Is there any food more quintessentially American than the burger? The simple sandwich of ground beef on a bun allows for considerable creativity from the chef or home cook who's making it, and there are thousands of variations, from one end of the country to the other. And when done properly, there are few foods more delicious.
The burger, it is sometimes said, traces its roots all the way back to the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the Mongol tradition of mincing horsemeat before cooking it was passed on to the Russians, who in turn brought it to the major Hanseatic port of Hamburg in the early nineteenth century. Hamburg was the most common port of origin for ships traveling from Germany to the United States, and by the late 1800s restaurants in New York began serving what they called Hamburg steaks, seasoned and cooked patties of ground beef, to German immigrants. According to the late Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History, the oldest mention of a Hamburg steak on a menu was at New York’s Delmonico’s, the recipe having been developed by one of America’s greatest chefs, Charles Ranhofer.
The exact originator of the modern-day hamburger unfortunately remains a mystery, but there are several contenders. Perhaps the most well-known is Louis Lassen, who introduced a hamburger steak sandwich at his restaurant Louis’ Lunch, in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900. Others claim that "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen actually invented the dish at Wisconsin’s Outagamie County Fair in 1885, and still others claim that the Menches brothers did it at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York. Regardless of whoever first applied a ground meat patty to bread, today the burger is one of the most beloved, comforting foods in existence. You can even argue that we’re currently in the midst of a burger golden age, with more and more upscale restaurants adding burgers to their menus as old-time burger joints keep going strong, and entire festivals and competitions are devoted to burgers.
But what exactly defines the perfect burger? To answer this question we called upon none other than Pat LaFrieda, butcher extraordinaire and the creator of some of the meat blends that have gone into making some of the most heralded burgers served in America today, including Shake Shack’s and the legendary Black Label burger at New York’s Minetta Tavern.
“The perfect burger, in my view, is one that satisfies what I am hungry for at that moment,” he told us.
Being more specific, he identified the three main burger styles: There are the inch-or-so-thick patties that drip juice down your arm and give you that “rare beef buzz,” according to LaFrieda, with “a beautiful sear on the exterior, and a bright red, yet warm center.” Next up are the “smash burgers,” sometimes called fast-food style burgers, thin patties cooked on a griddle that get an ample crust and are “stomach pleasers, fast and effective.” Finally, there’s what LaFrieda calls the “aged steak in a burger experience,” masterpieces (usually served in steakhouses) that raise the humble burger to fine-dining status.
In order to compile this our ranking of the 101 best burgers in America, we assembled a list of about 300 burgers from all across the country, from Hollywood, Florida, to Anchorage, Alaska. Building upon suggestions from various authorities on the subject, we dug through online reviews and combed existing best-of lists, both in print and online, that were published in the past year. Even though each of the burgers we found was unique, certain qualities were universal must-haves: high-quality beef (you'll find no non-beef burgers in our ranking), proper seasoning, well-proportioned components, and an overall attention to detail that many would call “making it with love.” As usual, we didn’t include large chains like Shake Shack and In-N-Out — we celebrate the best chain burgers in a separate ranking — choosing instead to focus on smaller-time restaurant owners. We asked a panel of noted writers, journalists, bloggers, and culinary authorities from across the country to vote for their favorites, limited to the ones that they’ve tried.
“Americans love burgers because we see them as something that our country has pioneered,” LaFrieda added. “They are inexpensive, they fill our bellies, and most importantly, they carry a link back to a memory of comfort and safety at some point in our lives. That all equals fun in eating, making it no longer a comfort food, but instead an American pastime.” Read on to learn which 101 burgers are America's best.