(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published Aug. 12.)
The most liberally shared superlative in the restaurant world, it seems, is the title of “best burger” in town. Slapped on menus and signs, thrown up on windows and barroom walls, it is a claim that means both nothing and everything.
Everything, because a burger is perhaps (especially in the heart of summer) the most iconic, American food we have, one that all regions of the country find familiar, the one dish we have successfully exported around the world, served as both a low-end luxury and a high-end commodity.
Nothing, because the title of “best burger” is used so often, it tends to be empty of meaning. Most of the time it is a title without credentials, a subjective claim that is never entirely right and never entirely wrong. The concept of a burger is so simple and satisfying, that in the right context, just about any burger can be the “best burger” you have eaten, even if you got it from under a filling-station heat lamp. In other words, even a bad burger is good.
For every great burger you’ve eaten, you can probably find a better one, or at least one that is differently but equally great. While the search for the best or perfect burger might be philosophically impossible and therefore futile, that has not stopped many from trying — including myself.
I discovered the result is not as important as the process.
The first step was to disqualify high-end burgers, good as they are — burgers cooked by chefs in fancy restaurants or gastro-pubs, places that also serve chateaubriand, grilled trout, baby lettuce or sweetbreads. It is to the burger’s credit that it can hold its own on a high-end menu, but for the purposes of this article, it is not meaningful to say a $15 burger is among the “best” I have ever eaten. A chef-made, double-digit burger ought to be very good if not the best.
The Palace Kitchen’s “palace burger royale” was the favorite Sunday night meal of Kevin Davis, the chef at the Steelhead Diner, which itself serves a superb and transcendent wagyu beef burger. Years ago while training for a marathon, Davis lived downtown at Third Avenue and Lenora Street, a few blocks from the Palace Kitchen.
“I’d go for a long run on Sunday, about 10 to 16 miles,” Davis said, “and after that, my wife and I would go to the Palace Kitchen and order the same thing every Sunday night, a hamburger.”
Save for his own burger, which he grills and dresses simply with pickles, lettuce, tomato, and homemade mayonnaise, the palace royale was his favorite.
The real challenge lies in the low end. In the world of the mass-produced, middle-market, everyday, $5 burger, burger excellence is rare.
“I could never recommend eating at a low-end chain,” said Davis, no snob is he.
I have eaten Big Macs that have hit the spot as well as anything I’ve eaten. And I have driven miles and miles out of my way to eat a burger at the superior In-N-Out chain (the closest outlet to Seattle is in California). But in that end of the market, it is hard if not impossible to do much better than mediocre.
Even at the more highly regarded chains like Red Mill, the burger is not meaningfully better than the product at Burger King, which is to say that whether you are getting your burger from Red Mill, McDonald’s, 7-11, or the annual customer barbecue put on by Stoneway Electric every summer at its Wallingford supply house, the meat in question is a pre-formed beef patty of vague provenance and can taste only as good as a frozen, factory patty.
Few foods are more convenient than a frozen disk of ground meat. But the shame of places like Red Mill is that grinding your own meat and shaping it into a patty is such an easy thing to do, it seems a no-brainer given the elevation in quality that comes with it. So while the long lines in front of its stores would say I’m wrong, the Red Mill burger is ordinary at best and is only marginally distinct from the burgers at Kidd Valley, Burgermaster, Ballard Brothers Seafood, Dick's Drive-In, or most of the places you can get a $5 burger. Most likely, they get their patties from the same place.
What’s left between the high end and the low end is the hybrid chain, a type that has surged recently as people have become more discerning about the quality of their meat and more cognizant, in general, about the quality of food. The concept is to combine fast-food pricing with high-end ingredients and preparation. The burgers in the hybrid category generally cost more than $5 but less than $10, and that is where I found my “best burger.”
These places are generally located near centers of high-tech employment, or boutique shopping, installed in sleek, clean storefronts and furnished with shiny, chic tables and chairs in order to convey the message that they are a cut above the usual burger emporium. Blue Moon Burgers, with outlets in Fremont and South Lake Union, fits the profile, but its burgers ($6) were disappointing, no different than the $5 variety despite the fact that they claim to make their burgers from grass-fed, hormone-free beef.
The wisdom of the crowd, if you believe in that particular Internet phenomenon, adores the Lunchbox Laboratory in Ballard, the anti-high-end, high-end burger. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a beach-side snack stand. Diners eat in a rummage-sale-decorated patio and order from a chalkboard menu. A burger can be had for less than $10 (for a basic, quarter-pound burger) but many far exceed that price depending on the toppings you add, and the variety of meat. The Lunchbox Lab also serves ground lamb, duck, and buffalo among others.
The beef is ground by hand on premises from fresh, not frozen, cuts of organic, grass-fed sirloin and ribeye. The patties are not grilled but seared in a cast-iron pan. The integrity of the meat is beyond question, but the result seems to be an overcooked, overwrought burger that tries too hard by offering too many toppings and fails in its choice of bread.
When good burgers fail, it is usually for one of two reasons: They rely too much on fancy toppings, or they rely too much on fancy bread. Likewise, its eater is often too easily dazzled by fancy toppings or fancy bread. Such seems to be the case at Lunchbox Lab. It is a good burger, but not great. Or more to the point, it is trying for greatness in the wrong places, by offering toppings like balsamic hoisin, and crushed green olives. The culinary concept is superb, but the burger is just OK.
Moreover, the Lab committed the sin of an unworkable bun. Its Kaiser roll resists the bite; the contents tend to want to squirt out the other end of the bun.
“You want the bun to give way to the hamburger and become part of it,” said Davis, who serves his burger on New Orleans-style, po’ boy bread. “Our bread has a very crispy outside crust like crème brulee. The inside is light and airy and it kind of dissolves and melts in your mouth. .&thinsp.I’ve had bread where the crust is good and strong and firm but by the time I finish it, my mouth is cut up like I ate a bowl of glass. Sometimes the bread takes over the bun and become more than the burger itself.”
This is my chief complaint with the burgers served at the Two Bells Bar & Grill ($8.50) and the 74th Street Ale House ($10). (And while we’re on the subject the same can be said of the bread used at Paseo’s, home of the most highly overrated sandwich in Seattle.) The bread at Two Bells and 74th Street is too hard to bite into, too difficult to chew, and makes too much work out of the burger.
“The other key to the hamburger is remembering that it absorbs seasoning very well,” Davis said. “You kind of have to over-season it.”
Davis adds kosher salt, three kinds of pepper (black, white and cayenne), dried chopped garlic (not granulated), and a little bit of ground caraway. While he prefers grilling, he concedes that searing on a skillet or flat-top also works. Gentle handling is also key, he said, so as not to let good juices leak from the ground meat.
“I take it off and let it rest,” Davis said. “I think medium rare is best. I’m not a proponent of a rare hamburger. I enjoy a rare steak, but with ground beef, I don’t find it as attractive.”
Until last week, the best burger I had eaten in Seattle that did not come from a fine restaurant was one that I made at home from beef I ground myself in a food processor from pieces of sirloin and chuck.
So after eating about five pounds of beef in five days, I found a superior $5 burger at Five Guys, a national chain that is relatively new to Seattle. The meat is ground on premises, shaped by hand into uneven patties and cooked on a flat-top. The toppings do not get much crazier than mushrooms and jalapenos.
The best $10 burger in town came from an unexpected place, The Counter, another growing chain that started in California. It is sleek, big, uniform, and clean, where the Lunchbox Lab is scruffy, small, and idiosyncratic. The Lab feels sincere and local (that virtue of all virtues), while Counter feels rehearsed and sent from another place. I was rooting for the Lab and skeptical of The Counter.
The Counter is a very sophisticated franchise with slick marketing. Its lone Seattle outlet near the Ballard Bridge is located next to the Trader Joe’s store. It is all steel, glass, concrete, and high ceilings. Young, attractive, cheerful hosts, waiters, and waitresses coddle you through the ordering process. The restaurant has a full bar and flat-panel televisions.
Like the Lunchbox Lab, it makes too big a show of all the toppings you can add, like corn and bean salsa, cranberries, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted chilies, and hard-boiled eggs. You can have your burger with 10 different kinds of cheese, or served on an English muffin or with no bun at all.
But the beauty is in its beef, a half-pound patty ground and shaped on premises from good if not perfect beef. Its Meyer brand of angus beef is free of hormones or antibiotics if not entirely organic. The half-pound weight is its post-cooking weight, not its pre-cooked weight.
Gently grilled, the meat is not charred. Medium rare actually means medium rare. The bun, a dense but basic burger bun, is effortless. The beef tastes like beef, not the medium it was cooked in. Of course, there will always be a more perfect burger. But if someone asked me where to go for the best burger in town, I would tell them, with a little guilt, to go to this chain called The Counter.
If you go: The Counter, 4609 14th Ave. N.W., Ballard, 206-706-0311, thecounterburger.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.