What makes the perfect burger? Is it the meat? The bun? The right combination of toppings? The simple answer, of course, is that it’s the ideal marriage of all of the above, the perfect storm of ingredients with the end result of burger absolutism.
Sometimes, late at night, I try to conceive of what my perfect burger would look like if I took different components from my favorite local burger spots. Ok, maybe it’s a little weird, but it’s my burger fantasy, and I’m sticking to it. I’m sure if you asked 100 people what their perfect burger looked like you would get 100 completely different answers; these are mine.
Here are the rules:
- A restaurant can only be represented once.
- The components should be limited to homemade, house-ground, etc. No pre-fab buns (although local bakeries are great), commercially-produced pickles, or bottled ketchup.
- This is for Greater Boston only, or at least Boston-specific items. So, Shack Shack can be included — but only if parts of it are exclusive to Boston.
- Only restaurants that are currently open can be included.
- Only components that are on a current burger can be included. So, as much fun as it would be to include, say, a piece of Bonchon chicken on top of a patty, that doesn’t exist (not yet), so it’s ruled out.
- The construction matters. A thick bun may be great, but it would never make sense with a thin patty. Everything should work accordingly,
- For the purposes of this burger, it can only be from places that I have been to.
- No mixing and matching except for the case of condiments and toppings. Multiple condiments and toppings are the exception, but no blending of two different burgers, one top bun and one bottom bun from two restaurants, etc.
And away we go…
We’ll start from the top down in constructing this burger, and the right bun is almost as important as the right patty. You could go in a number of directions here as more and more places are making their own buns. Stone & Skillet is an excellent choice if you want to go the English muffin route (available in plenty of restaurants these days, including Russell House Tavern and River Bar) as are any number of wonderful bakeries out there.
My pick is for the ultra-buttery, light-as-a-cloud bun at Alden & Harlow. Part Parker House Roll, it’s a firmer and sturdier version of a standard bun but with so much more personality. A hefty dose of butter gives it a crisp top with a soft and pliable underside, making for pillowy magic. Usually the bun is just a holding place for the beef, but in this case, it really makes the entire package. A little salty exterior seals the deal and is my choice for the bun.
The pick: Alden & Harlow’s house-baked bun
Why don’t more places make their own condiments? With ketchup especially, I think it’s probably the fear of tackling something so familiar and beloved by most. Why make it when all people want is the bottled stuff anyway? While I don’t always advocate condiment-heavy burgers, I have to give a nod to Toro on this one.
Order the umami bomb of a burger at Toro "messy," and you’ll be rewarded with the same slathering of a topping that the renowned corn gets. Featuring cotija, espelette pepper, and pungent aioli, it elevates the burger on many levels. While there are spots offering house-made ketchup and many versions of aioli and mustard, the spread at Toro is unmatched and must be included.
The pick: Toro’s "messy" sauce
Normally, I’m very anti-tomato and/or lettuce on my burger (I don’t care how fresh it is) because I just don’t think it adds all that much. I don’t care for a hit of freshness, personally, when it comes to a rich and fatty burger. Balance is one thing, but I think I can still maintain that balance with the condiments and pickles that join the burger party.
However, in the interest of sneaking in some vegetables, there is only one choice, and that is the dressed greens from Craigie on Main. After the incredible patty is cooked and resting, the residual fat and beef drippings are used to dress the lettuce and onion that go on the burger. Tony Maws calls it "burger vinaigrette," and is the best thing to ever happen to a piece of lettuce.
The pick: Burger vinaigrette-dressed lettuce and onion from Craigie on Main
Runner up: Caramelized onions at Back Bay Social Club
I need a pickle on my ideal burger, and that’s a fact. Clearly something from a jar at your regular grocery store will not do the trick here, but it need not be complicated either. Grillo’s makes a fine pickle, but I’d rather go the restaurant route on this one. It has to be very sharp to cut all the fat — and as crunchy as can be.
It’s almost impossible to deny The Bancroft here because the pickles were such a standout for me recently. I’m also a big fan of the pickled vegetables at Lineage and West Bridge, offering just a little something different than the normal cucumber. jm Curley, of course, is a reliable standby with a very classic bread-and-butter approach. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t go with a unique pickle, and thus the light, crispy, and refined pickles from Lineage will get my vote, classing up this burger ever so slightly.
The pick: Lineage’s pickled vegetables
Runners up: The Bancroft, West Bridge, jm Curley
We had to represent bacon, naturally. What more can you say about bacon that hasn’t already been done to death? When treated properly, it’s a salty, crispy flavor bomb that is a not-so-secret flavor weapon every chef has in his arsenal. I like mine squarely in the crispy category. Soft and chewy is not for me. And there should be just the right amount of it, as tempting as it is to go overboard — it should still be balanced. I like big slabs of bacon as much as anyone, but sometimes I just don’t want to have to work for it.
At Bronwyn, they have a super-smoky house-made bacon that works its way both into the patty and mixed in with their onion strings. I’ll sort of break my own rule and take the diced bacon that is worked into the patty and greedily use it as one of my toppings for the patty.
The pick: Bronwyn’s house-made chopped bacon
It has to have cheese, and it definitely needs to be melted. But how many places are really doing anything interesting with it? The cheese tuile at Alden is hit or miss for most (although I like it), and when The Blue Room served a burger, it was slathered with one of the most insane amounts of goat cheese I’d ever come across. But after that, it’s really a matter of how much and what type. American cheese has its place, and just about everyone is offering Vermont cheddar nowadays.
Two spots come to mind on this one: The Bancroft and Lulu’s. The Bancroft’s steak-like burger is oozing with melted sharp cheddar. If the beef weren’t so delicious here, the cheese indeed would stand alone. Lulu’s in Allston has a beer cheese soup engulfing their self-titled "bad-ass burger," which is actually more subdued than it should be. I’m almost inclined to go with Lulu’s here, but the fact that I’ve already included the Toro messy sauce might push this creation too far over the top. So in the interest of trying not to create something too glutinous, I’ll simply go with the gushing cheese volcano at The Bancroft and live to tell the tale.
The pick: Sharp cheddar application at The Bancroft
Runners up: Lulu’s beer cheese soup, Roxy’s pimento cheese
The most important part of any great burger. Alden & Harlow, Craigie on Main, Lineage, Back Bay Social Club, jm Curley — and nods to The Gallows, Russell House Tavern, and Toro — could all make cases for themselves. Thinner patties are ruled out because the burger that is being constructed would never work.
I could argue that all the extra toppings and the like could be potentially distracting, but we need the best beef we can find, and for me that’s Back Bay Social Club. Great enough on its own, the burger is entirely made up of dry-aged beef, and it contains a mixture of prime rib, short rib, flank, and skirt steak. It’s ground each morning, then seared with plenty of clarified butter on a flat-top griddle. It wasn’t an easy selection, but it’s the best blend of beef out there.
The pick: Back Bay Social Club
Runners up: Craigie on Main, Alden & Harlow, Lineage, jm Curley, The Gallows, Russell House Tavern
In addition to writing his burger blog, Richard Chudy is co-author of an upcoming cookbook, American Burger Revival, due out in May 2015.