Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am an enthusiastic lover of beef. I’m not generally in the habit of eating big meals or large volumes of food, but when beef is on the menu my secret “beef-stomach” is activated, and it is apparently bottomless. Around the age of 12, I ate an entire 2 1/4 pound porterhouse steak without pause. Sure I paid for it later in gastronomic distress, but I enjoyed every single bite of it. To me, the burger is one of the most satisfying manifestations of beef. But burgers have become so commonplace that it’s easy to forget how truly delicious a well-made, high-quality burger can be. Maybe it’s something about the fact that you eat it with your hands, face-first into a toothsome, juicy slab of meat. The melted fat and escaping juices run down your hands and chin, and it feels like this is really eating. Nothing quells hunger quite like a really great burger.
So sometime around July (prime grilling and burger season) I decided to embark on Burger Quest 2010, to answer that most pressing question: Where does one get the best burger in Seattle? Sure, I can make good burgers, but I don’t have a grill, and I need to have access to a good burger in case of a beef-craving emergency (yes, these sometimes happen). At first I simply picked restaurants nearby and those highly rated on Yelp, but I soon realized that to try and sample every burger in every restaurant in this city would take many months of eating nothing but burgers. My budget and digestive tract certainly could not handle this sort of daily toll, so I eventually set up a couple of parameters. I would only go to locally-owned restaurants that were either “burger joints” or that used local/grass-fed/organic beef. After a severely disappointing experience in the U-District (detailed below), I decided to cut it down to just the latter. To create a point-of-reference between restaurants, I opted for burgers of the nearly ubiquitous “bacon-cheese” variety where choices were available.
Mr. Lu’s Burgers: By far the worst burger of the bunch, despite the self-ascribed specialty. Sure it was cheap, but it was hardly edible, never mind enjoyable (and really, what is eating a burger about if not unadulterated gustatory pleasure?). Though the menu says the bacon cheeseburger comes with cheddar cheese, it’s actually some plasticized cheese-flavored product–you know, the kind that melts unnaturally and hardens with a skin ::shudder::. The meat is obviously the cheapest: flavorless and dry with hard “bits” throughout. [Those hard bits are usually errant pieces of tendon, bone, or gristle that got ground up with the meat. I worked for a farmer who butchered all his own meats; it was from him I learned that this sort of textural problem is a sure sign of poor quality meat. If you cook up some ground meat with this problem, I suggest you find a new source of ground meat.] The bun disintegrated within 10 minutes, and the fries clearly came from a bag. The only good thing about this place was the huckleberry milkshake, but given the quality of the meat, I’m pretty confident the source of dairy is similarly questionable. Inexplicably, this place has a 4-star rating on Yelp. My mind is boggled.
Linda’s: A fun neighborhood tavern, the burger here is much like the rest of the menu: good for bar food but otherwise unremarkable. According to the menu the beef used in the burgers is Organic, but judging by its perfectly puck-like shape, I’m pretty sure that it’s a frozen patty. I’m basically OK with that, but could use a little more info on where the meat came from. The USDA Organic standards for meat are notoriously slack, which means that Organic meat can come from an upstanding family farm or a glorified feedlot operation. I wondered from which sort of source Linda’s burger meat originated. I ordered the burger medium, but it came out well done, and was consequently a bit dry. The cheese was real, the bun held up, the fries were good, and it was reasonably priced. I probably wouldn’t go to Linda’s if I was craving a burger, but if I were already at Linda’s, I might order a burger. I’ve had their sliders a couple of times too and somehow I find them juicier and more enjoyable (maybe because they’re not preformed patties?).
Redwood: Basically the same deal as Linda’s: a decent Organic cheeseburger at a decent price. At Redwood they’re at least upfront about the fact that they will only cook your burger well done. I think I liked the fries here a little better than at Linda’s. Maybe.
Blue Moon Burgers: Another burger joint, but with a more developed conscience. Blue Moon Burgers proudly advertises their use of Thundering Hooves grass-fed beef. [ I’ve seen Thundering Hooves products at various restaurants and co-ops around Seattle, and a quick glance at their website tells me their animals are grass-finished (meaning they have never fed on grain). The farm is in Walla Walla.] Though they tell you the burgers are cooked to medium as a default, both times I ate there my burgers were definitely well done. They have an interesting variety of topping combinations and the burgers are pretty solid, but not substantially better than either of the pubs. The fries were forgettable, but the upshot is that you can get beer or a milkshake, depending on your mood.
The Tin Table: A New American restaurant that is more upscale than any of the previous establishments. I went during happy hour and got a few bucks off the price of the burger. This was one of the few places that managed to get the burger cooked to order. The components of the burger (bacon, sweet onions, cheese, beef, bun) were all clearly high quality, and the flavor was very good, but it was a bit small and left me underwhelmed. The shoestring fries were really yummy, but the cocktail I got was bitter and unpleasant.
Skillet: A mobile restaurant with a very tiny menu, including a grass-fed beef burger. I love the idea of mobile restaurants, but in practice find them rather frustrating. I was chasing Skillet around for weeks, checking their website repeatedly only to be informed that their daily location had been changed at the last minute, or that the day’s service was canceled, or that they were catering a private event. I finally caught up with them at the opening party for South Lake Union Park. The menu advertises grass-fed beef, but doesn’t specify origin. This burger came with arugula, cambazola cheese, and bacon jam. The bacon jam is, well, the jam. It’s sweet and bacon-y and goes great with the other toppings. The burger was juicy and actually had some pink in the middle, but was more medium-well than medium. The overall flavor was very good and the ingredients are clearly high quality, but the meat could have used more seasoning and the cheese was overpowering. I made the mistake of taking it home to eat–the ten minute walk was enough to noticeably cool the burger, and I wonder how much better it might have been piping hot. Somehow I haven’t mustered up the energy to track down that fickle trailer again.
Tavern Law: One of those speakeasy-style bars with old-fashioned cocktails and an upscale menu. The burger here was really great–juicy, flavorful, well-seasoned, cooked to order. I forget what the toppings are, but I do remember enjoying them. My biggest complaint was that the burger was expensive ($16, extra for bacon) and also very tiny. You should never leave a burger-eating experience feeling like you could eat more burger. My cocktail was very excellent; I’ll definitely be going back for more of those.
Quinn’s: The burger here is a half-pound of near perfection. First, when they take your order, they ask you how you want it cooked, which indicates to me that they have confidence in the quality and safety of their ground meat. Now, here’s the impressive part: when it comes out, it’s cooked just the way you ordered it, with a little plastic cow pick in the top indicating the perfect “MEDIUM,” “MEDIUM RARE,” or “WELL DONE,” that you will surely find inside. The bun and the meat are in proportion, and the bun was up to the considerable challenge of supporting the meat and toppings. My first bite was a tiny universe of heaven in my mouth. The burger had that little bit of seared crunch and a slight off-the-grill smokiness, a delectably beefy flavor perfectly seasoned with a sharp cheddar and melty, crispy bacon, and the sort of juiciness that makes my knees weak. Nothing was over- or under-done, all the flavors were in balance, and the textures played together beautifully. The fries were fresh, crispy, and tender. Before I had even started on the second half, I realized that despite feeling ravenous before dinner, I was not going to be able to finish this meal. So I prioritized the burger and regrettably left most of those delicious fries. It was a bit of a struggle, and I definitely suffered from food-coma afterward, but I couldn’t bear to leave any of that burger uneaten. It just seemed wrong. By a wide margin, Quinn’s was the pinnacle of Burger Quest 2010.
I found out recently (while cruising Craigslist ads for restaurant jobs) that the owners of Quinn’s is going to open up an upscale burger joint sometime soon. Rejoice!