Are there any foods that are 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 apple pie, and when done properly there are few foods more delicious. In order to not only honor this magical sandwich but also the restaurants that serve the finest examples of it, this year we decided to expand our ranking of America’s best burgers from last year’s list of 40 to a comprehensive 101.
But first, a little history. The burger traces its roots all the way back to the Mongol Empire, where their tradition of mincing horsemeat was passed onto the Russians, who in turn brought it to the major port of Hamburg, Germany, in the early 19th century. The most common destination for ships departing from Hamburg was New York, 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 Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History, the oldest mention of a Hamburg steak on a menu was at New York’s Delmonico’s, a recipe developed by one of history’s greatest chefs, Charles Ranhofer.
The exact origin 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 New Haven, Conn., restaurant Louis Lunch 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, N.Y.Regardless of whoever first applied ground meat to bread, today the burger is one of the most beloved, comforting foods in existence. You could actually argue that the cult of the burger has never been stronger. New and long-beloved regional burger chains you once had to travel to specific states to enjoy have broken out of their regions, events like Burger Bash at the South Beach and New York Food & Wine Festivals have made competing for the title of the best burger an annual affair, George Motz’s Hamburger America has done much to popularize and make more known the lesser-known treasures across the country, and every restaurant nerd knows that high-end chefs have long felt the need to put their own stamp on this American icon (Jose Andres is the latest to take another high-profile turn with it).
This rise in quality and awareness even has put longtime burger barons like Burger King and McDonald’s back on their heels. Burger King has been experimenting with unsuccessful rebrandings (they did away with the King, renamed their French fries “Satisfries,” and changed their motto to “Be Your Way”). McDonald’s has given Ronald a new look and turned to avocados to save them, testing out a new guacamole burger. However, they’re both missing the point that chains like Five Guys, Shake Shack, and Umami Burger have taken advantage of: Americans want quality. They know a great burger, and they’ll see some of the country’s greatest on this inaugural list of the 101 Best Burgers in America.
But what exactly defines the perfect burger? To answer this question we enlisted 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 served 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.
And thankfully, there are plenty of different varieties of burgers around: 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,” like the one found at New York’s Spotted Pig.
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,” according to Pat, like the one he created for Shake Shack. 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 most likely 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. Building upon last year’s suggestions from authorities including John T. Edge and Josh Ozersky, we combed existing best-of lists both print and online, 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 expanded outside of their home cities and have lots of locations, meaning that chains 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 then taken by a panel of 50 noted writers, journalists, bloggers, and culinary authorities from across the country, asking them to vote for their favorites, limited to the ones that they’ve tried. We tallied the results, and the 101 burgers that received the most votes are the ones you’ll find here today.
The final list spans the country, from sea to shining sea: New York leads the way with 15 entries; there are seven from the Los Angeles area; five in Atlanta and Philadelphia; four in Boston, Nashville, and San Francisco; and three in Chicago, Miami, the D.C. area, and Memphis. But great burgers aren’t limited to just the big cities; other locations include Royal Oak, Michigan, Ocoee, Florida, West Lafayette, Indiana, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There’s a peanut butter-topped burger in Nashville; one smashed with onions onto the griddle in El Reno, Oklahoma; a 13-ounce behemoth in Florida; and two cheese-stuffed patties in Minneapolis. We know that there are certainly plenty of other great burgers out there, however; if we missed your favorite, let us know in the comments below.
So read on to take a tour of the U.S. 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.”
101) The Soul Burger, Earnestine & Hazel’s, Memphis, Tenn.
The building that houses Earnestine's & Hazel's supposedly started as a pharmacy in the ‘30s and was owned by Abe Plough, the man who would invent Coppertone suntan lotion. Rich from his invention, Plough gave the building to two hairstylists (sisters) operating upstairs who used another of his products to straighten hair. Their names? Earnestine and Hazel. They turned the spot into a café, one said to be visited by musicians like B.B. King, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry after gigs at a nearby club. Food wasn't the only thing people stopped in for — there was also supposedly a brothel upstairs. After being boarded up in the 1970s, it was reopened in 1993 by Russell George, who until he died last year, hosted an amazing atmosphere with a fantastic jukebox in a bar whose every step creaks, and whose every inch holds the tantalizing smell of the incredible slow-cooked “soul burgers” the joint is known for. Thin, perfectly seared, and served on a soft white bun, it’s given a couple squirts of Worcestershire-kicked sauce as it cooks, and is the perfect accompaniment to a night out.
100) Beef and Bacon Burger, RickyBobby, San Francisco, Calif.
All-American Lower Haight restaurant RickyBobby’s beef and bacon burger puts a slight spin on the standard bacon burger by grinding beef and bacon together in an act of meaty, high-calorie harmony. The mouthwatering results, served on a brioche bun with American and Cheddar cheese, and then smothered with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, will quickly dispel any notion you have that this all-in-one burger is any kind of food gimmick.