12 Burgers in 8 Hours, a Burger Bender

Editor's note: Kenji Alt is a food writer for Cook's Illustrated magazine who takes a special interest in burgers. He is also a madman. You might remember his post on The Blumenburger, where he followed Heston Blumenthal's burger recipe, which takes 30 hours, 4 minutes and requires 32 ingredients. He's back, this time with an epic feat that took only 8 hours but seems far more grueling in our book. I mean twelve burgers?

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Don’t get me wrong. I love living in Boston, and the city’s got a lot to offer, but among those things, there are a few key items that are missing (particularly for a former New Yorker): delis, decent bagels, pizza (I’d settle for even vaguely edible pizza), good hot dogs, and great griddled burgers. Now there are a lot of locals who will disagree with me and point to any number of restaurants that serve acceptable but unremarkable chopped-meat sandwiches. I’ve yet to find one that I don’t take major issue with.

R. F. O’Sullivan is too damn big to eat with your hands. (Why don’t Boston burger joints understand the concept that bigger is not necessarily better?) Once you get past the atmosphere, Bartley’s Burger Cottage patties, while juicy and greasy, are underseasoned, mealy, and frankly, bland. And despite (or because of) UBurger's spurious claim that their burgers are made of fresh ground beef (don’t believe it—they buy preground chuck just like most other places and mix it together with a nominal amount of house-ground stuff), they cook up with that rubbery feel that only an overcompressed, overworked patty gets.

Yes, I have ground beef envy. New Yorkers have been blessed by a burger renaissance, and every couple of weeks, when my slight burger pangs become uncontrollable fits of sandwiched chopped-cow lust, I’m moved to take the 200-mile trip to the city. (Of course, my New Yorker fiancé believes me when I tell her that I’m coming down just to visit her.)

Like an alcoholic who gets wasted the night before jumping on the wagon, I decided to try to cure my burger cupidity by going on a daylong feeding frenzy. A burger bender, if you will: 12 burgers in 8 hours.

In the name of good journalistic practice and as a way to justify my gluttony as research, careful notes were taken at each location, and burgers were ranked in the following ten categories:

Juiciness: 1 = hold the napkins, please; 10 = permanent beef-stains on your pants.

Fat Content: 1 = Jaleel White from Family Matters; 10 = Reginald VelJohnson from Family Matters.

Grind Coarseness: 1 = identifiable muscle groups still remain; 10 = what Danny would have looked like had Jack Nicholson caught up to him in The Shining.

Size, in ounces: When the joint couldn’t provide the info, best guesses were made. This is pre-cooked weight.

Bun Integrity: A perfect bun should be cohesive enough that it can be saturated with juices and just barely hold together. Any firmer, and it distracts from the meat. And softer, and you might as well use a knife and fork.

Grilled or Griddled: I always prefer griddled burgers (rare exceptions to be noted below), but tried not to let this bias influence my assessments.

Temperature on target?: Did my medium-rare burger arrive to my table perfectly rosy pink from edge to edge?

Beef Flavor: 1 = “meat” that could have been grown in a petri dish; 10 = like licking a cow in it’s most flavorful spot (if you don’t know where this spot is, I’m not telling).

Burger to Bun Ratio: Ideally, the patty should ever so slightly hang off the edge of the bun. There’s nothing worse than the all-bun-bite you get at the beginning and end of a badly proportioned burger

Seasoning: Without the proper amount of salt and pepper, the best beef in the world is still gonna taste like cardboard. It may be moist, juicy, beefy cardboard, but it’s still cardboard.

And before I get any comments about why I picked these ten places, I picked them because some of them are old favorites, some are places I’ve wanted to try, and some just happened to be reasonably close on a map (you try walking more than a few blocks with seven burgers in your belly).

Louis’ Lunch

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We start our journey on the way down from Boston before we even make it to the city. After a quick preliminary burger at Wendy’s to set a baseline for our judgment (not included in the 12-burger line-up), we stop in New Haven. I’m not going to take sides on the debate over the birthplace of the hamburger or whether a burger without a bun can still be considered a burger. All I can say is that Louis’ Lunch was damn tasty—all the more so because of the decades of abuse the wood in the place has received.

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  • Juiciness: 4. Light, airy, and flaky. No chin-dripping here, but I didn’t miss it.
  • Fat Content: 3. I was skeptical of their use of extra-lean beef, but in this case, I didn’t miss the fat. The looseness of the patty made up for it.
  • Grind Coarseness: 4. Large chunks of beef, but no gristle.
  • Size: 5-6 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: Despite its Wonderbread appearance, toast holds up surprisingly well to this hefty burger.
  • Grilled or Griddled: N/A. Unique amongst the joints visited, Louis' Lunch uses the same up-right vertical cast-iron salamanders it’s used since opening in 1895.
  • Temperature on target?: No choice. Vertical grills are not too powerful, resulting in a burger that had a big band of grey, overcooked meat on the outside, though the center was perfectly medium rare.
  • Beef Flavor: 9. Huge.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: 4. No bun to speak of, but the corners of the toast make it impossible to fit the burger perfectly.
  • Seasoning: Under.

Overall: 5 - Definitely worth a visit, if only for the historic value. Make sure you bring a saltshaker with you, but leave the ketchup at home (they won’t allow it). I know purists stay away from the Velveeta cheese spread they use in lieu of slices (a vertical grill won’t allow for them), but it adds much needed moisture and salt to this otherwise very beefy burger. 263 Crown Street, New Haven CT 06511 (map); 203-562-5507

Burgers, Shakes, and Fries

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A newcomer to the Connecticut burger scene, the owner is a young, very friendly guy with confidence issues. Don’t worry—we liked your salted caramel milkshake, so stop asking! Self-debasing antics aside, he put out a very respectable burger. Homemade burger sauce (which the owner describes as a chipotlé tartar sauce) is recommended—the beef itself is relatively bland.

  • Juiciness: 8.
  • Fat Content: 6.
  • Grind Coarseness: 8.
  • Size: 5 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: Taking a cue from Louis’, BS&F serves their burger on toast..
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled.
  • Temperature on target?: Yep. Nice charred exterior, perfectly pink interior.
  • Beef Flavor: 3. Load up on toppings, because you’re not going to taste much beef here.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Same toast, same toast corner problems.
  • Seasoning: 9. Granted, the owner overheard us complaining about lack of seasoning at Louis’ and made sure our patties were well salted.

Overall: 6. If you’re driving through Greenwich Connecticut, it’s worth a quick stop. 302 Delavan Avenue, Greenwich CT 06830 (map); 203-531-7433

Schnäck

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Our first snag: Closed.

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And according to the Korean grocer next door, it has been for a couple months. Looks like Zach Schnäck up and left without even wiping the daily specials from the blackboard.

DuMont Burger

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Our first stop in the city. My sister lives right near this two-location restaurant off of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. I had the burger at DuMont To Go. Heavy wood, cast iron, lots of hipsters, really like the style. Complaint: The chef puts some kind of “secret” ingredients into the beef, giving it an odd, sweet, Worcestershire-like flavor. One major rule for burgers: The patties should be beef, and beef alone. You can put salt and pepper on the outside, but don’t you dare mix anything into it. What you get then is a meatloaf sandwich, not a hamburger. The manager on duty also refused to let me take photos inside because the chef “is very particular about his food and doesn’t want photos taken unless he plated it himself.” Hmm.

  • Juiciness: 9. But it’s not burger juice it’s “special sauce” juice.
  • Fat Content: 7.
  • Grind Coarseness: 7.
  • Size: two sizes, a 9-ounce large, or a 5-ounce not-quite-as-large, but large.
  • Bun Integrity: The smaller burger comes with “ciabattina” bread, a cute, posh, and ultimately deceptive way of saying, “crusty chewy bread that will squish your burger out the back while you try to eat it from the front.”
  • Grilled or Griddled: Grilled.
  • Temperature on target?: No complaints here.
  • Beef Flavor: Where was it? Beef flavor was drowned out by whatever was injected into this patty.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Perfect—at the beginning. As your burger slowly gets squished out the back (see “Bun Integrity” above), the ratio is gradually pushed out of whack.
  • Seasoning: 9. The chef (or whoever was there in his stead) knows how to salt his meat.

Overall: 3. Juicy, tasty, and filling in its own way, but weird flavors are just not what I want in a hamburger. Advice to the chef: open up a meatloaf joint instead. 314 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn NY 11211 (map); 718-384-6128

J. G. Melon

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After our Brooklyn detour, we head to Manhattan.

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J.G. Mellon has the smallest kitchen-to-seats ratio I’ve ever seen, but the amigos in the kitchen still manage to get our burger to our table within minutes of sitting down. After seeing the greasiness of the griddle, I’m looking forward to this one.

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  • Juiciness: 3.
  • Fat Content: 8. Not sure if it’s from our patty alone, or if it’s just collected extra fat from the never-been-cleaned flat-top it was cooked on.
  • Grind Coarseness: 3. You can practically pick out entire steaks from the patty, albeit very tender steaks.
  • Size: 7.
  • Bun Integrity: Collapsed halfway through
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled.
  • Temperature on target?: Almost—it was slightly overdone. How could it be on target when they clearly start cooking burgers long before they’re ordered?
  • Beef Flavor: 6.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Almost ideal.
  • Seasoning: Major fail. No salt and pepper whatsoever. Adding it at the table is just not the same.

Overall: 6. Perfectly melted cheese, a great bartender, the loosest packed of all the burgers we had, and a nice charred crust vaguely make up for the lack of seasoning and bun problems. 1291 Third Avenue New York NY 10021 (map); 212-744-0585

McSorley’s Old Ale House

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I’m reminded of the scene from Office Space. You can get a burger anywhere. You come to McSorley’s for the atmosphere, and the attitude. Sure enough, we were greeted by a server who had NO pieces of flair, and our burger was cooked by a homey looking lady who looked like she’d put back a few too many McSorley’s Darks.

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But there’s something about eating a burger in a place with sawdust on the floor and glass windows in the toilets that the franchise chains miss…

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  • Juiciness: 3.
  • Fat Content: 5.
  • Grind Coarseness: 6. Seems like standard supermarket ground chuck.
  • Size: 5-6 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: The bun held up, but only because it was as old as the bar. (That’s 150 years).
  • Grilled or Griddled: Neither—broiled.
  • Temperature on target?: No choice here. The burger came on the well-side of medium.
  • Beef Flavor: 7.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Bun is about 1/4-inch too wide.
  • Seasoning: A little light.

Overall: 4. Not bad after you’ve had a few rounds of ale, but I’d stick to the crackers, raw onion, and super-hot mustard until you’re reasonably intoxicated. 15 East 7th Street, New York NY 10003 (map); 212-473-9148

Gray’s Papaya

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  • Juiciness: 10.
  • Fat Content: 10.
  • Grind Coarseness: 10.
  • Size: About 3 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: 8.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled
  • Temperature on target?: Perfect pink all the way through.
  • Beef Flavor: Is this beef? I’ve never probed, nor do I ever intend to.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Perfect. They hung ever so slightly out of the edge of the bun, giving you that perfect first-bite snap.
  • Seasoning: Perfect.

Overall: 10. Adam, I’ll send you a jar of sauerkraut if you let this slip through. [Kenji: Someone will be in touch to provide you with shipping info. —Ed.]

B.L.T. Burger

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Ever since having eaten the DB burger at Daniel Bouloud’s Bistro Moderne, I’ve been skeptical of any fancy-pants chef putting their spin on a burger. Daniel, you missed the mark entirely, and your dense meat-globe with very tasty shortribs in the center is barely recognizable as a hamburger. But your fries are perfect. Let’s hope Laurent Tourandel can do a little better.

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But moving on, I’m liking the cow part diagrams and Long Horn heads stuck up on the walls.

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A preliminary order of chili-cheese fries are disappointing (the fries taste soggy and frozen, and collapse under the chili), but I’m not here to taste fries. On to the beef.

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  • Juiciness: 8.
  • Fat Content: 8.
  • Grind Coarseness: 7.
  • Size: 5.
  • Bun Integrity: Started to break apart right at the end.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled.
  • Temperature on target?: Slightly over, but I didn’t mind—the burger was still fabulously juicy.
  • Beef Flavor: 9.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Perfect. The slightest beef overhang.
  • Seasoning: Perfect. If there’s one thing a French Chef understands, it’s the importance of proper seasoning.

Overall: 8. Hats-off to Monsieur Torandel. Near perfection. Beefy, juicy, just the right size, great special sauce. Two complaints: the white bun which was a little too cotton-y, and the PBR cans, which were a little too $4. 470 Sixth Avenue, New York NY 10011 (map); 212-243-8226

The Spotted Pig

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Pig-themed décor makes me wonder how their treatment of beef will be.

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Lots of overpriced animal parts on the menu here that I would have loved to have tried, but I’m on a mission, and my stomach has no room for any more sidequests…

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  • Juiciness: 9. Extraordinary.
  • Fat Content: 8.
  • *Grind Coarseness: 8.
  • Size: 8 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: Good. Brioche is not my usual choice for burgers, but in this case, everything seemed to work out pretty well.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Grilled.
  • Temperature on target?: Incredible. How they manage to get the interior perfectly pink from edge to edge, put a well seared crust on it, and maintain its loose texture is beyond me.
  • Beef Flavor: 7. Big and beefy, but a powerful melted stilton on top covers up most of it.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: bun is about 1/2 an inch too wide.
  • Seasoning: Spot-on.

Overall: 8. On paper, I hate this burger. It’s grilled, not griddled. It’s about 4 ounces too big. It’s got a fancy-schmancy brioche bun. It’s got super powerful cheese instead of American. It costs 17 damn dollars. But oddly, everything seems to go perfectly together (except the price). Beefy, salty, and truly enjoyable. Unlike many others, however, I don’t enjoy the super-thin shoestring fries, which quickly became soggy and leathery. 314 West 11th Street, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-620-0393

Corner Bistro

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I’m really looking forward to this one, since I’ve heard so many great things about it. The first thing I notice when I walk in is that they cook their burgers under a salamander. I’ve never had a good broiled burger (or steak for that matter)—radiant heat just doesn’t cut it when it comes to searing—so I smell trouble already.

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The fact that it looks like a particularly low-output salamander and that the burgers are not even deep in it (the front ends are hanging out) is another bad sign.

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  • Juiciness: 2.
  • Fat Content: 3.
  • Grind Coarseness: 7.
  • Size: 8.
  • Bun Integrity: Very squishy. Normally for a burger this size, that would be a problem, but this burger is so dry that there are no juices for the bun to absorb anyhow.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Neither—broiled.
  • Temperature on target?: Overcooked.
  • Beef Flavor: 2.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Perfect.
  • Seasoning: None.

Overall: 2. This is the one I expect to be hated for but this was by far the most disappointing burger of the day, definitely top 5 worst burgers I’ve ever had in my life (excluding cafeterias and prison dining halls). No offense to George Motz and his burger quest, and of course there’s room for all kinds of opinions out there, but how this burger could be considered the standard for a man who’s eaten at hundreds of places is beyond me. The meat was unidentifiable as beef, was cooked to medium, yet had no hint of browning on the exterior, was served so cold that the American Cheese didn’t even melt (and for those few people who’ve never had it, American cheese melts if you look at it too hard), and worst offense of all, had not a single bit of salt or pepper on it. Maybe it’s just my restaurant training, but if there’s one thing that will give a dish an automatic and egregious “fail” in my book, it’s not being seasoned.

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Big, bland, and boiled tasting. Blech. (Disclaimer: we were met up with two other friends at this pint, which is why so little of the burger is remaining). 331 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-242-9502

Five guys

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The only chain included in our line-up, and it shows in the atmosphere. As we order, we can see the guy working the grill in the back, listening to an iPod and smashing patties to the beat. And I mean smashing – he comes down so hard on the little balls of beef that each patty is broken up into four or five separate smears of meat on the flat-top. The beauty of cooking on a griddle is that the grease has nowhere to run to, so theoretically, as long as he scrapes enough fat back into the meat as he cobbles the smears back together into a coherent patty, everything should come out alright.

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  • Juiciness: 7. Good job to the cook on his grease-shoveling.
  • Fat Content: 7. Despite being advertised as lean meat, these things are grease bombs.
  • Grind Coarseness: Not sure—smashed beyond recognition.
  • Size: 3.3 ounces (for the two-patty normal burger).
  • Bun Integrity: Good, thought I’d imagine that if I let it sit in it’s foil wrapper any longer or put any more toppings than the requisite pickle and onions, there might be a little more cause for concern.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled
  • Temperature on target?: No choice—medium-well to well.
  • Beef Flavor: 5, at the highest end of the fast food range.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: The normal burger is perfect, but the single patty “small burger” gets overwhelmed by the somewhat bland bun.
  • *Seasoning: A little short, but the pickles help.

Overall: 5. If you were to divide the quality of the burger by the amount of time it took to get it, this would be the highest scoring restaurant of the trip. A pretty decent burger in under five minutes is not bad. I wouldn’t bother waiting in the half hour lines at the midtown location during lunch, though. Here’s to hoping that their rapid expansion is not going to affect their quality. Multiple locations in New York City and around the country; find one near you: fiveguys.com/store_locator.aspx

Shake Shack

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I’m heading into the home-stretch here, and my belly takes a much needed 45-minute rest as we wait on line (drinking $8 shots of wine!). I keep my fingers crossed hoping that my favorite burger joint doesn’t slip up when it counts.

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  • Juiciness: 5.
  • Fat Content: 6.
  • Grind Coarseness: 5.
  • *Size: 4 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: Excellent—toasted potato rolls are the gold standard for a griddled burger.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Griddled.
  • Temperature on target?: Regularly cooked medium to medium-well, but the grind quality keeps these things moist and tender regardless.
  • Beef Flavor: 9.5. Huge. Go to the Natural History Museum and look at the fossils of those giant prehistoric cows, then imagine squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste until every drop of flavor is extracted, then imagine shrinking that flavor like Dennis Quaid in Innerspace except instead of injecting miniaturized Dennis Quaid into Martin Short, you’re injecting miniaturized prehistoric cow into a four-ounce patty in the middle of Madison Square Park. Yum.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Perfectly proportioned.
  • Seasoning: Highly seasoned, very peppery.

Overall: 9. A near perfect burger. A beautiful crisp, salty crust with a gooey melted slice of American on top. The only thing stopping this one from getting a ten is that my toppings of choice – onions and pickles – only come on the side. Historically, onions and pickles were the logical choice of toppings – unlike lettuce and tomatoes, they stay fresh almost indefinitely with no refrigeration. Serendipitously, they’re also the two ingredients that happen to best accentuate the flavor of ground beef. I supposed In-N-Out fans would disagree.

You can often judge the quality of a restaurant by the attitude of the employees. At most burger joints, the cooks and cashiers bolt at the end of the night, putting as much distance between them and the onions and grease as possible. At Shake Shack, they stick around, eating burgers and drinking beer as they meticulously clean the equipment each night. Southeast corner of Madison Square Park (map)

'Burger Joint' at Le Parker Meridien

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This “secret” joint was one of the ones that started the loved-by-hipster retro-burger trend, and in terms of atmosphere, it’s still the benchmark. Despite being 9 burgers and 1 hot dog closer to death by heart failure, I still manage to enjoy this one.

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  • Juiciness: 7.
  • Fat Content: 6.
  • Grind Coarseness: 4. Watch as they bring new hotel pans of patties into the kitchen and you can see the large white specks of fat on the course-ground, deep red background—almost like a good salami.
  • Size: 5 ounces.
  • Bun Integrity: Very saturated and drippy.
  • Grilled or Griddled: Grilled.
  • Temperature on target?: Yes.
  • Beef Flavor: 6. Big, but overwhelmed by char.
  • Burger to Bun Ratio: Very good.
  • Seasoning: Light, but present.

Overall: 6. Very solid, and anyone who enjoys a grilled burger would probably find no fault with this one (asides from broken bun issues). Unfortunately, I can’t enjoy grilled burgers unless I’m in one of two locations: a friend’s backyard, or on the deck of a ski lodge. I’m still waiting for my rich friends to install a ski lodge in their backyard.118 West 57th Street, New York NY (map) 10019

Last Thoughts

After doing the math and calculating that I’m still 26.7 ounces shy of tackling an Ol’ 96er à la John Candy in The Great Outdoors, I gain a newfound respect for truckers, late comedians, and dead cows. Far from satiating my desire for burgers, I now realize that this burger binge was a mere appetizer for a (drastically shortened) lifetime of burgers to come.

I suppose I should give an official ranking, huh? OK, here goes, please don’t crucify me.

1. Shake Shack
2. B.L.T. Burger
3. Spotted Pig
4. J.G. Mellon
5. Burger Joint
6. Burgers, Shakes, and Fries
7. Five Guys
8. Louis’ Lunch
9. McSorley’s
10. DuMont Burger
11. Corner Bistro

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