The State of Boston Burgers

January 25th, 2013 by Richard Chudy

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Where do we go from here? There’s been as much burger activity as ever it seems, with even more burger-centric establishments opening up and a slew of non-burger-centric restaurants offering their take on the classic American sandwich. (yes I called it a Sandwich, deal with it) But with all this onslaught of meat and bun combinations, have we progressed over the past year or so? Has the burger reached the pinnacle point it was supposed to have by now? If we projected where I thought the future burgers would be a couple of years ago, I’d say we’re behind the curve. Every now and then we get a literal taste of new and exciting flavors (smoked miso aioli from Strip-T’s, anything from the Sammy’s Seven at JM Curley, the off-menu “secret” burger at Russell House Tavern come to mind) but those are few and far between. Too often it’s poorly caramelized onions, a not-so-fresh aioli, pickled anything and everything or a ramekin of Heinz ketchup. Where is the creativity? We should learn how to mix up our game.  A fried egg used to be cool (still delicious by the way) but now everyone does it and most overcook it. There is very little originality these days and it’s troubling, but maybe the burger doesn’t warrant enough avant garde toppings and techniques to generate a great deal of  interest.

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Pure and simple, a burger need not boast molecular techniques, at least that’s what we’re told. How about the use of tapioca maltodextrin to make a bacon powder? Perhaps that’s too strange for most; we want our burgers plain and minimal, so maybe I’m in the minority who want something a bit more. Most places are toppings driven and give less attention to the beef, a fatal flaw in my book. I feel like it’s easy to spot and taste a plain Jane chuck or sirloin blend versus a more unique blend with interesting cuts and textures and it does make a difference. Too often we’re fooled by a cute presentation, falling in love with a towering burger served on a small cutting board with a shiny Brioche bun and a cone of fries. Does presentation even matter with burgers? At the end of the day we’re rolling up our sleeves and digging in to a burger that is hopefully dripping with juices down our chin. There is a way to make it tidy and presentable without compromising the end product. All I want is a delicious burger that satisfies. Frequently new places sound pretty good on paper, but the faults often lie in the execution. I guess we should at least applaud those who try, but truthfully anyone can make it sound interesting on the menu, while few can cook it properly. If you ditched the notion of my scoring system and look at it more as a sliding scale, I think it’s far more telling. Fairly recent burger experiences at Strip T’s, Park, Posto, Olde Magoun’s Saloon, Hops ‘n Scotch, and Back Deck yielded good to very good results. Not because they were so different (although the Strip T’s had notes of the avant garde) but because they were beefy, juicy and properly seasoned. Isn’t that what it’s all about? The burgers that should have been great (The Butcher Shop, Farmstead Table, City Landing) all sounded and looked great but ultimately fell short due to the most primal of burger characteristics, namely the beef, poor choices in the bun and a failure to cook or season it the right way.

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In a perfect world we can strike the right balance of the funky, different and the straight-forward. Honestly, I think we’re closer but still not completely up to par. We have the greats (Craigie on Main, JM Curley, Back Bay Social Club) and a plethora of the fast-casual establishments most of us yearn for. The struggle is often with the middle of the road places, the restaurants that aren’t high end but charge more than they ought to, or the ones that are in the high end category and want to take a stab at a more sophisticated burger. Sometimes it’s a success (Harvest, Lineage) and sometimes it’s not (Bergamot, Catalyst). Even with the new burger players in town there is always going to be room for those who wish to take risks and those who choose to approach it from a more classic approach. There is no right or wrong opinion here, but all burgers are not created equally.

3 Responses

  1. Leslie says:

    Sullivan’s on Beacon Street in Somerville! YUM! I can’t wait for another one.

    Lucky’s on Congress Street in Fort Point! Love them!

  2. Daniel says:

    I discovered JM Curley after reading your review sometime last year, and I have to say is now easily my favorite burger in Boston. The only other burger that keeps me coming back again is the burger at Drink in Fort Point. I would be interested to see your take.