In my mind, there are two kinds of burgers. First there are what I would call “burger joint” burgers, burgers that are basic and uncomplicated, without a lot of fussy toppings or hoo-hah over ingredients. The Californian chain In-N-Out makes a textbook example of a good burger joint burger; secret menu aside, it’s just nice, juicy beef that’s gone just a bit black on the griddle, fresh vegetables, special sauce, and plastic cheese melted intimately into the patty’s every dimple and crevasse. Back in Los Angeles, In-N-Out was my old standard, but I especially loved Pasadena’s Pie ‘N’ Burger (good pie there, too) and Westwood’s Apple Pan (which also has good pie). Of course, my all-time favorite burger joint is probably the venerable and perpetually crowded Kewpee’s, a Racine institution beloved for its simple yet mystifyingly delicious cheeseburgers and bemoaned for its crappy six o’clock closing time.
The other kind of burger is the gourmet burger. These burgers are complicated, fancy, and often as tasty and flavorful as they are pretentious and difficult to eat, all gussied up with exotic toppings or ingredients. Sometimes gourmet burgers are pretty simple, but they achieve “gourmet” status by using things like aged cheddar from Vermont, aged beef from Scotland or Japan, and ciabatta buns from some local bakery. Others just pile on the fixins: avocados, artisanal bacon, blue cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, weird aiolis, relishes and chutneys, greens and microgreens, pestos, wasabi, herb and spice blends, Spanish and Italian charcuterie, pineapple, ostrich, buffalo, moose, and roasted peppers are the stuff of gourmet burgers. Lately, chefs in Tokyo and New York have been upping the ante by using ridiculously luxurious ingredients like foie gras, black truffles, and gold leaf to make burgers so posh they’re more like absurdist objects of social commentary than actual food.
If I sound cynical about gourmet burgers, it’s because I am. Too often gourmet burger chefs seem to use exciting ingredients as nothing more than razzle dazzle to distract from the fact that they fundamentally do not know how to cook a burger – which is surprisingly difficult. I myself will own up to being a terrible burger chef. My burgers always turn out too dry, or else they are so moist they just fall apart; I have a tendency to choose the wrong bun and cheese; and my topping-to-meat ratio is usually off. The only thing I’m good at is making sauces for my burgers, but that’s cheating. There is a certain alchemy to a good burger that I don’t understand, and that’s part of why I really love I good burger joint burger. I think the secret is in the way the textures come together; the supple meat, the gooey cheese, the crisp lettuce and onions and the crunchy-soft lightly toasted bun have to strike a harmony that’s difficult to orchestrate. Good ingredients are important, but skilled preparation is probably more so.
Many gourmet burger restaurants neglect to master the basics of good burger making, and without the basics, no amount of month-old Aussie beef or chipotle salsa will redeem you. The other day I was in Camden with time to kill before a ska show; I was looking for the BYOB Latin American restaurant Guanabana, but I couldn’t find it and eventually stumbled upon Haché, a posh burger restaurant that’s had quite a lot of good buzz. Most reviews I read claimed it was one of the best burgers in London if not the best. This review on TimeOut caught my eye in particular:
What surprised me was the number of rather glam foreigners, including an American couple who we got chatting to. Turned out they were local but the guy, a self-confessed burgerholic was ecstatic about Hache, saying they served the best burgers he’s had anywhere.
Here in England, American endorsements don’t mean much to me, except for when it comes to Mexican food and burgers – I just think Americans have a better frame of reference to judge them by than most Brits. But after eating at Haché, I thought: what a sad, unobserved life this “burgerholic” must have lead back in the States if he never found any burgers better than the unbelievably pretentious offerings at this pathetic wannabe of a restaurant.
I ordered the “All-Day Breakfast Burger,” which is topped with a portobello mushroom, back bacon, and a fried egg. A clever, tasty-sounding idea, I thought. But the beef – the “finest aged 100% prime Scotch hachéd steak” – was dry! This is completely unacceptable. A good burger should be lusciously fatty and juicy even when well-done; mine was medium and it was frankly no juicier than a squeezed-out sponge, and I expected a lot more flavor from the “prime Scotch steak” it was made from.
The toppings didn’t help matters. The mushroom was a nice accent (it was far more moist and flavorful than the actual patty), and the egg was perfectly cooked so that the yolk was creamy but not too runny. But the bacon – usually a sort of Band-Aid for blandness – only made things worse. It was terribly undercooked, all tough and chewy and not even a little bit crispy. The ciabatta roll it was on was soft yet sturdy, but toasting it would have added a much-needed extra dimension of texture.
Service was good and I can’t complain about the vaguely arty bistro-like atmosphere, but what matters is the burger. And for all the pomp and pride in its marketing, the burger was a dire disappointment.
But I’m not anti-gourmet burger in general. When a gourmet burger is good, it’s really good – I like them just as much as any good burger joint burger. In New York, I had an awesome lamb merguez burger at BLT, drippingly juicy and flavorful, scented with cumin and nicely offset by a mint-cilantro cucumber relish. And here in London, there is perhaps no chain restaurant I enjoy more than GBK – Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
GBK also boasts high-quality beef – “Aberdeen-Angus Scotch beef,” no less – but they actually make good burgers out of it rather than just using it for bragging rights. Many of their burgers are old standards, like the pesto burger, the avocado bacon burger, the Cajun burger, etc., but you don’t need to get too fancy or different to make a great burger. In-N-Out and Pie ‘N’ Burger use basically the exact same formula, but both shops’ end products are delicious and unique in their own subtle way.
My favorite burger at GBK is the relatively simple, very delicious garlic mayo burger. The robust beef throbs with moisture and flavor, matched by a cool, creamy mayo that seethes with the hot, delicious stink of raw garlic. It’s the kind of burger that leaves you wanting more even as you finish your meal feeling unhealthily stuffed – and the smell comes out of your pores for hours afterwards. Sadly, I’ve yet to find a good burger joint burger in London – there must be one out there somewhere – but for now I am quite content befouling my breath and expanding my ass at GBK, truly gourmet not only in name.