie Randazzo—Columbus kitchen royalty in her own right—went from a cultish pop-up for the burger faithful to many’s best burger in town.

Let the beef(s) begin, but Heaggans’ resume is dotted with stand-out burgers that have led to this no-contest moment. It’s hard to compete with evolution.

If you’ve had a burger at the Flatiron or The Rossi in the last few years, they have Heaggans’ fingerprints on them. In a quick listing of his favorite Columbus burgers, both of them reappear, as does Rockmill Tavern and the Press Grill, but he stops short of naming a number one. It’s equal parts humility and pure confidence in his food.

But what makes the Preston’s version of a smash burger so incredibly good?

“Everything is very well-thought-out,” Heaggans says of his prized burger that has taken years to refine. “The way that we stack the toppings on the burger is a conversation … actually a long conversation. We only use American cheese. We don’t have any other cheeses. We tried out dozens of buns and settled on one specific bun. Our beef is a special blend, we get it local, and we only order so much at a time. We get what we need. The ‘special’ sauce is handmade, it takes two days to make, and it’s stupiddumb to make.”

Formerly hiding out atop Three Sheets in the Brewery District, Heaggans and Randazzo have, as of last month, moved their endeavor to Woodland’s Backyard in Grandview, assuring the duo more visibility and the opportunity to experiment with their homage to junk food—and the aforementioned fast food staples. With Randazzo’s permanent Challah! inside of Woodland’s Tavern, the transition was smooth and amicable for Preston’s. In addition to table service and weekend lunch hours, they will feature new items including their take on a filet ‘o fish and a pudding du jour, to match their already indulgent “Pavlovian” menu of house funyuns, vegan Cincinnati chili dogs, and Heaggans’ decadent Nashville hot wings.

“It’s well-thought-out junk-food,” says Heaggans of the concept. “We spend a lot of time on it, a lot of effort. It’s junk-less junk-food. There’s not junk in it, it’s just probably not something you want to eat every day.”

It’s the perfect mix of nostalgia and vision. Just as Heaggans will allude to a Quarter Pounder on social media, he’ll extol the virtues of clam strips from White Castle, the need for G.D. Ritzy’s to return, and how restaurants in Columbus are upping the ante by being adventurous with relatable dishes. The collaboration between Randazzo and Heaggans was once a friendly rivalry, but both saw the potential in joining forces. In addition to the success of Challah! and now Preston’s, the two are on the cusp of opening Ambrose and Eve, a more formal dining experience that Randazzo likens to “the best dinner party you’ve ever been to, every night of the week.”

“It’s all about the experience,” says Randazzo. “It’s getting frustrating to hear people say that something is ‘good for Columbus.’ Because that means it’s not going to be that great. Let’s be better than average, let’s push the boundaries, let’s do different things.”

Our conversation diverts from Preston’s, Ambrose and Eve, and onto the Columbus food scene at large and where exactly it’s headed. The duo sees the riskier menus of places like the new Veritas, Rockmill Tavern, and Service Bar as incredibly positive turns in the right direction and they are determined to contribute to that growth will full force.

“I want everyone here to succeed. Here you can forge your own trail and do your own thing. You can do something here that no one has ever seen before. That moves the culture forward,” says Heaggans about Columbus. “We have a lot of room for independence. No one is in competition with anyone else. We are years away from that. So, it’s good that all of these new places are able to open and are also able to stretch and reach. That adds to the culture. That allows the industry to continue to professionalize. We’ll have people who are not rock stars by day and cooks by night. They’ll just be cooks.”

To wit, just try a Preston’s classic: the “special” sauce alone will convince you that everything that comes from Heaggans and Randazzo’s mouths is a philosopher’s truth. •

Preston’s: A Burger Joint is now open in Woodland’s Backyard at 668 Grandview Ave. in Grandview. Visit prestonsburgers.com for hours and more information.

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