My quest for the best burger joint started more than 10 years ago when my go-to place in Dallas (my hometown) changed its burger recipe. And if messing up the best tasting burger in the city wasn’t enough, the restaurant also changed its queso, salsa and guacamole. What used to be a slam dunk order – Swiss burger medium rare with chips all three, please – was forever quashed. It cut me to the bun.
So the quest began. But first, I had to determine what makes a great burger joint. Keep in mind I’m looking for the best place to eat burgers, not necessarily the place with the best burgers. In fact, burger quality is only half of the grading system to determine the best burger joint. But it is 50 percent.
For those interested in starting your own quest, or want to join me in mine, here’s how to rate a burger joint. Just remember that eating at a great burger joint should be a holistic experience.
- Can you get it cooked to order? In other words, can you get it medium rare, and does it show up medium rare. Most places will allow you to request it cooked any way you want. Few actually deliver.
- Can you get it made to order? That is, can you order it with or without cheese, toppings, sauces, condiments, etc.? For me, I always need the option to ixnay the mustard.
- Appearance – Any top chef will tell you that presentation is key to a good meal. And while top chefs don’t typically work the kitchen at a burger joint, how the burger looks when it arrives does matter. A cook who takes pride in his work will want the burger to look great.
- Bun quality. Consider the following: Is it too hard or soft? How does it taste? What’s the bun-to-burger ratio? If it has seeds (sesame, poppy, etc.) do they serve a purpose beyond getting stuck between your teeth? Too many burger places overlook the importance of the bun.
- Does it taste good – do you get good burger flavor? Your taste buds should be in heaven. And in the future, your mouth should start to salivate every time you think of it.
- Are there other items on the menu besides burgers, and are they any good? Not everyone in your group may like or want a burger. Check for a marinated chicken breast sandwich or something similar.
- How’s the beer list? Variety and quality of beer makes for a better burger experience. Good frozen margaritas can work in a pinch, and will probably be the favorite of the non-burger eater in your party.
- Is there outside seating? Americans love to eat burgers outside. That’s why we stand over a 250-degree grill on a 110-degree day every 4th of July. But there’s nothing better than a burger joint with a patio or deck. A cool bar to at which to sit is a good substitute.
- What side dishes are available? Fries are a staple, and therefore a must-have. But top-notch homemade chips can make a good burger experience a great one. Perhaps the restaurant has a signature side, like mac ‘n’ cheese, baked beans, or pig knuckles.
- Ambiance – this includes everything from the music (‘70s and ‘80s pop seem to work well in burger joints), to the table comfort, to cleanliness, to service. If all are strong, give at least a 20 percent tip. The reason? If you ever go back, the staff remembers the good tippers, and you’ll get an even better experience.
Rate each item on a 10-point scale, then add it up. Any place that scores more than 90 is an A-level burger joint. Just let me know where it is so I can meet you there next time.
— Eric Van Steenburg
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