Pittsburgh: Does Tessaro's Serve America's Greatest Pub Burger?
"Many burger joints brag about getting beef delivered daily from a butcher, but how many places actually have a butcher in house?"
4601 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15224; map); 412-682-6809
Cooking Method: Grilled over hardwood
Short Order: Ground in house and grilled at 600 degrees over local hardwood, this pub burger achieves true greatness
Want Fries with That? Not on the menu; choose between potato salad or home fries
Price: Burger, $7.95, cheeseburger, $8.25; Gourmet burger, $9.25
When I drove through Pittsburgh recently I knew that I had to make a stop at Tessaro's to try the famed hamburger. George Motz immortalized the burger in his chopped beef–and-bun opus, Hamburger America. It is one of only a handful of burgers in that book that are grilled; the majority of his favorites are griddled. Griddled is actually my preference as well, although after eating the burger at Tessaro's I am not so sure.
You expect a place with a good burger to be packed at night. When I first showed up at Tessaro's at 9:30 p.m., weary from a day of travel, the wait was more than half an hour. Too long for my tired bones, I figured I would try again the next day on the way out of town. I got there shortly before noon and snagged the last available table, narrowly avoiding a 20-minute wait. I noticed that, despite a pretty extensive menu, everyone was eating hamburgers. Packed at dinner and packed at lunch with everyone eating a single dish—now that is the sign of a great burger.
Many places brag about getting beef delivered daily from a butcher, but how many burger joints actually have a butcher in house? Tessaro's grinds fresh chuck each morning for the day's hamburgers. Since each burger weighs in at about a half pound and almost everybody orders the burgers, they must go through hundreds of pounds a week. The beef is hand-formed into patties only moments before they grill it.
Tessaro's forms the patties with such exacting precision that you would swear they used a machine. The grill is fired with Pennsylvania hardwood; according to Motz, it is a mixture of yellow maple, red oak, and walnut chosen for its flavor neutrality and high heat. The grill can get up to 600 degrees and puts a serious sear on anything that comes into contact with it. The burgers that come off of it are simply superb.
Crusty, salty, juicy, and toothsome, burgers here approach steak in terms of mouthfeel. The exterior is striated with deeply charred hatch marks from the grill and a thick crust gives way to a buttery interior. Perfumed with an intoxicating smokiness from the grill, the beef still imparts a sweetness. Texturally, the chunky, flaky grind is just about perfect. Served on an airy Portuguese-style roll, the burger needs nothing more to achieve burger greatness.
My only complaint was that both of the burgers I ordered were served overcooked, a rare and medium-rare order came out cooked past the requested temperatures. Perhaps I should have expected this when I placed my order. The waitress was initially perplexed when I ordered it rare. "Red?" she asked quizzically. The three locals who sat next to me where equally perplexed when my burgers came out much faster than theirs, despite the fact that they had ordered before me. "How come they got theirs so quickly?" they asked the waitress.
"They ordered them rare and medium-rare," she said. They looked puzzled. Apparently ordering to temperature is not common practice at Tessaro's. I am not surprised; I bet this burger would be juicy even cooked all the way through. It would probably still be juicy when torched to the point of resembling the very hardwood that it is cooked on.
There are a number of options when ordering your burger at Tessaro's if you want more than the purity of the beef and bun. You can load it with all manner of cheese, toppings, and condiments—or just get everything in the "gourmet cheeseburger," which comes precariously stacked with bacon, grilled mushrooms, onion, your choice of cheese, and a garden's worth of rabbit food.
Either plain or loaded the burger at Tessaro's is the finest example of a pub-style burger I have had.
Actually, I'm understating the case. Tessaro's burger is one of the finest hamburgers I have eaten, period.