May 1 marks my one year anniversary of reviewing hamburgers for AHT. During the past 12 months I have reviewed almost 60 hamburgers, mostly in New York City, but also in New Jersey, Long Island, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Los Angeles, and London, England. Despite publishing that many posts I must admit that I still get a tingle of excitement when, at 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning my review goes live and I get to see how the final layout looks.
My appetite for burgers has not waned in the least—far from it. In fact, at the first pang of hunger my first instinct is to eat a hamburger, an impulse I have to deny as I am fighting a losing battle with a rapidly expanding middle aged spread. These days I try to limit myself to a single hamburger per week.
After sifting through my posts, I now bring you an overview of my year in hamburgers.
Condiment and Bun Preferences
I came to AHT with a preference for small, griddle cooked burgers topped with American cheese and served on plain white buns. A year of eating burgers critically has not changed that, but I have become more open minded when it comes to trying different burgers. However, this has not helped me overcome my phobia for the brioche as a burger bun. There have been admittedly some brioche that I found to be just fine—Minetta Tavern and 5ive Steak come to mind—but only when the sweetness is dialed way down. I found these two cases the exceptions that proves the rule. By and large, brioche buns are far too sweet for the savory nature of a burger. I found this at Spitzer's Corner, Delicatessen, and again recently at Great Jones Cafe (which served another wise, brilliant hamburger).
For a similar reason I have stopped using ketchup altogether, a condiment I used to put it on every burger I ate. When reviewing burgers I look for what is unique with each one; putting ketchup on them tends to get in the way of this.
What is the Best Burger?
I am not big on the concept of the "best burger." When people ask me what the best hamburger out there is I reply that it is the next one that you eat that will satisfy both your soul and your hunger. This can come in the form of a cheap diner burger or an expensive chef creation using a custom beef blend. Having said that, a $5 hamburger has a much better chance of impressing me than a $25 hamburger.
Case in point: I recently had a burger delivered from Joe Jr, which was also the first review I published for AHT. Getting a burger delivered is not ideal, but I only live a block away and on this occasion it showed up quickly and was piping hot. Peeling open the foil wrapper revealed a plump burger brimming with juiciness. The bun had a glossy sheen from the beef juices and the cheese oozed out between the bun halves obscuring the patty. My first bite—a perfectly balanced synthesis of bread, cheese and beef—revealed a vibrant red inner flesh beneath a salty, crisply charred crust. I thought to myself that this was the only burger that mattered at that moment in time. It left me wanting for nothing. Further, I felt that if this was the only burger I could eat, or was the final burger that I would eat, it was all that I needed. This humble, less-than-$5 burger from a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant that epitomizes the term "greasy spoon" perfectly encapsulated everything that makes a hamburger so great—It was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Having said that, I am positively enraptured by the Black Label blend at Minetta Tavern, a $26 uber burger made from dry aged ribeye. Unlike prior efforts at constructing the ultimate hamburger that involve using extraneous ingredients such as foie gras or imported Wagyu beef, the Black Label blend from Pat La Frieda is an earnest attempt to elevate the hamburger experience while staying true to the fundamentals of burger-craft.
Burger Joints that Stand the Test of Time
I ate at some historically significant hamburger establishments in the last year, including Louis Lunch, which dates back to 1900 and purports to be the birthplace of the hamburger, White Manna (Hackensack, NJ) and White Mana (Jersey City, NJ) which date back to the 1940s, and Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington D.C., established in 1958. In Los Angeles I visited the classic Apple Pan (1947), Cassell's (1948) Bob's Big Boy (1949), and Pie N Burger (1963).
Mostly Good with a Few Disappointments
I ate some of the best burgers of my life in the last year, such as the classic cheeseburger from JG Melon, the aforementioned Minetta Tavern Black Label burger and its predecessor (now called the City Black Blend) at City Burger, and the ever popular Shake Shack.
By far the worst burger I ate was the one at the now defunct Bamn Automat, closely followed by the Big Mac from McDonald's. I know that a lot of people were upset with my April Fool's review of the iconic Big Mac, but the fact is that it is a sloppily assembled burger constructed out of inferior ingredients. Although I know a lot of people view the Big Mac with nostalgia—I do myself—the reality of the situation is that there is no reason to consume frozen burgers when chains like In-N-Out Burger and Five Guy's can deliver world class burgers from fresh beef.
So, that was my year in hamburgers. I feel it is an honor and a privilege to write for AHT and I want to thank everyone at Serious Eats for their support and especially to Robyn who puts up with my blown deadlines and awful grammar*. But most of all I want to thank our readers who allow us to do what we do: Your passion fuels mine.
*Editor's note: No need to be so hard on yourself; we're lucky to have you and we love your burger reviews no matter how they come! :)