Behold the perfect burger*, from Jack’s Burger House on Hillcrest in Dallas, TX. Notice how the meat is a thin yet cohesive layer that curves around a much thicker strata of condiments (sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, coarsely chopped onion and pickle chips) just below and is kissed with just the lightest mustache of cheese. Observe how the bun, in spite of visible depressions from rough handling, maintains its integrity and easily contains the ingredients instead of bursting apart. Note the absence of the treacle-y red streaks that that indicate the presence of ketchup, though the rich warmth of yellow mustard is not visible in this example. It’s a symphony of synergistic (one of the rare instances in which this word is appropriate) flavors and textures.
Now, compare a burger I purchased recently at Smashburger in Saratoga Springs, New York. This is not a bad burger, in fact I gave the restaurant 4 stars on Yelp though that was for the sides. But observe how the sloppy lettuce overwhelms the other ingredients. And if I had taken this picture a minute later you would have seen the whole thing had disintegrated due to a fragile bun.
It’s time to blow the whistle on bogus burgers. If you can’t hold it between your fingers while managing another task (like playing a hand of poker, or driving down the interstate), or if you have to wipe your hands on a napkin or your pants after each bite, then it’s not a sandwich and therefore not a hamburger.
I don’t have a gripe with fine dining places that put a $16 “burger” on their menu and take quality meats and garnish them with a few well chosen toppings. The Brady Burger from 15 Church in Saratoga, shown here, is a good example. Note that it has a substantial bun, but still you eat with your hands at your own risk. It’s a wink to the simple food that inspired it.
No, my beef is with places in the $5-10 range that broil an oversized hunk of ground meat, carelessly apply vegetables since it’s going to fall apart anyway, then finish with a tiny bun that’s like a clown hat. The whole thing is out of whack. Even worse is the idea of one burger chain, run by a bunch of wise guys, that wraps the concoction in foil before serving. If you get takeout, your burger will have turned to pudding by the time you eat it.
Such establishments have taught a generation of gullible diners that a luxurious burger is by definition something that self destructs as you are enjoying it. (Actually, wasn’t there a Carl’s Junior commercial a few years ago on just this theme?) The current hostility to gluten may play into this; the fragile puffballs served by so many burger places seem to be made of low-gluten pastry flour, often with a no-gluten mix in of potato flour.
If you’re making burgers at home, buy or make quality buns, then toast before serving for an extra measure of tensile strength. If you don’t have another reason to go to Dallas, an excellent and widely available stand-in for Burger House is an In-N-Out cheeseburger with extra onions, mustard instead of sauce and pickles. You’re welcome.
*Photo courtesy of Yelp.