With the start of barbecue season upon us, burgers are on my mind. Grilling at home gets the best burger results, as you can customize using your favorite ingredients. Still, I’m always seeking good burgers at restaurants, partly for ideas and inspiration, and partly for sheer deliciousness.
I think of burgers as falling into three categories. Budget burgers come from national fast food chains like McDonald’s to local places like Kidd Valley. Gourmet burgers are high-end affairs that can come at considerable cost, typically for higher quality ingredients. Ma’ono and Metropolitan Grill fit this category, and remarkably I’ve yet to try the burgers at either of these places. Mid-range burgers are the ones that fall between these categories, though the boundaries are far from firmly defined.
Earlier this year, I helped with Seattle Weekly’s “Burger Battle” on the Voracious blog, where we decided to level the playing field as much as possible by judging classic cheeseburgers. No fancy garnishes allowed, just cheese (preferably cheddar or American), lettuce, tomato, and onion. This took away potentially subjective toppings like olive tapenade, fig jam, and seared foie gras. Besides, I’m actually a big fan of the basic burger, just as a plain cheese or Margherita pizza suits me fine.
Looking back at burgers I’ve eaten lately, I’ve come to realize that my biggest beef is with the bun. My main outcry: Ban the brioche! I don’t understand why restaurants feel the need to fancify a burger by going brioche. First, this can create a terrible bun-to-beef ratio. Second, brioche has bad structural integrity. A juicy burger hitting a brioche bun is like an oversized truck hitting I-5?s Skagit River bridge. It’s complete cause for collapse. And don’t get me started on a hard roll, which dominates and decimates a soft burger.
Just give me a squishy sesame bun with crumb that’s soft but “woven” tightly enough to support the meat and toppings–and their juices. Or a potato roll. Slightly sweet is okay; untoasted is fine.
It’s really helpful to see a number of burgers at one sitting, so read on. As it’s a collection that was shot over time with different cameras at different angles, it’s hard to make true comparisons. But I bet you’ll find a favorite, or at least a style of burger that you like. Most are in Seattle, but I’ve thrown in some interesting extras. Included is what may be my favorite burger in Seattle, with worry that the quality has slipped of late, as well as my pick when USA Today asked me to select a “great burger joint” to represent the state of Washington.
I start with this one from Uneeda Burger because it’s not only photogenic, it’s also a solid contender at under $5. The simple sesame seed bun does its job well, playing a supporting role without dominating the burger. (Good salt level, smokiness, and char.)
Here’s the house burger at POP Kitchen + Bar. Nothing special, and I could have lived without the bacon, though the Macrina potato roll is okay (but could have been softer).
This is a half-pound Snake River Farm (American Wagyu) burger from SPORT Restaurant & Bar. The beef is delicious, but the house-baked bun is too bready.
The much-lauded Palace Kitchen Royale burger puts a half-pound of ground chuck on a Dahlia Bakery onion roll. The beef was more dense than I prefer, though full of flavor and good char. I understand the need for a strong bun to support lots of beef and toppings, but this was a little too much bun.
“The 8 Oz.” namesake burger at 8 Oz. Burger Bar features a half-pound blend of sirloin, tri-tip, short rib, and chuck. My visit, it was cooked quite red for a medium-rare order. While I applaud the use of local bakeries, the brioche bread from Grateful Bread wasn’t cut to a desired proportion. The bun was top-heavy, with the thin bottom on the hard side but then quickly getting soggy. Due to the poor construction, the burger fell apart after a few bites, making me reach for extra napkins.
“The Burger” at Skillet Counter is flavorfully fancy with bacon jam, arugula, and creamy blue cheese. The brioche bun, again, is not my favorite choice.
Zagat recently chose Broiler Bay, in Bellevue, as best burger in the Seattle area. I’m not sure why. The pre-formed patties, separated by paper dividers, are thin and too dense. That’s a cardinal sin for burgers. Patties should be loosely packed, creating more surface area which enables browning and crisping of the meat. This also allows the cheese to ooze into the nooks and crannies of the patty. And while the Franz Bakery sesame seed bun is a fine choice, it’s much broader than the thin patty, creating a bad bread-to-meat ratio.
A look at Seattle-area burgers should include Dick’s Drive-In. The inexpensive burgers are cheap, decent, convenient, and with a quality perception that rises with level of drunkenness.The simple bun is more than adequate for the simple burger.
At Zippy’s Giant Burgers in White Center, the buns are good, as are the patties, which are cooked to a nice, salty crust. Pictured is the “No. 11,” featuring Mama Lil’s Kick Butt Peppers, made with Hungarian goathorn peppers from central Washington. (Unfortunately, the fries aren’t very good at Zippy’s.)
Here’s a specimen from what’s been my favorite burger joint in Seattle: Li’l Woody’s. I’ve enjoyed the hand-formed, Painted Hills beef patties with smoky flavor and the simple, soft buns. (The fries are also good.) When I’ve asked for more information, I’ve simply been told they’re “plain hamburger buns.” But…
My last two burgers from Li’l Woody’s have been a little less satisfying. Here’s a cross-section of a burger I ate at the new Ballard location. The bread-to-meat ratio is bad. I’m not sure if they’ve changed buns, or if the buns are simply getting too dry.
When USA Today asked me to pick a “great burger joint” (not necessarily the best burger) to represent the state of Washington, I chose Pick-Quick Drive-In, then located only in Fife but now also in Auburn. Pick-Quick is the place to visit when you want the whole package: cooked-to-order burgers (with soft buns), greasy-in-a-good-way fries, and thick milkshakes.
Moving beyond strictly the Seattle area, I find Five Guys to have a perfectly serviceable burger at reasonable pricing. Sometimes the burger’s a little on the salty side, but it’s satisfying.
One of the most interesting and delicious burgers I’ve had this year is the Office Burger from Father’s Office in Los Angeles. Virtually everyone at the gastropub’s two locations orders the burger. Beautiful beef, lots of arugula, Maytag blue cheese, caramelized onions, and bacon compote. I forgive the use of the French roll.
Charm City Burger Company in Deerfield Beach, Florida, serves perhaps my favorite burger of the year. $5.25 gets you a “Good Ole,” the simplest choice. The burger has one-third pound of daily ground steak blend, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, cheese, and Charm sauce. Buns are baked daily, and without doubt you’ll want to skip the whole wheat oat bun to get the simple sesame one.