Editor's note: San Diego contributor Erin Jackson recently returned from Toronto, and will be reporting on several burger finds from her hometown over the next few weeks. —The Mgmt.
Big Smoke Burger
830 Yonge St., Toronto ON (map); 416-922-8585; bigsmokeburger.com
Cooking method: Charbroiled
Short Order: A potentially great burger that is disastrously overcooked
Want Fries With That? The poutine was the best part of the meal, but by no means excellent
Price: Cheeseburger, $6.75; Poutine, $5.25
Craft Burger (now Big Smoke Burger) was one of the first purveyors of upscale burgers in Toronto. The premiere location on King Street West was enthusiastically welcomed, as Torontonians shared the long-time-coming good news: The burgers were actually good. Gaining a following was a relatively easy task to accomplish in a town where most restaurants still viewed the burger as a commodity food. All you had to do to stand out was use fresh beef, a decent bun, and produce that had some modicum of flavor and the hipster foodie contingent would come en masse and happily pay any price.
Under the previous name, the burgers garnered positive reviews from local media, including being named best cheeseburger by BlogTO. All signs pointed to a positive experience and a burger worth sharing, but when I visited Big Smoke Burger for myself, my expectations were quickly leveled. Despite doing the most important thing right (using fresh, good quality beef), Big Smoke also does the most crucial thing wrong.
The good news about Big Smoke Burger is they use triple-A fresh ground chuck, and offer an extensive variety of toppings, like jalapeño havarti, flavored mayos, and roasted red pepper, but no matter how much you dress up the beef, when it's overcooked, it's DOA. This is definitely the case at Big Smoke, where the default burger temperature is medium well. It's also bad news for most hamburger fans, including 41 percent of AHT'ers, whose preferred temp is medium rare. By comparison, medium well got only 15 percent of the vote.
So what gives? The most likely culprit is Toronto's strict health code, which mandates that burgers must be cooked all the way through, until they are "brown or gray." In response, many burgermeisters overcook their patties in the name of safety (and at the expense of flavor). Both cheeseburgers I had at Big Smoke (at two different locations) were poster children for the ills of this policy. Any moisture, flavor, or character was completely cooked out of the beef, rendering it a dry, nearly-lifeless meat puck. It's a shame, because when I strained my taste buds enough to taste the beef, it was clear that it was good quality. Even though it was overcooked, there were some echoes of rich, fatty flavors. Had the patty been cooked to medium rare, or even medium, it easily would have been about ten times better.
Without gobs of mayo or distracting toppings, my standard cheeseburger had no hope of salvation. The only ingredients that registered with any enthusiasm were the pickle and the smoked cheddar cheese. The single piece of romaine lettuce wilted quickly, the tomato was tasteless, and the bun was your standard commercial-grade.
Upgrading the defacto fries to poutine is almost always a wise move, and this time was no exception. Thick beef gravy coated the crisp, skin-on spuds, which were topped with Ontario cheddar cheese curds. The curds weren't fresh enough to squeak, and melted into little puddles once I snapped the photo, but they did have a tasty, subtle tang. If you only have one chance to eat poutine in Toronto, you owe it to yourself to go to a proper poutinerie, but Big Smoke's version is still a worthy upgrade over regular fries.
The burgers at Big Smoke may have been good enough during the first wave of Toronto's burger boom, but the more exposure locals get to burgers that are cooked to a proper medium rare, the better. The good news is there are a few places that get it right, like Allen's, or the subjects of my next two reviews (coming soon).