Is there any food more quintessentially American than the burger? The simple act of cooking a patty of ground beef and putting it on a bun is arguably even more American than baking an apple pie, and when done properly there are few foods more delicious. In order to honor this magical sandwich, we’ve ranked the top 15 in America.
So what exactly defines the perfect burger? To answer this question, we enlisted none other than Pat LaFrieda, butcher extraordinaire and the creator of the meat blends that have gone into making some of the most heralded burgers served in America today, ranging from Shake Shack’s for-the-people iteration to the legendary high-end Black Label burger served at New York City’s Minetta Tavern.
“The perfect burger…," he told us, "is one that satisfies what I am hungry for at that moment.” That could mean one of those inch-or-so-thick patties that drips juice down your arm and gives you that “rare beef buzz,” as LaFrieda puts it, with “a beautiful sear on the exterior, and a bright red, yet warm center” — like the one found at New York’s Spotted Pig. Or it could mean 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,” according to LaFrieda. The one he created for Shake Shack is a good example. Finally, there’s what LaFrieda calls the “aged-steak-in-a-burger experience,” masterpieces that raise the humble burger to fine-dining status, the best-known probably being the aforementioned Black Label, which sells for $28.
In order to compile our ranking, we assembled a list of nearly 200 burgers from all across the country, from Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to Hillsboro, Oregon. We combed existing best-of lists both print and digital, dug through online reviews, and left no stone (bun?) unturned. Even though each of the burgers we found was unique, certain qualities were universal: high-quality beef, proper seasoning, well-proportioned components, and an overall attention to detail that many would call “making it with love.” In order to keep the playing field even, we didn’t include chains that have lots of locations outside of their home cities, meaning that companies like Shake Shack and In-N-Out will be left for another day’s ranking.
We then divided these burgers up by region and compiled a survey which was taken by a panel of 50 noted writers, journalists, bloggers, and culinary authorities from across the country. Panelists were asked to vote for their favorites, limiting themselves to the burgers they’ve tried. We tallied the results, and the 10 burgers that received the most votes are the ones you’ll find here today. Click here for the complete ranking of the 101 Best Burgers in America.
So read on to take a tour of the United States through the lens of its best burgers. We’ll let the great Pat LaFrieda get the last word: “Americans love burgers because we see them as something that our country has pioneered. 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.”
#15 Ben's Chili Cheeseburger, Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.
The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, but the continuous lines out the door are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese burgers and dogs are some of the best in the country. When you order the quarter-pound beef chili burger, you get a never-frozen all-beef patty that they suggest you top with chili, lettuce, and mayo; we highly recommend splurging for cheese for an additional 40 cents. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has become trendy, it's a more than 50-year-old bastion of down-home D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else — though the President eats for free.
#14 The Cadillac, P.J. Clarke's, New York City
There are now seven P.J. Clarke's locations, including two in São Paulo, but the Third Avenue Manhattan original is the feisty little brick building that refused to make way for the 47-story Skidmore, Owings & Merrill skyscraper that now looms over it. It is also the one that created the terrific pub-style burger known as The Cadillac — a juicy patty on a classic bun with smoked country bacon and American cheese as well as lettuce, onion, and tomato, with shoestring fries on the side. The name, by the way, was bestowed on the thing by Nat "King" Cole, who dubbed Clarke's "the Cadillac of burgers."