Are there any foods that are more quintessentially American than the burger?
The simple act of cooking a patty of ground beef and putting it on a bun is arguably even more American than apple pie, and when done properly there are few foods more delicious. In order to not only honor this magical sandwich but also the restaurants that serve the finest examples of it, this year we decided to expand our ranking of America’s best burgers.
But first, a little history. The burger traces its roots all the way back to the Mongol Empire, where their tradition of mincing horsemeat was passed onto the Russians, who in turn brought it to the major port of Hamburg, Germany, in the early 19th century. The most common destination for ships departing from Hamburg was New York, and by the late 1800s restaurants in New York began serving what they called Hamburg steaks, seasoned and cooked patties of ground beef, to German immigrants. According to Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History, the oldest mention of a Hamburg steak on a menu was at New York’s Delmonico’s, a recipe developed by one of history’s greatest chefs, Charles Ranhofer.
The exact origin of the modern-day hamburger unfortunately remains a mystery, but there are several contenders. Perhaps the most well-known is Louis Lassen, who introduced a hamburger steak sandwich at his New Haven, Conn., restaurant Louis Lunch in 1900. Others claim that "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen actually invented the dish at Wisconsin’s Outagamie County Fair in 1885, and still others claim that the Menches brothers did it at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, N.Y.Regardless of whoever first applied ground meat to bread, today the burger is one of the most beloved, comforting foods in existence. You could actually argue that the cult of the burger has never been stronger.
New and long-beloved regional burger chains you once had to travel to specific states to enjoy have broken out of their regions, events like Burger Bash at the South Beach and New York Food & Wine Festivals have made competing for the title of the best burger an annual affair, George Motz’s Hamburger America has done much to popularize and make more known the lesser-known treasures across the country, and every restaurant nerd knows that high-end chefs have long felt the need to put their own stamp on this American icon (Jose Andres is the latest to take another high-profile turn with it).
This rise in quality and awareness even has put longtime burger barons like Burger King and McDonald’s back on their heels. Burger King has been experimenting with unsuccessful rebrandings (they did away with the King, renamed their French fries “Satisfries,” and changed their motto to “Be Your Way”). McDonald’s has given Ronald a new look and turned to avocados to save them, testing out a new guacamole burger. However, they’re both missing the point that chains like Five Guys, Shake Shack, and Umami Burger have taken advantage of: Americans want quality. They know a great burger, and they’ll see some of the country’s greatest on this inaugural list of the Best Burgers in America.
But what exactly defines the perfect burger?
To answer this question we enlisted none other than Pat LaFrieda, butcher extraordinaire and the creator of some of the meat blends that have gone into making some of the most heralded burgers served in America today, including Shake Shack’s and the legendary Black Label burger served at New York’s Minetta Tavern.
“The perfect burger, in my view, is one that satisfies what I am hungry for at that moment,” he told us.
And thankfully, there are plenty of different varieties of burgers around: There are the inch or so-thick patties that drip juice down your arm and give you that “rare beef buzz,” according to LaFrieda, with “a beautiful sear on the exterior, and a bright red, yet warm center,” like the one found at New York’s Spotted Pig.
Next up are the “smash burgers,” sometimes called fast-food style burgers, thin patties cooked on a griddle that get an ample crust and are “stomach pleasers, fast and effective,” according to Pat, like the one he created for Shake Shack. Finally, there’s what LaFrieda calls the “aged steak in a burger experience,” masterpieces that raise the humble burger to fine-dining status, the best-known most likely being the aforementioned Black Label, which sells for $28.
In order to compile our ranking, we assembled a list of nearly 200 burgers from all across the country, from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Hillsboro, Oregon. Building upon last year’s suggestions from authorities including John T. Edge and Josh Ozersky, we combed existing best-of lists both print and online, dug through online reviews, and left no stone (bun?) unturned. Even though each of the burgers we found was unique, certain qualities were universal: high-quality beef, proper seasoning, well-proportioned components, and an overall attention to detail that many would call “making it with love.”
In order to keep the playing field even, we didn’t include chains that have expanded outside of their home cities and have lots of locations, meaning that chains like Shake Shack and In-n-Out will be left for another day’s ranking.
We compiled a survey which was then taken by a panel of 50 noted writers, journalists, bloggers, and culinary authorities from across the country, asking them to vote for their favorites, limited to the ones that they’ve tried.
We then divided these burgers up by region, and compiled a survey which was then taken by a panel of 50 noted writers, journalists, bloggers, and culinary authorities from across the country, asking them to vote for their favorites, limited to the ones that they’ve tried. We tallied the results, and the burgers that received the most votes are the ones you’ll find here today.
So read on to take a tour of the U.S. through the lens of its best burgers. We’ll let the great Pat LaFrieda get the last word:
“Americans love burgers because we see them as something that our country has pioneered. They are inexpensive, they fill our bellies, and most importantly, they carry a link back to a memory of comfort and safety at some point in our lives. That all equals fun in eating, making it no longer a comfort food, but instead an American pastime.”
1. Kuma Burger, Kuma's Corner, Chicago
It’s the sign of a great food city when you can find two crazy restaurant waits within three blocks of each other. So it is in the case of Hot Doug’s (closing later this year) and Kuma’s Corner, some would argue Chicago’s best hot dog and burger joints. It’s not a quiet place to eat — the restaurant’s ethos is "Support your community. Eat beef. Bang your head." But with all the pyrotechnics that go off when you take a bite, the heavy metal doesn’t just make sense, it’s a perfect fit. There are burgers with tomatillo salsa and fried chiles, burgers with Sriracha and grilled pineapple, but if you have to choose just one, go for the signature, the Kuma Burger: bacon, sharp Cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a fried egg. It’s not as though there’s not enough flavor in the burger, but that egg... whoah. It’s nothing short of burger perfection, and it’s the best burger in America.
2. Luger Burger, Peter Luger, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Because of this burger’s location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and its lunch-only appearance on the menu, out-of-town visitors are likely to have an easier time than New Yorkers experiencing New York City’s best burger. There are no bells and whistles, but Peter Luger has been handling meat since 1887 and its rich, ½-pound Luger Burger made from porterhouse and prime chuck roll trimmings is worth New Yorkers figuring out how to sneak out of the office for a long lunch. Burgers are molded into a coffee cup, emptied onto the high-temperature broilers used for the restaurant’s steaks until they develop a dark crust, and then settled into a sesame-studded bun. For a few dollars more you can have cheese and thick-cut bacon, a bit more of a chewy affair, but either way, if the famed gruff waitstaff unsettled you when you sat down, you’ll have forgotten them after the first bite. Just make sure to arrive before 3:45 p.m. when they stop serving it.
3. Black Label Burger, Minetta Tavern, New York, NY
Sure, the côte de boeuf, roasted bone marrow, and various ungodly delicious potato renditions are big reasons why Minetta Tavern was called the city’s best steakhouse and awarded three stars by The New York Times. But no less the stuff of legend is the Black Label Burger. Prime dry-aged beef sourced and aged for six to seven weeks by Pat LaFrieda is well seasoned and cooked on a plancha with clarified butter, developing a glorious exterior. The fussed-over burger is nestled onto a sesame-studded brioche bun designed specifically for it, topped with caramelized onions and served with pommes frites. Juicy, funky, salty, soul-satisfying, these words lose meaning in the presence of a burger this good. Minetta is a bit of a scene, and it’s going to cost you $28, but if you consider yourself a lover and connoisseur of the country’s best burgers and you have yet to make this pilgrimage, you better get moving.
4. The Father's Office Burger, Father's Office, Los Angeles
What do you get when you go to Father's Office, chef Sang Yoon's gastropub in Los Angeles (now in both Santa Monica and Culver City)? No table service. And no pretention. There's a wood-paneled, comfortable vibe of a great local lived-in spot, but it's clean, to the point, and one of The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Restaurants of 2012. There are great craft beers and small bites (think smoked eel, sobrasada, Spanish mushrooms, and white anchovies). You can also "Eat Big" and opt for the spicy oatmeal stout ribs or the bistro steak. But let’s face it, you're there for the Office Burger, which many people in LA refer to as the city's best burger. There's nothing bougie or frou-frou about it, just caramelized onion, bacon, Gruyère, Maytag Blue, and arugula. It's a very, very juicy burger with funk, freshness, and great flavor. Checklist item? You bet.
5. Green Chile Cheeseburger, Santa Fe Bite, Santa Fe, N.M.
Down the Old Las Vegas Highway (the original Route 66), the green chile cheeseburger served at Bobcat Bite, founded by Mitzi Panzer in 1953, has been hailed by Hamburger America's George Motz, Roadfood's Jane and Michael Stern, Food Network, and even Bon Appétit as not only the zenith of green chile cheeseburgers, but perhaps one of the greatest burgers, period, in the country. A recent dispute between the Panzer family and John and Bonnie Eckre, who took it over 12 years ago, forced the Eckres to move to a new location on Old Santa Fe Trail and adopt a new name, Santa Fe Bite, but the restaurant’s legendary ginormous burgers — 10-ounce house-ground, boneless chuck patties cooked to temperature preference and blanketed with green chiles under white American cheese on huge, ciabatta-like buns — remain. And for that we should be very thankful.
6. Build-Your-Own Burger, Burger Bar, Las Vegas
Known as “the other Keller” (besides Thomas, obviously) to fine-dining enthusiasts who have long enjoyed his exquisitely crafted modern French food at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and to the Las Vegas dining public for having created a $5,000 hamburger at his Fleur in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Hubert Keller is an accomplished Alsatian-born chef who has lately established a reputation for producing sensibly priced burgers of great quality at his Burger Bar (with additional locations in San Francisco and Beijing). The basic burger here is certified Angus beef on a plump bun with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and dill pickle, but the menu allows extravagant customization, offering roughly 50 accoutrements including such diverse add-ons as coleslaw, black truffles, smoked Gouda, jalapeño bacon, guacamole, and shrimp.
7. Double Cheeseburger, Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta
Every night at 10 p.m. on the dot, 24 burgers emerge from the kitchen at Holeman & Finch Public House, and that’s it. Even though they’re not listed on the menu, these burgers are often spoken for well in advance (they can be reserved at any point during service), and for good reason. Each double-patty burger of fresh-ground grass-fed chuck and brisket comes topped with American cheese, pickles, onions, and homemade ketchup, and is served on a toasted house-baked bun alongside fresh-cut fries. Chef Linton Hopkins (who developed this burger while he was battling cancer; it’s the only food he didn’t lose his taste for) chose to offer this burger on such a limited basis in order to let the other items on his menu get their due, but if you’d prefer not to take your chances you can also try it on Sundays, when it’s featured on their brunch menu. We suggest it; it’s one of the best burgers in existence.
8. Bash Style, Burger & Barrel, New York, NY
“Bash Style,” for the uninitiated, means onion and bacon jam, pickles, American cheese, special sauce, and most importantly, a killer blend of meat cooked medium-rare by chef Josh Capon and his team. These are the foundation of what you could argue has become unparalleled burger greatness: Capon’s clubby SoHo spot is a veteran winner of Burger Bash, the marquee event of the South Beach and New York City Wine & Food Festivals, having claimed the title four times in five years.
9. The Original Burger, Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Conn.
Sigh. Deep breath. A conversation about Louis’ Lunch is never simple. Is it the birthplace of the hamburger? Supposedly, one day in 1900, a gentleman hurriedly told proprietor Louis Lassen "he was in a rush and wanted something he could eat on the run" resulting in a blend of ground steak trimmings between two slices of toast being sent with the gentleman on his way. But is it a "burger," or is it a "sandwich"? Some argue that historically and semiotically speaking, the "original burger" is a sandwich and not a hamburger because a hamburger is technically a ground-beef patty on some form of yeast bun. It’s a smart conversation, one it would be fun to get Chicago’s deep-dish lovers to take on (theirs is a casserole, not a pizza). But because of the "it’s a burger" answer that comes from 99.995 percent who answer the "what-is-this" question, and because, well, give us a break, it’s a place in the pantheon of hamburger sandwiches (how is a burger not a sandwich anyway?), Louis’ Lunch made this list.
Sandwich, hamburger, whatever. So what do you get? A flame-broiled burger made in a vertical hinged-steel wire gridiron that cooks the burgers on both sides at the same time. That’s what. It’s a hamburger sandwich supposedly made from a blend of five cuts of ground steak. If you want condiments, you’ll have to ask. The extent that your burger is going to get tricked out is cheese, tomato, and onion. No mustard, ketchup, or mayo. But do you really need all that? You can practically taste the nostalgia. And that never disappoints.
10. Hickoryburger, The Apple Pan, Los Angeles
This standalone counter-only burger-and-pie place in West Los Angeles hasn't changed since it opened in 1947 (well, except for the prices). The Apple Pan's signature Hickoryburger is a juicy round of hickory-smoke-infused ground beef on a reasonably standard bun anointed with mayonnaise and a secret sauce that tastes like slightly spiced-up ketchup. Pickles and lettuce complete the package, with Tillamook Cheddar melted on top for an extra 50 cents.
See more of the country's best burgers.
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