June 17, 2007
Cuisine: American (traditional), Burgers
224 S 15th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Good Dog Burger – half pound house ground sirloin, stuffed with Roquefort, topped with caramelized onions and served on toasted brioche ($10)
Ever since Craig LaBan released his article about the best burgers in Philadelphia, I’ve been jonesing to try his top pick—Good Dog Burger. What can I say? I am a sucker for lists. LaBan writes:
The burger that inspired the song “Cheeseburger, I Hold,” Good Dog’s signature sandwich triumphs where so many before have tried and failed – stuffing a burger with blue cheese. The meat itself is deliciously seasoned, perfectly cooked, and wisely topped only with a mop of sautéed onions. But bite into the heart, and behold. A river of molten bleu. A powerhouse of tangy savor. Too rich to be an everyday burger. But can you hear the music playing? Order it no more than medium-rare, or risk losing the cheese.
For my final dinner in the city with two of my favorite girlfriends, Tara and Melina, we headed to Good Dog Bar to try the famed burger. Curious to see if the hype was warranted, we each ordered one; Tara requested hers prepared medium rare, while Melina and I had ours cooked medium. Our burgers were served with a mountain of shoestring sweet potato fries and a side of flavored aioli.
The Good Dog Burger is a damn fine creation and maybe even a little genius. Okay, a lot genius! The meat was well-seasoned, just like LaBan promised, especially around the lightly charred edge of the meat. Tara appreciated this little touch. The Roquefort oozing out of the center of the patty was deeply flavorful, but not too overwhelming. By the way, my perfectly cooked medium patty still retained a good amount of cheese. The caramelized onions and brioche added a tinge of sweetness to the entire burger, which enhanced the Roquefort’s taste. Tara, Melina, and I unanimously agreed that the Good Dog Burger rocked! The sweet potato fries with the aioli were plentiful and fine accompaniment for the burger.
May 24, 2007
Inquirer Restaurant Critic
By CRAIG LABAN
This is a cheesesteak town, as we all know. And the city will always have that steak as its signature griddle move, its crossover dribble, its split-fingered strikeout pitch. But if you take a closer look at what menus are really pushing in town, from the high-end bistros down to the newest chains, you’ll find more kitchen energy is devoted to reinventing the cheeseburger than anything else.
As I tasted more and more evidence of this phenomenon, I knew I could no longer avoid the project I had put off for more than a decade: The Great Burger Quest.
Part of me feared the Quest because I had an inkling where it might lead. But really, I had no idea it would go this far.
When you love a food as much as I love burgers – and I covet cheeseburgers, in particular – undertaking a mission like this is to flirt with a dangerous, lipid-laced obsession.
It is one thing to simply seek out the best burger in the land, objectively nibbling my way through a few dozen would-be contenders. But what actually happened during the six months of steady research, as I devoured more than 50 burgers across the region, surprised even me:
I began dreaming of the ideal patty when I slept at night, constantly mulling the perfect combination for every sandwich. I composed burger poetry, and, then, one night, I unexpectedly awoke humming a cheeseburger tune.
This little burger roundup – or shall I say “ground-up” – literally acquired its own soundtrack (with a music video! Check it out online at //go.philly.com/cheeseburger).
It also reconnected me to the roots of my own eating passions, and it revealed some telling truths about the state of food in Philadelphia, and America at large.
Of course, I also savored my share of memorable burgers along the way – both spectacular and atrocious.
The Quest took me from the grease-shined griddles of classic luncheonettes to the white linen of some of the city’s most luxurious tables, as well as every gastro-pub, funky diner, and new-school burger chain in between.
It was a challenging regimen to maintain. But by the end, I found myself still singing.
I’m not the only one obsessed with a great burger, it turns out. It’s a national phenomenon, according to the North American Meat Processors Association, which this month declared “high-end burgers the hottest trend in food service.” Burger boutiques are all the rage in Manhattan. And in Vegas you can spend $5,000 for a truffle-spiked foie gras-Kobe beef double at Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay.
If you want proof of its pull on Philadelphia, too, just go to Rittenhouse Square. Long the epicenter of our city’s fine-dining ambitions, Rittenhouse also turns out to be ground-round zero of our Hamburg Renaissance, with stellar examples at every level of culinary ambition.
As you might expect, the Square sports luxury burgers galore, from the rarefied Kobe patties at Barclay Prime and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, to the gargantuan and juicy show-offs at Rouge, to the exquisitely crafted house-ground burger on house-baked brioche at Matyson. There are innovative gastro-bar burgers, like the blue cheese-stuffed wonder at the Good Dog, which was the inspiration for my song, “Cheeseburger, I Hold.” And there are also veteran luncheonette chefs, like Vincent McKnight at Snow White, who still knows how to make a classic, pretense-free patty for less than $5. So tasty, I had to order another.
Not far from Rittenhouse Square is also Center City’s first branch of Five Guys, which is rapidly becoming the local leader of a national trend to upgrade the fast-food-chain burger. Five Guys aspires to something along the lines of California’s legendary In-N-Out, but it’s a far cry from the quality of that amazing West Coast institution.
The local franchise of the Virginia-based Five Guys chain has plans to open 50 locally, and the Chestnut Street location sizzles up fresh, never-frozen burgers that are an obvious cut above McDonald’s. The fries are among the best in town.
But this harried Five Guys also exemplifies so many of the pitfalls of careless burger cookery. The patty-smashing grill chefs lean on those burgers with all their might, wringing them of juice like a dry sponge. Then the assembly line stacks so many clunky toppings on with a final, bun-crushing squish that the sandwich falls to bits when you open the wrapping. Stay simple at Five Guys – one patty and one topping only (like jalapeños). Ask the bun crusher to back off, and you’ll be happy.
Fresh, never-frozen meat is a bottom-line criterion for burger greatness – because the ice crystals leach juices from the meat and compromise its texture, according to William Henning, professor emeritus of meat science at Penn State. But all that fresh-meat goodness can be wasted with one big spatula smack.
Patty-smashing was a common sin amongst the new-style chains like Nifty Fifties, Zack’s and the upstart Great Burger. A stellar burger at the Delaware-based Jake’s (smashed only once, in its early stage) survived quite nicely.
But I observed many other ways for good burgers to go bad, despite some hefty price tags. I saw topping travesties like the jicama-carrot chopped salad dumped over the otherwise stellar Rae burger, or the low-grade pastrami wadded atop a patty at Snackbar.
More than a few trendy kitchens simply couldn’t hit medium rare, like Washington Square, or Loie, where the condescending manager regarded our juiceless gray burger and informed my guest (Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald) that she simply didn’t know what medium rare was.
I also witnessed a shocking amount of bun abuse – the chewy, oversized rustic rolls at Monk’s, an actual stale one at Smith & Wollensky.
I’m perfectly happy with a classic sesame-speckled white-bread roll browned off the grill. But I’ve also come to appreciate some of the better brioche-style buns that local bakers, like the Wild Flour Bakery, have begun to perfect.
Lightly toasted and wrapped around one of my favorites – fresh from the grill, the charry crisp of well-seasoned meat giving way to a crumbly center of juicy pink – it’s like holding a masterpiece in its ideal frame.
Everybody has a primal food, and for me it has always been the cheeseburger. As a little kid, it was the only thing I’d order – even if the restaurant was Chinese. As a young adult at college, my first hands-on experience with “gourmet” flavors was mixing and matching the exotic toppings (blue cheese? caramelized onions?) for the freshly ground little patties at Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burgers in Ann Arbor, Mich., where you can even go for the five-burger “quint”! Jim’s boasted 1,245,760 possible combinations, into which I made a fair dent.
But my obsession wasn’t exclusively high-end. When I became ill on a trip to Mexico City (my first venture abroad), I was nursed quickly back to health on two Big Macs. While living in Paris, soaking in every gastronomic Euro-wonder the city could offer, I sneaked more than few times into the golden arches of “McDo’s.” The French, for all their culinary prowess, can’t cook a burger to save their lives.
Can Philadelphians? Oh yeah. Make some room, my cheesesteak faithful. This is a cheeseburger town now, too.
May 24, 2007
Inquirer Restaurant Critic
Craig LaBan’s Favorite Burgers
By CRAIG LABAN
Here are Craig LaBan’s favorite burgers in the Philadelphia region, in no particular order:
Good Dog Bar and Restaurant
The Cheese-Stuffed Wonder
The burger that inspired the song “Cheeseburger, I Hold,” Good Dog’s signature sandwich triumphs where so many before have tried and failed – stuffing a burger with blue cheese. The meat itself is deliciously seasoned, perfectly cooked, and wisely topped only with a mop of sauteed onions. But bite into the heart, and behold. A river of molten bleu. A powerhouse of tangy savor. Too rich to be an everyday burger. But can you hear the music playing? Order it no more than medium-rare, or risk losing the cheese.
$9, at 224 S. 15th St., 215-985-9600.
Sliders de Luxe
Kobe burgers are a dangerous thing – the meat is so rich that bigger patties typically become mush. That’s why I find Barclay’s precious 2 oz. sliders – petite, yet still plump – to be Kobe’s finest form. Built on the house-baked brioche buns to be the ultimate artisan burger, these darlings offer a miniature symphony in every bite – crispy rich roll, tangy Gruyere, sweet onions, and a pad of profoundly buttery meat. Each pair is gone before you want them to be, but these sliders also linger hauntingly in my imagination long after the meal is over.
$16, at 237 S. 18th St., 215-732-7560.
Talented chef Matthew Zagorski really does know how to cook a $30 piece of fish. But Rouge will probably forever be known as the ritziest burger joint in America, cranking out as many as 150 at a busy lunch. The enormous 13-ounce patties, topped with Gruyere, hydroponic Boston bibb, and butter-toasted brioche buns, are tailor-made for turning heads at a cafe that’s all about being seen. It turns out the two-inch high patties – ground sirloin, rib eye and filet tips seared to a perfect crust in cast-iron pans by cook Francisco Geronimo – are a drop-dead delicious spokesmodel for the thick burger school. Yes, it’s $15, but there should be some left over for your hungry pug, too.
$15, at 205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622.
The Beach Grill Dream
The bacon mushroom cheeseburger at this venerable boardwalk doughnut shop and grill is my simplistic ideal in classic burger perfection, framed by paper plate. It could be the pure freshness and deft handling of the modest hand-formed sirloin patties, ground every day at Boyar’s Market nearby. Or it could be the sea air and salty surf that stoke an insatiable burger appetite. I’m normally not a well-done kind of guy, but I typically need two of these before a Shore day can go on.
$4.25, at 110 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-391-0677.
You don’t expect burger greatness when you walk into humble Snow White, but as chef Vincent McKnight says, “There ain’t no secret to these burgers, ’cause the secret is me.” It helps that McKnight gets his meat ground fresh at the little market around the corner, and that the staff hand-forms every 5 oz. patty. But in the genre of classic well-done luncheonette burgers, there’s no replacement for 18 years’ worth of experience, and McKnight has the touch (the careful pokes and gentle squeeze, the finishing shake of peppery salt) to make each one right. As a bonus, bacon also gets cooked to order and folded fresh and pliant from the griddle over the sandwich. By the time it reaches your mouth, it’s already crisp. At $4 apiece, go crazy.
$4, at 1901 Chestnut St., 215-569-0909.
The Big Burb Burger
There are more sophisticated, more haute things to order at this superb new suburban BYO. But there’s a reason everyone in the room stared enviously when four plates bearing burgers landed at our table at Blackfish. These burgers were so handsome, they were magnetic. The 9 oz. patties of ground Angus top sirloin (goosed with extra filet and strip) crackled with a well-seasoned crust, thanks to a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt and chef Chip Roman’s searing-hot cast-iron pans. The toppings, of course, lean gourmet, from the sautéed king oyster mushrooms to the oozy Lancaster brie to the excellent toasted brioche buns from Georges Perrier’s bakery. Oh, là-là – it was good.
$9, 119 Fayette St., Conshohocken, 610-397-0888.
The Shack Patty
They still call it the “new place” though this modest white Delco shack has been grilling up bitty burgers in Folsom for 20 years. A previous 50-year run at its first location in Springfield is responsible for Charlie’s tall reputation. But the folks behind this “new” counter still know how to do it right – grinding the meat on location and carefully flattening those tiny scoops of loosely packed burger on a well-seasoned griddle, where the meat takes on an intensely savory, caramelized-edge crisp. Beware overly complicated combinations, as the toppings (yes, even mustard and ketchup) easily overwhelm the delicate meat. I covet the double cheeseburger with nothing but raw onions and a last-minute shake of peppery salt – plus a toasty white bun swabbed ever so slyly in the gorgeous shine of grease pooling on the grill. You’ll need more than one.
$3.28, 336 Kedron Ave., Folsom, 610-461-4228.
Burger Still Life
The burger at this innovative BYOB is so carefully hand-crafted – from the house-baked brioche bun to the carefully half-charred onion round, a slice of sharp Lancaster cheddar, slow-roasted tomatoes (to cheat the seasons) and the plume of soft bibb lettuce – that it looks like a work of art. The bun is a little too delicate, in fact, and the house-ground meat is a notch too fine for ultimate perfection. But the flavors, oh the flavors, were meant to be eaten, not watched.
$10, at 37 S. 19th St., 215-564-2925.
This Fairmount institution was updating pub food long before anyone knew what a gastro-pub was, and the London’s signature burger – posed an English muffin, but of course – remains one of the city’s best. Made from a half-pound of good Lancaster organic beef, I like mine topped with retro herbed boursin cheese and caramelized onions. It’s still the menu’s most reliable bet.
$9.50, at 2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545.
The Tzaftig Melt
Hip Northern Liberties is one of our best burger ‘hoods, from Standard Tap to N. 3rd. But Honey’s gives the burger its unique Jewish deli twist by updating the patty melt. The 8 oz. black angus rounds are very good, and memorably juicy. But they’re even better sandwiched with caramelized onions between two extra-thick slices of Hudson Bakery’s seeded rye that have been griddled to a buttery deli crisp.
$9.50, at 800 N. 4th St., 215-925-1150.
The Batter Burger
It’s not as if a good burger needs to be deep-fried. But Irish-born chef Martin Doyle insists this is an authentic late-night staple on Dublin’s fish-and-chip row, so I’m eating it. I didn’t want the bun. The crispy beer batter was all the bread a burger needs. A sassy curried dip on the side gives it the ultimate U.K. twist.
$10, at The Pier Shops at Caesars, 1 Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City, 609-345-6900.
Grace Tavern, 2229 Gray’s Ferry Ave., 215-893-9580
Royal Tavern, 937 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-6694
Vintage, 129 S. 13th St., 215-922-3095
Tangier Restaurant, 1801 S. 18th St., 215-732-5006
Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, 1946 Lombard St., 215-985-9663.
Sing it: ‘Cheeseburger, I Hold’
Truffles fall like snowflakes, on my plate
Sparkling crystal goblets always brim with wine
I can eat anything that I want, ’cause it’s my job
I’m a hungry man for hire.
And still, nothing sets my soul to sizzle
Like a fresh-ground patty on the grill
Cheeseburger, I hold
Mischief heart of liquid bleu
Cheeseburger, I hold
You melt into mine
All my life, I’ve been a burger chaser
That perfect simple sandwich shouldn’t be so hard to find
But how many times have I been sorry, after just one bite
To find a fraud between the buns
The patty smashers! (No juice! No juice!)
The topping fools! (Pile the pink tomatoes on!)
The fast-food stand-ins for good old-school
So when the grinder’s gift hears that charcoal song
Lay your best Roquefort and crisp bacon on!
I remember: Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burgers, Mo’s in Frisco, In-N-Out
Barclay’s sliders, Rouge’s biggies, on the Boardwalk I love Brown’s
Burger Heaven in Manhattan, Tommy’s Westwood chile bombs
Midnight snacks at the Camellia, in the Quarter Port of Call
But then the Good Dog Bar turned my patties inside out
So when I took a bite, love came rushing out.
Copyright © 2007 by Craig LaBan