By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2009 Gourmet Magazine
One essential characteristic of any worthy hamburger is democracy of spirit—it should be accessible to all and not cost an arm and a leg. That’s why our list of the nation’s best burgers doesn’t include the foie-gras-filled one at DB Bistro Moderne, in New York City, or those found at famed steak houses like The “21” Club or Peter Luger.
That said, we need to begin with a fairly high-end steak house that makes what just may be the biggest-flavored hamburger anywhere. Not many places butcher their own meat, grind the trimmings, and blend their own ground beef as they do at the estimable Pine Club, of Dayton, Ohio. The spectacular hamburger is a mix of aged prime sirloin, tenderloin, and dry-aged lamb. Broiled medium-rare, the hefty half-pounder reverberates with knockout meat power. Regulars have it with melting clods of blue cheese on top and an Anchor Steam beer on the side.
The hamburgers people fall in love with tend to be proletarian eats, and their natural habitats are the drive-in, the roadside stand, and the old-fashioned lunch counter. Lunch-counter burgers share a single quality: lack of extremism. Not too thin, not too fat, neither spartan nor gobbed with anything exotic. The ideal incarnation, as served at Houston’s Avalon Diner (next to the Avalon Drug Company), is five inches in diameter and less than a half inch thick. Its crust has crunch, its interior is juicy enough to imprint the bun but not oozy, and it is cooked through with only the faintest hint of pink inside. All alone, it might be boring, but in full lunch-counter dress—topped with melted cheese and accompanied by sliced tomato, lettuce, mustard, mayonnaise, onion, and pickle—and packed into a bun whose insides have been grilled in butter, it is an American classic.
A whole book could (and should) be devoted to pub burgers, but in our experience the one you’ll get at R.F. O’Sullivan and Son, a watering hole in Somerville, Massachusetts, stands above all others. Actually, we shouldn’t say one—the menu lists a few dozen versions topped with all kinds of cheeses, bacon, onions, peppers, salsa, even sausage. Condiments aside, these are superior measures of meat, a good four inches thick. They cook for at least 15 minutes on the charcoal grill, inhaling maximum smoky flavor and remaining succulent enough to demand you tuck a napkin in your shirt collar before the first bite triggers a geyser of beefy juices. Stella’s, just outside Omaha, also serves a fine pub burger. It is not as outsize as O’Sullivan’s, and there are fewer options available, but it is a thing of humble beauty. How humble? The cost is a mere $4.50. It comes on a broad square paper napkin rather than on a plate.
If you are looking for a hamburger that is really big—and also bunned, the way any self-respecting hamburger ought to be delivered—the place to go is Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub, in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Denny’s everyday menu lists hamburgers that are two and three pounds, as well as special-order ones that weigh in at six, fifteen, and fifty pounds, for which the buns are custom-baked.
For seekers of maximum height, rather than width or weight, three destinations are essential. First is the Penguin, of Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Full Blown Hemi is an outlandish pile of three one-third-pound patties available southern-style with chili, mustard, onions, coleslaw, bacon, and pimento cheese. The burgers themselves are super: thick, craggy patties oozing juice. Amazingly, although the meat is monumental, the condiments copious, and the bun normal-size, the mighty Hemi is wieldy enough to pick up and eat without significant spillage. Less ambitious appetites can have a Big Block burger—two patties—or a one-patty Small Block.
The Anchor Bar & Grill on the shore of Lake Superior also is known for its triple-decker, called the Gallybuster. It is a mountain of food: three one-third-pound patties of beef layered with melted cheese and piled with caramelized onions. These sinfully oily hamburgers have tremendous bar-burger appeal. There is little else of note on the menu other than excellent french fries and a long list of porters, ales, bocks, and lagers to drink. We believe that the best of all triples is served by a Houston lunchroom called Lankford Grocery. The taller-than-it-is-wide sandwich barely can be lifted in two hands, and at the slightest pressure of jaws or fingers the three patties, cheese, bacon, and condiments start to slip and slide. Even if you can get the thing from its wax-paper wrap to your face, there is no way a normally hinged human jaw can embrace any significant portion of it. It isn’t only size that makes Lankford’s hamburger essential: The burgers themselves are wonderful, each patty a gnarled, uneven circle with crunch to its crust and juices that erupt the moment that crust is breached.
You’ll have no problem hoisting a Squeezeburger at Sacramento’s Squeeze Inn, although it looks more like a work of art than lunch. Not a fancy-food work of art, but hash-house art, for sure. Onto a handsome, hand-formed one-third-pound circle of grilling beef, the cook piles a double fistful of shredded cheese. The heat of the meat and the grill around it causes the cheese to melt and to flow like lava out beyond the edges of the hamburger it covers. By the time the burgermeister lifts it off the metal, the circumference of the cheese has become dark gold and brittle-crisp while an inner aura closer to the meat is good and chewy and pliable enough to be bent upward like the petals of a flower, and, of course, the cheese that has remained on top is creamy smooth.
A similarly striking cheeseburger has been the specialty of a Manchester, Connecticut, dairy bar called Shady Glen for over half a century. Long before highfalutin chefs started wowing modern gastronomes with food that is as dramatically beautiful as it is tasty, Shady Glen was transforming ordinary cheeseburgers into edible sculptures. Made of ordinary American cheese and slim patties of 90-percent-lean beef like anyone can buy at the market, the dazzling burgers are created by laying the sliced cheese on the grilling meat patty so that the edges of the cheese grill, too. As the hot cheese begins to toughen, the cook flips up its still-pliant corners and curls them above the meat. The parts that have been bent upward offer a luxurious chewy-cheese texture, as well as toasty edges that are crisp enough to break. It adds up to a cheeseburger that is a textural delight and a thing of beauty.
The inordinate number of burgers from Connecticut on this list is not because it’s our home state. Connecticut really is cheeseburger paradise, plus it is home to Louis’ Lunch, of New Haven, which claims to have invented the hamburger sandwich in 1900 when Louis Lassen decided not to waste steak trimmings at his lunch wagon but to ball them up and fry them. Today, hamburgers are served on toast because when Lassen began serving them, there was no such thing as a hamburger bun. It was his genius to sandwich the meat patty in toast so it became edible without utensils, even portable. The Lassen family still cooks its burgers in a delightfully old-fashioned metal broiler that holds the meat suspended between two heat sources so the fat drips off as the patty cooks. The result is a sphere with big-beef taste, available with or without onions, on plain toast or toast with Cheddar cheese spread. You can also get sliced tomato, but ketchup is not allowed at Louis’ Lunch.
Connecticut also has a couple of compelling warm-weather-only hamburgers: the made-to-order, craggy, dark-crusted, juice-dripping spheres at Harry’s Place, in Colchester, and the flatter ones (but also cooked exactly as ordered) at the shockingly inconspicuous Clamp’s, in New Milford, the business card of which reads, “No Sign, No Address, No Phone, Just Good Food.” If you like grilled onions, Clamp’s might become your favorite burger on earth. Here they are cooked until soft and caramel-sweet. And on the subject of good-weather eats, we also salute the laudable Shake Shack, in New York City’s Madison Square Park, where you can have your grill-pressed but still juicy cheeseburger on a buttery potato roll and accompanied by a masterfully made St. Louis-style concrete—a milkshake so thick it can be turned upside down. Shake Shack is open year-round, but picnic-style service always reminds us of summer, even when the temperature is freezing.
A lot of good hamburgers come from grocery stores or former grocery stores, the two shining examples being Kincaid’s, in Fort Worth, and Phillips, east of the Mississippi Delta. Kincaid’s was merely a corner grocery store until one day in 1964 when the butcher decided to grind up some leftover chuck steak and turn it into great big burgers. Customers raved, and soon space was cleared along the grocery shelves for people to eat while standing up in the aisles at lunchtime. Eventually, tables were added, and now Kincaid’s is known for its lean and lovely charred half-pound burger, served with lettuce, tomato, and condiments inside a capacious bun. Hamburgers are presented wrapped in tissue paper that becomes a handy drop cloth for all the juices that inevitably squirt out.
Phillips’s burgers come wrapped in wax paper inside a bag for easy toting, and when you peel back the wrapping, particularly on a half-pound Super-Deluxe, it is a vision of burger pulchritude. Cooked on a hot grill, it is a thick patty with a crunch to its nearly blackened skin. Inside, the meat is smooth-textured and super-juicy. There has long been speculation about why Phillips’s hamburgers are so delicious, but when asked for details, the cooks say only that the recipe has been handed down since 1948, when Mr. and Mrs. Phillips took over the grocery store. Some time ago, a rumor went around Holly Springs that the trick was to mix the meat with peanut butter, which was categorically denied. Frankly, we wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to these burgers’ secret. Our honest suspicion is that the mystery is not any stealthy spice or condiment at all, but every Mississippian’s favorite ingredient—tradition. Phillips’s hamburgers are cooked on the same grill that has been used since the beginning.
So much for multiple-layer burgers, heavy burgers, and tall burgers. All true burger hounds know what is yet to be honored: the smallest of all burgers, known as the slider. Once considered the most ignoble branch of hamburger cookery, sliders have become trendy in recent years, and it is not unusual to find the little meat divots served as butlered hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties and on menus in expensive taverns. Tasty as a gourmet slider may be, its soul is déclassé, which is why we cannot think of a more suitable place to eat them than Hunter House Hamburgers, in Birmingham, Michigan. Topped with grilled onions and pickles and, if desired, cheese, and served on steamy little buns, they are slightly bigger than White Castle’s, but small enough that two to four make a meal.
Finally, a northwest hamburger that must be inscribed on every eater’s life list: the Huddy Burger. On the menu of Hudson’s, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, there are no side dishes at all, no french fries, no chips, no slaw, no garnishes. The choices you will make are whether you want single or double, cheese or no cheese, and if you want “both” (meaning pickle and onion). The burger itself is a lunch-counter masterwork, a little bit crusty with lots of beef flavor in its juices. When Todd Hudson gets an order (which he does about every five seconds during lunch), he grabs a fistful of beef, forms it into a patty, and slaps it on the grill. As burgers cook, he uses a sharp knife to form little clusters of sliced onion and pickle to go on top of them. When you receive your hamburger at the counter, you have another choice to make: ketchup, hot ketchup, or hot mustard. These last two are said to date back to the Great Depression, when they were concocted extra spicy as a way to keep customers from consuming too much of them.
Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub
Hunter House Hamburgers
Penguin Drive-In (permanently closed)
1921 Commonwealth Ave.,
R.F. O’Sullivan and Son