The Best Burger
The beef patty on a bun is America's contribution to world cuisine. Our food critic takes a cross-country -- and artery-clogging -- journey to find burger perfection.March 10, 2007
Patties of ground beef weighing from 1 ounce to 15 pounds, often not seasoned and cooked until gray, then served as a sandwich, usually between two halves of a compressible, flavorless untoasted bun, are this nation's leading contribution to world cuisine. In their fast-food form, burgers provide quantitative evidence for the charge, more widespread than ever, that Americans are a bunch of insensitive louts.
But all across the country there are places, almost all of them locally owned operations, that cook and sell my idea of a first-rate burger. And I've been on a hunt to find the best of them. After braving aortic clogging in several dozen of the nation's most highly touted burger joints and burger temples, I found burger perfection -- in the form of a simple bacon-topped double patty dusted with cayenne -- in the heart of a big city, but along the way tasted everything from fast-food's big names to haute-cuisine burgers with foie gras.
After a certain amount of time spent wallowing in burgers, you inevitably begin to see complexity where most people just see a simple dish. But a fellow who is about to announce his choice for the WGB (World's Greatest Burger) should have an aesthetic, a set of standards that guide his judgments in burger court. So here is mine.
First, the burger is more than the sum of its parts. You take a bite of all of it at once -- the meat, the bun, the condiments and any other additions such as raw tomato, lettuce, fruit, nuts. At the hallowed Primanti's on Pittsburgh's gritty 18th Street, they put the fries inside the burger. And it's pretty good.
If you are any good at burger degustation, you should be able to add all those sensations up in your debauched little sensorium and then, and only then, try to sort out what went into it. It should start with beef, the humble ground chuck -- not the pricier ground sirloin or any other variant. Chuck has the Goldilocks amount of fat, not too lean nor too much like hand cream. Chuck also has the right mouth feel; it gives the teeth something to do. You also want a patty thick enough so that it can be charred yet remain moist within. I like mine medium rare, because I want the fat in the meat to get hot enough to melt and spread its flavor. The patty should be seasoned with salt and pepper, at the very least.
The bun is a crucial component of the dish. Toasted bread is not bad for a change-up, but a bun is better, gives better grip and more al dente contrast to the meat. The best bun is a sesame bun, lightly toasted and warm. There is nothing wrong with the braided pretzel bun at the Rosebud in Chicago, but the raised pattern is an eccentric distraction and the bun too doughy, in my view.
From there on, individual preference rules. The eminent burgerologist Jimmy Buffett disclosed his recipe for a "cheeseburger in Paradise" thus:
I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz Fifty-Seven and french-fried potatoes.
Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer.
I applaud all this but see no reason why the great man doesn't go for a couple slices of bacon, very crisp, and a sunburst of melted cheddar.
One other thing: If it's too big to fit in your mouth or hold easily in your hand, so big that you have to use a knife and fork, well, I'm not coming back.
I can't pretend I have sampled every good burger in every Hamburger hamlet and town. Nor was it humanly possible to follow up every recommendation. So this is a necessarily subjective report on a vast territory, an assessment by one person of one dish and the obsessive passion it provokes.
No one knows just how the first American burger chef took the ground beef patty that came over with German immigrants in the early 19th century and turned it into a sandwich. The hamburger steak (no bun) appeared on a New York restaurant menu as early as 1834, but the evolution from the naked patty that Eastern European cooks like my grandmother from Lithuania called a cotelette or kutlett is a mystery. At least three traditions champion different men as the culture hero who turned a chopped beef patty into a sandwich. The most vehement keepers of the flame congregate at Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn., where the faithful insist that a certain Louis Lassen put what we would call a burger patty between two pieces of bread in 1895. You can still buy a descendant of this ur-burger there, but don't you dare ask for a bun.
Another contender for the burgerbirther title is a Texan, Fletcher Davis, who may have served a hamburger at a stand at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Out of respect for this Lone Star claim, we flew into Austin, where we remembered with awe the burger we ate at a stand known as Dirty's in 1971. Local legend has it the grill had finally been cleaned after years of ritual neglect. I doubt this explained the impressive lack of flavor in this thin and lackluster sandwich. (One did much better at an antiseptic retro drive-around place not far away called P. Terry's.)
At the other end of the hamburger spectrum, highflying chefs have taken our classic burger, given it a makeover with luxury materials and the culinary equivalent of bling. I do not love these "gourmet" burgers made by men who wear toques blanches instead of T-shirts. Their fancyburgers are as awkward and condescending as pop songs recorded by opera stars. I don't cotton to funky meats, ostrich or the buffalo burgers Ted Turner sells in a chain that, with characteristic humility, he calls Ted's Montana Grill. Like many good chefs trying to survive in a business-casual world, Daniel Boulud has tried to put his stamp on popular comfort food by adding foie gras to a burger at his Manhattan DB Bistro Moderne. The talented Laurent Tourondel has lost his way at BLT burger in Greenwich Village with a menu of overwrought burgers with too much class for their own good. Other chefs around the country grind up precious Kobe beef for burgers that just ooze fat and melt weirdly in your mouth. I don't want truffles either. I want the slightly chewy mouth feel of chuck in my burger. The best compromise I found between these $50-plus concoctions and the humble drive-in sandwich is Danny Meyer's open-air Shake Shack near his much grander Eleven Madison Park.
Mr. Bartley's Cheddar Burger
Cooks at Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage in Cambridge, Mass., start with 85%-lean custom-ground chuck. A stainless-steel machine called an AccuPat designed to make meatballs produces 7-ounce patties that are just 4 inches across. (Forming the balls by hand, "especially today with gloves," creates too much heat, says Billy Bartley, son of the founder.) Each burger is placed on a hot flat-top grill, lightly weighted and flipped only once. The roll -- "It's an envelope," says Mr. Bartley, "a means of delivery" -- is a sesame-seed roll that is smaller in diameter than the cooked burger.
Here is our take on how to make a Bartley's cheeseburger at home.
- 7 ounces of chuck, 85% lean, ground
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola
- 1 slice of the sharpest cheddar that can be sliced without crumbling
- 1 sesame-seed bun, toasted
Season the meat with salt and pepper, and form into a 4-inch-by-1-inch patty. Handle the meat as little as possible.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until very hot. Add a small bit of oil to the skillet, and swirl to coat the bottom. Add the patty and cook, turning once, until cooked to desired doneness (about 7 minutes per side for medium-rare), pressing down slightly on the patty with the back of a spatula every so often. For a cheddar burger, add the cheese to the top of the patty after flipping it. Serve immediately on the bun.
Shake Shack, which will awake from hibernation March 21, draws crowds because, despite its finesse, it does not highhat. The burger concept -- the most successful food idea since mother's milk -- does not need to be improved with culinary finesse and luxury ingredients. If you're not content to eat a great burger made from average beef on a normal bun, you've missed the point. Are you French?
I love a good hamburger. But I loathe bad hamburgers, especially the most famous fast-food burger. The only Big Mac attack I ever get is a headache after eating one. For this caper, I did not hang out at the big burger chains, stuffing myself with thin, dried patties and Kleenex buns in cookie-cutter stores with all the atmosphere that regimented teenagers glum about their coolie wages can provide. I'm an equal-rejection consumer, choosing to have things my way not at McDonald's, Burger King or other places of their ilk where I am sure to be gravely underwhopped.
I confess that I did make the pilgrimage to the oldest operating McDonald's, in Downey, Calif., outside Los Angeles. The attached museum was a hoot with its vintage McDonald's stuff and pictures of old stores, but the Downey store itself lived up to the company standard of predictability: All burgers were mediocre, dry and tasteless. The decor was as tacky as anywhere else in the McEmpire.
The only exception to the curse of the chain that I know is In-N-Out Burger, which achieves a friendly, immaculate atmosphere with its red and white tiles and teenagers out of a Spielberg film of suburban life. The burgers are unspectacular -- fairly thin, cautiously seasoned -- but they do pass the char and juice test, barely. For its spoiled Hollywood mogul fans, In-N-Out must fulfill some yen to escape from high-pressure lunches at Spago.
Am I immune from this Rousseauian urge to retreat to the simple life through burgers? Not at all. As I ate burgers from coast to coast, I realized that my passion in this area is a simple, id-driven lust. I love a burger just like the burger that I got from dear old Dad. Or with him, in a "bar and grille." This led me to little, intimate places, distinctive and unpretentious diners and taverns like the bar in Cheers but with better burgers: thicker, charred, seasoned.
In Detroit, where I consumed my first hamburger in 1944, the returning native can motor from one end of a metropolitan area devastated by urban renewal and economic implosion to the other, tasting excellent burgers in settings that preserve or recreate the ambiance of better days. Miller's Bar serves handmade hefty, grilled-to-order burgers -- nicely charred, with optional slices of raw onion, on waxed paper without plates -- to capacity lunch crowds in a cheerful, low-key bar-restaurant on Michigan Avenue near the once-worldbeating Ford Rouge Plant in downriver Dearborn.
Ford's, as older locals call it, is, to put it politely, on the wane, but inside Miller's, it's easy to feel like it's the day the place opened in 1950 and the Tigers still are playing in Briggs Stadium at the downtown end of Michigan Avenue. An eight-point buck's head is etched in the mirror behind the bar, and the bartender reminisces with a regular about the most burgers eaten at Miller's in one sitting: "I've seen 11."
The portions are much smaller at The Hunter House in the posh northern suburb of Birmingham. Just a mouthful, really, but a mouthful topped with fried onions, the same way they did them here back when the Red Crown gas pump in the corner of the little diner was still filling 'em up.
By the time it took to drive the 15 miles downtown to Slow's Bar BQ, I was ready for a burger with a forward-looking attitude. The people who opened this temple of eclectic barbecue two years ago this St. Patrick's Day had to be optimists. Slow's is at the bleak edge of Detroit's Corktown, the Irish enclave where Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium now stands derelict and the most prominent competition for Slow's is a bar called O'Blivion's; aross the way is another monumental hulk, Michigan Central Station, where we once caught the Wolverine to Chicago and no trains chug any more. Inside Slow's, customers start arriving around 11 a.m. Premium beer flows. Pulled pork is pulled. And I get my best sandwich of the day. The beef is charred. The cheese is Gouda with a nice snap. The bun doesn't ooze away under finger pressure.
This is an important point, practical and historical. Burgers are finger food. The bun, among its other virtues, keeps your hands dry, or should, and lets you pick up the meat without making you wish for a finger bowl.
This principle made me wary of the one-pound burger at Nick's Tavern in Lemont, Ill., a Rust Belt backwater some 20 miles south of Chicago's Midway airport. Indeed, Nick's is more successful as a shrine to the Chicago Bears than as a burger Shangri-La. A fellow in a billed cap cooks your giant burger to order, steaming it, in effect, under a metal cloche. No detectable salt perks up this slab of meat.
You'd be much better off spending your cab money on a loop from Boston out to Cambridge, Mass., for a textbook well-charred burger at Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage in Harvard Square. At seven ounces, it's a hair shy of the ideal, but perfectly cooked and nicely enveloped in a sesame-seed bun.
I found another classic burger in Seattle at the unpretentious Red Mill Burgers in the quiet Phinney Ridge neighborhood near the zoo. Following Northwest Coast custom, even the basic burger has lettuce.
But wait. I can hear a million Angelenos wondering, "When will he get to L.A.?" Yes, there are great burgers in Los Angeles. I love the Apple Pan. The burgers are cooked to order, flavorful, just big enough for lunch. Nevertheless I think the best burgers in America are three time zones away...in Atlanta.
The Vortex, a pseudo-biker joint that you enter through a human mouth, serves an estimable burger, as good as any in Tinseltown. Even better is the well-charred number with beautifully crisped thick-cut bacon at the Earl, in East Atlanta.
But the outstanding hamburger experience I found in an odyssey of several months and thousands of miles was at Ann's Snack Bar, a justifiably renowned little diner on a broken-down industrial stretch of highway.
Miss Ann, as habitués call her, is a woman of commanding style and ready banter. She works alone at her grill, patting each ample patty lightly as she sets it down. Her masterpiece, the "ghetto burger," is a two-patty cheeseburger tricked out with bacon that she tends closely in a fryolator.
Observing Miss Ann in action would be enough of a show, one perfected over many decades. But while she demonstrates the extreme economy of motion of a superb short-order cook, she simultaneously carries on a running dialogue of lightly sassy repartee with customers she knows.
Then Miss Ann dusts your almost-ready patties with "seasoned salt" tinged red from cayenne pepper. It looks like a mistake, too much, over the top. But when you get your ghetto burger in its handsomely toasted bun envelope, you regret doubting the lady for one second. The big burgers stand up fine to the spice. This is the next level in burgerhood. And it just barely fits in your mouth.