Last week I got to participate in something that was pretty awesome. I was honored to be invited to sit on the panel of judges for Magic City's Best. Founded by local State Farm Agent Sean O'Daniel, each month they choose a new category of food or drinks from Billings, with the goal of crowning a winner for whatever the category might be. For October, the category was Signature Burger.

I love food, but I'll admit I was somewhat nervous as I pulled into a parking spot and entered his office. It had been a while since I got to be a food judge and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Inside the front door, a circle of chairs was set up around a small coffee table and a trash can in the middle. Most of the other judges were already there when I arrived and I took my seat. I forgot to count, but there were about 12 of us.

Credit: Burger Dive

I ate 13 hamburgers in one sitting.

Ok, some disclosure. I sampled 13 hamburgers. It would be difficult for even the hungriest competitive eaters to finish over a dozen full-size hamburgers (many of them appeared to be at least 1/4 pounders). In the backroom, the burgers were sliced into 6  to 8 pizza-shaped wedges and were brought out to the judges on unmarked serving trays. We were encouraged to sniff and examine our samples before scarfing them down.

Dylan Ayer, Townsquare Media

After a 1/2 hour of eating, you start to get full.

Even though each sample size portion was small, I was surprised how quickly I started to feel full. About halfway through the 90+ minute judging session, my stomach was nearly at its limit. On the first three or four burger samples, I ate the whole piece. Soon, I was taking just one bite out of each hamburger and tossing the rest. The garbage can in the middle of the floor was full of cardboard serving trays and pieces of burgers by the end of the contest.

Photo by Miha Rekar on Unsplash

There were so many different amazing burger flavors.

Judges were instructed to rate each burger sample on a scale of 1.0 to 5.0 and offer feedback after every sample. It was interesting to note how each judge ranked their sample. Some didn't like spicy foods, so if the burger had jalapeno's or a zesty sauce, they would give it a lower score. One burger had pineapple, which some judges thought was gross. A few entries received lower scores from nearly every judge ("overly bland", "lacking flavor"), while a handful of burgers were almost unanimous favorites. I gave a couple of samples slightly lower scores because I felt they were a little on the rare side. A purely personal preference.

Photo by Giorgi Iremadze on Unsplash

And the winner is...


There were so many burger entries in the contest (25 total) that judging was split into two days. Scores from both days were tallied and the champion Signature Burger was from the Marble Table. Other top finishers include delicious burgers from Diamond X Beer Co, Mooyah, The Midway Grill & Brews, and Hooligans. You can see the rest of the Top 10 on Magic City's Best Facebook page. Interestingly, a Double Whopper from Burger King received a fairly high score on the day that I judged.

Magic City's Best was started as kind of an in-house competition at O'Daniels office when the pandemic began last March and everyone started ordering food. Since then, it's become significantly more organized. The judging panel has now covered a number of food & drink categories, from best tacos to best club sandwiches. Novembers category is Best Mac n Cheese.

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Entries for Magic City's Best are donated by each participating restaurant. In turn, O'Daniels tabulates what the total cost would be for all of the food and cuts a check to a different charity each month for that amount. To date, they've donated thousands of dollars to local non-profits like Landon's Legacy, American Cancer Society, A.W.A.R.E, Montana Stockgrower's Association, and others.

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