I used to plot burgers on the national map like I was tracking a serial killer. The Rusty Nail, Canton, Michigan. Casino El Camino, Sixth Street, Austin. Some Irish bar, west side of Clark Street, far north side Chicago. Pink’s, La Brea, Los Angeles. They all had their own thing about them. I took a Frenchman to the Rusty Nail. He said, “Thees eez like meat from home.” Pink’s burger is just blazing hot, chili-smothered wolf food. The Austin burger is a thick, fiery slab buried under jalapeno slices. The joint in Chicago…just fat, juicy, cheesy, and worth the 45-minute, out-of-the-way meander up a clogged single-lane traffic artery. In my quest for a go-to burger here I asked around for leads. I sifted through reviews. I ended up eating more hamburgers the first two weeks of this year than I did all of last. I felt the pain of the guy in Super Size Me. More than ever before do I now revere the commitment of De Niro’s famous preparation to play Jake LaMotta.
For all the descriptive PC come-ons of the burger boutiques that serve only meat from well-adjusted cows who went to the best schools, regaled underprivileged neighborhoods with Christmas carols, and ate meals prepared exclusively from raw food co-op grocers, a burger is just a burger after all. If I’m eating a hamburger, I’m not doing it to get healthy. I’m eating it because I have given up on health, at least for the rest of the day. And I don’t care if the bun was flown in from a Parisian pâtisserie. The bun is there to hold the lettuce and tomato in place and keep my fingers out of the mayonnaise. Wonder Bread buns work best. Also, bacon and other such extraneous garnishings don’t figure in. If you melted cheese over bacon and ate it on your wallet, it would taste good.
I started out haute. The menu at Citizen Burger Bar checks off all of the requisite boxes to justify the price tag. Local beef, local cheese, blah, blah. The medium rare American Classic showed up in a roomy roll replete with American cheese and the house Citizen sauce. I bit into it and what immediately sprang to mind was Whopper. If that sounds aspersing, take it up with BK. What brought that to mind was the combination of the sauce (curiously suggestive of ketchup and mayo) and the charbroiled technique. Burgers over an open flame? Why? The outside gets charred, crispy, and dry and the inside stays cool and not cooked. No grease equals no flavor. May as well be eating a salad. Their over-salting did not compensate. At the end of it, I was out thirty bucks for two burgers with fries and one beer.
Next stop: Mel’s Diner on West Main Street. Sizzled on a flat top griddle. Thin, white bread roll. This is what the spirit of the burger is about. Not super thick and unwieldy, but sturdy yet manageable. It cost what a burger should: very little. The Lunchbox in Belmont is no slouch either. Easy with the sodium, they fry ’em up on a griddle. It’s just greasy enough to taste like something.
Everyone knows about Riverside Lunch, and theirs is as good as a burger gets. The patties are juicy and perfectly seasoned and they trick these babies out right, at the right price.
Best burger in Charlottesville? Fox’s Cafe, another Belmont fixture. The patties aren’t stupid thick, so ordering a double isn’t overkill. The roll is perfectly proportionate and the burger tastes fresher than anywhere else. It always comes hot, through and through. The double cheeseburger is under $5. All the sides are great.
The best burger I’ve had this year I made at home. I started with 80 percent lean beef, which leaves plenty of fat for flavor, then rolled in some Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up salt, and a hefty dose of ground black pepper. I fried it in an iron skillet, which gets the inside cooked but keeps it moist throughout. Cavemen discovered fire so they could stop eating raw, bland meat. Meaty flavor comes to life only after ample heat is applied. I topped it with blended cheddar, mayo, and a quality thin-sliced kosher dill pickle, sandwiched in a toasted English muffin. Call it the London Burger. If I charged what I get paid for this, you could eat them all day.