1528 Sansom Street, Philadelphia PA 19102 (map); 215-964-9755; ladder15philly.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A good beef patty tastes even better when stacked with beef short rib smothered by beef marrow
Want Fries With That? Yes; truffle fries and a truffle mayo combo that'll make the burger seem bland
Price: Burger 15, $15
In another case of brilliantly clever naming, Ladder 15 is the restaurant occupying the vacated firehouse on 15th and Sansom Street. It's your standard charming Philadelphia watering hole and eatery combo, an ever-so-classy joint that serves up a diverse (read: random) menu of foods that pair up well with your favorite local microbrew.
Stop me if I sound like a broken record, but I've come to the conclusion that on a superficial basis, every single bar in Philadelphia is basically the same. What sets Ladder 15 apart, with regards to its menu, is a burger that is topped with shredded short rib and bone marrow. Oh yes, glorious gelatinous cow fat. Sorry, it's still on a brioche—that part hasn't changed.
Now I've always believed in the school of thought that says burgers shouldn't be about the toppings. In my mind, the quality of a burger should exist purely in how well beef and bun (okay...and maybe cheese too) are integrated. When I first came across the Burger 15 at the Philadelphia Burger Brawl, I looked at the list of ingredients—a ragu of short rib, mushrooms, onion, bone marrow, and truffle sauce—and thought that this was simply another overdressed burger attempting to try to cover up shortcomings elsewhere. It just didn't make sense that adding more beef would somehow improve on what most would consider a good burger.
But somehow it does.
The burger itself is somewhat different from what you'd expect given the description. It's built up on a brioche, first covered with a layer of braised and shredded short rib "ragu"—akin to a pulled pork—blanketed with another layer of grilled onions, stacked with an 8-ounce grilled patty of prime sirloin, and topped with caramelized onions in a truffle jus. The bone marrow appears somewhere in that equation (it used to be served on the side in a hollowed out bone for self dispersal), but it was pretty well hidden to the naked eye.
I asked for medium-rare. This is not medium-rare. It's not even really medium. You know what? It didn't matter. While the patty certainly lost a bit of texture and moisture, the flavor still sang true. Sure it probably would've been better if cooked as ordered, but the taste played out well enough to make that a moot point. It was a clean and sweet beefiness that was more than capable of distinguishing itself beneath the mushrooms, the onions, and the truffle sauce. Maybe it was enhanced by the addition of the marrow or the short rib, which provided a nice textural contrast of its own, but the Burger 15 possesses a taste unmatched by any other "traditional" bread and beef combination I've had in the past. It's like eating the freshest cow available...if I'm allowed to say that.
If the burger could only be considered good, then call the fries great. Maybe it's the side of aioli truffle mayo that pushes these over the top, but Ladder 15's truffle fries are a fantastic example of perfect execution without being excessive. Their golden orange beauties are moderately thick cut skin-on wonders that combine the qualities of a consistently crisp outer layer and firm but fluffy innards. With a dousing of truffle oil, these can certainly stand on their own when it comes to flavor, but trust me—you'll want to smother that thick white sauce all over your lips any way you can.
So what's my final opinion on Ladder 15? Well my first paragraph about sums it up. It's a pretty generic bar type place that also serves decently unique food—just like every other place in Center City Philadelphia—but they do serve up a pretty damn good burger (among the best I've had in the city) with some ridiculous fries to boot. You wouldn't go out of your way for it, but it's a good burger choice if you're already in the area.