A Good Burger is Hard to Find

kewpees

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.

innout

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.

applepanpienburger

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.

lambmerguez

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.

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16 thoughts on “A Good Burger is Hard to Find

  1. mynamejt says:

    I really miss the Racine burger trifecta of Kewee’s, Pinocchio’s, and J&W. It was terrible coming home only to see a rent-a-car joint in the Pinocchio’s lot. They were all really good in their own ways, but I’m probably a bit biased toward J&W from working there for over four years.

    The only good burger I’ve had in Japan, that I can remember, is the Zeppin Cheeseburger from Lotteria. I’d say it’s about 3/4 of the size of a McDonald’s burger, but it fits right in with your burger joint criteria. It’s nothing more but meat and cheese, but the meat’s always juicy and nicely seasoned, and the cheese is gooey and actually adds to the flavor.

  2. Lizz says:

    Just had my first In-N-Out burger last week. Sadly dissappointed. You gotta try Five Guys next time you are over here. Or a burger at The Spot in Kenosha, they give Kewpee’s a run for their money.

  3. maritasays says:

    Inspirational Tim. Loved this piece. I must admit that I do enjoy a good gourmet burger. There is a place here in Cape Town, Royale, that does some decent ones. But I do think you hit the hammer on the nail stating that they often do not know how to make a good plain burger. Some of their more ‘regular’ burgers are appalling. The MOS Burgers in Bangkok did pretty decent ones, the same outlet in Taiwan didn’t do so well though. Do seriously miss In-N-Out in the States though. The last time I had one was traveling through Arizona in some dull city, think it was Yuma, and I would go back even to there right now to have one of their burgers again.

  4. Tim says:

    Justin: I only went to Pinocchio’s once, when I was a little kid, and I can’t remember it. Shame it’s gone. Is J&W’s still there?

    Lizz: Did you get anything off the secret menu?! That’s half the fun! I’ve heard good things about The Spot before, I’ll have to give it a go next time I’m home.

    Bordeaux: Thanks Bordeaux! I like a good gourmet burger, too, but the operative word is “good.” We had Mos Burgers in Japan as well and I liked them, too. Did they have the shrimp patty burger at the Thai Mos Burgers? Those were goooood.

    • Lizz says:

      I most definitely ordered a double-double Animal style. And as for the Spot, it’s amazing. Don’t be tempted by the cheese curds though. They are no bueno. But definitely try a Root Beer Whirl! It’s like a blended root beer float. Incredible!

  5. stacey says:

    if your looking for a great burger while on holiday go to bugerholics in new zealnds north island of hamilton, they are HUGE and you wont be dissapointed, a nice calm environment and very friendly staff it will make your holiday a treat, you wont be dissapointed, we werent!

  6. Nick says:

    As a Californian having lived in London for the last three years, I am feeling you big time on the lack of good burger joints and Mexican food over here. After seeing what you’re able to do on Master Chef, I find it hard to believe you lack the ability and connections to create a UK burger comparable to In N’ Out. Even something to fill the Taco Bell/ Del Taco void.

    Come on, man. You’re our only hope. It doesn’t have to be forever. Get it started and then sell it off to Coca Cola. Use the money to fund your dream project. You will have helped yourself and made the world a better place for everyone at the same time.

    Have you tried Mooli’s in Soho? Based on your food preferences, I think you’d really like it.

  7. Susan Schnadhorst says:

    Tim,
    You were awesome on Masterchef, I pitied the others becuase even though they were great cooks you were a superstar!
    As someone who gew up in the States I totally agree with your comments on the lack of great burgers in the UK. I think Byron’s are an ok chain but don’t beat my own homemade versions.
    Also, I feel there is a real need for decent brunch places. Why can’t we progress beyond bacon and egg’s in the UK? I am desperate for buttermilk pancakes or proper hashbrowns, luscious waffles, huevos racheros….Have you thought about lending your genius to breakfast offerings?
    I am praying that your Masterchef win will enable you to start cooking for your loyal fans, like me!! Please keep us posted as to your future culinary plans.
    Once again congratulations on your well deserved win!!
    Meanwhile your pub in Euston looks really cool.

    Susan

  8. Chris Harding says:

    Great article… I genuinely think it’s brilliant that a Masterchef winner would be lauding the wonders of simple burgers with processed cheese and iceberg lettuce.

    I see that you’re a big fan of GBK; I must disagree. Maybe I’ve had a spell of bad luck, but every time I’ve been to one (including the branch in Liverpool, where I currently live) I’ve been distinctly underwhelmed. Have you ever visited any of the London-based Fine Burger Company’s restaurants? I think they’re vastly superior – if you haven’t been consider it a recommendation.

    Keep up the good work, your blogs are a pleasure to read!

    -Chris

  9. Allison Goodings says:

    Hey Tim,

    As an expat Canadian living in London, I was quite thrilled to come across Burger Monday, run by American Daniel Young of youngandfoodish fame. We’ve only been to one Burger Monday event, but man was it good! Check out his website and come to the next pop-up….you’ll love it!

    Congrats on all your successes, and looking forward to reading more here in the future!

    Cheers,
    Allison

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