If barbecue is the rigid, tradition-steeped Catholic school of the meat universe, then burgers hail from that hip utopian magnet school where stoners, gamer geeks, and even the foreign exchange students are cool in their own right. A good burger can be a masterpiece of housemade wizardry adorned with a heap of oddball ingredients or served as a $3 insurance policy against tomorrow morning’s hangover. It doesn’t even have to involve beef. The constant: a perfectly cooked patty, purposeful toppings, and a glorious sense of gratification—bordering on heartburn—when it’s finished. Seattle, with its love of food trucks and myriad culinary influences, applies that same creativity and inclusive spirit to the humble hot dog, too.
And yeah, we’ve heard those gripes about how Seattle has no barbecue culture. And yet, our (arduous, grueling) research lead us to some locals shaking up the barbecue scene, plus plenty of worthy joints around town that recreate the low and slow practices and regional saucing styles of barbecue meccas like Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and the Carolinas. Grab some napkins (lots of napkins) and get acquainted with these local meat masters.
1. For just a few bucks
For many of us, the earliest cognition of cheeseburger perfection comes from a drive-thru window, the domain of a clown named Ronald. That specific cheeseburger of our youth now tastes like a chemical sandwich. But a really good cheap version—usually consumed late at night—offers that same uncomplicated bliss with ingredients that taste like actual food. At South Park bar Loretta’s Northwesterner, the walls bear tributes to Hamm’s and Oly and Blitz Weinhard, the handsaw hanging over the back bar appears to have felled its share of actual logs, and the Tavern Burger is a mere $3.
There’s something intensely reassuring about a squishy white bun, barely griddled, and a thinnish patty that’s happy to play second fiddle to a slice of melty American cheese. Mustard? Hell, no. Cheap burgers demand a sprinkle of chopped white onion, twin coins of pickle, and special sauce which—let’s be honest—bears a tremendous resemblance to Thousand Island. These burgers speak to rowdy nights and therapeutic grease and memories of what fast food tasted like before we were old enough to know better.
Want fries with that? If you’ve got three bucks to spare, they’re skin on, the perfect not-too-skinny size, and nicely crisp.
8617 14th Ave S, South Park, 206-327-9649; lorettasnorthwesterner.com
2. For a little burger with your bacon
Bacon has descended into gimmick territory—you can find it elsewhere dipped in chocolate, battered and fried, or on top of an ice cream sundae—but at West Seattle’s most charming temple of exalted carnivory, it’s practically an essential element. The butcher shop’s prepared food menu keeps growing (hello, sandwich of pulled pork, sliced ham, pork belly, and swiss cheese) but the bacon burger remains the standard, a dripping good example of what happens when the most carefully crafted of bacons meets a hand-formed, grass-fed patty. The beef is fired on a charcoal grill in the adjacent courtyard and topped with a crisscross of the Swinery’s own bacon, cured simply in nothing but brown sugar and kosher salt. It’s sliced thick enough that you taste the cure and the sweet and the actual meatiness. A combo of red and caramelized onions, housemade pickles, spring greens, and a fat slice of tomato all commingle inside the brioche bun. Keeping all these ingredients from slip sliding out of said bun demands focus, especially when the eye strays longingly to the butcher case of meats or the bacon–chocolate chip cookie dough in
Want fries with that? Danger Fries seems like a pretty accurate name for a pile of crisp fries, cooked in pork fat, tossed with garlic and chives, and swimming in a blue cheese–bacon bechamel sauce.
3207 California Ave SW, West Seattle, 206-932-4211; swinerymeats.com
3. For eating standing up
In theory, food trucks are brilliant. Because, really, you can’t beat lunching on a bench, taking in a little sunshine before returning to work. But conveniently located benches are scarce, sunny days even scarcer. And since this city boasts so many good burgers underneath actual roofs, a food truck version must be impressive, indeed. And impressiveis the word for Portland transplant Happy Grillmore, a purple truck painted to look like a piece of street art. Burgers are cut in half and neatly wrapped in paper—a lifesaver when awkwardly squatting on a curb. The entry-level burger is called the Chub, and inside that paper wrapping you’ll find a hulking third-of-a-pound patty, juicy with a perfectly pink center and a ciabatta bun that manages to be both soft and sturdy. And tightly packed toppings—melty Tillamook cheddar, roasted red pepper aioli, and a befuddling yet brilliant combo of spinach and arugula—add grownup nuance to classic burger flavors. If restraint isn’t your thing, order a version that adds bacon and Gorgonzola, or barbecue sauce and some onion rings, to the basic toppings. Best of luck eating one of those standing on the sidewalk.
Want fries with that? One dish. Four words. Bacon. Beer. Cheddar. Fries.
See also Buns (bunsonwheels.com) and Charlie’s Buns N’ Stuff (charliesbunsnstuff.com) are dedicated to burgers and do a darn fine job. And, randomly, a Native American truck, Off the Rez, does a great burger with bacon and cumin crema.
4. For eating with a cloth napkin
This one doesn’t look much different from any other high-end cheeseburger around town. And some might think it’s a cop-out to order something so unassuming when it’s listed alongside plates like squid ink arancini, grilled quail, or fantasy-worthy chicken liver pate. Disabuse yourself of such foolish notions. This magical little clubhouse for admiring off-duty chefs and Capitol Hill food geeks is a monument to how a thoughtful palate and solid kitchen techniques can earn a humble burger its own fan base. Even in an ambitious place like this one.
The open kitchen means diners bear witness to the generous fistful of salt that gets lavished on each side of the patty, which is as thick as a really fluffy waffle. The sodium onslaught looks a little frightening, but it’s hard to argue with the perfectly seasoned end result. A fat coil of housemade remoulade takes the place of mayo, the subtle punch of Champagne vinegar adding acid often provided by ketchup, but without the accompanying sweetness. Painted Hills and Macrina have cornered the market on high-end patties and brioche buns in this town—here is no different—and a thick slice of Gruyere lends another layer of intrigue. Onions and mushrooms go on the grill before joining the party. This burger is highly shareable, thanks to the fancy French Laguiole steak knives that rock some unexpected fluorescent--colored handles—a tiny, perfect metaphor for this place.
Want fries with that? This may be the only place in town where it’s a struggle choosing between the fries and the sublimely peppery Caesar, festooned in grated Parmesan.
See also The burgers at Spur (spurseattle.com) and Ma’ono (maono.springhillnorthwest.com) are downright legendary, and the Taleggio-and-pimentón-aioli-topped newcomer at Restaurant Zöe (restaurantzoe.com) isn’t far behind.
1802 Bellevue Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-329-4047; labeteseattle.com
5. For night owls
It’s 12:30am on a Saturday and the little sliver-size Malaysian walkup on Olive Way is no longer serving udang masak lemak nenas or nasi goreng. And yet, the line is still a half dozen people deep—everyone awaiting the Ramly burger. It’s a rare stateside take on a street food big in after-hours Malaysia; owners Kevin Burzell and Alysson Wilson discovered it while traveling in Penang and only serve it weekends from midnight till 2:30.
The patty (Painted Hills, formed right there in the miniscule kitchen) is topped with a riot of flavors, all housemade—ketchup, mayo, and the vaguely named “brown sauce,” which is really a thickened, sweetish soy. There’s white pepper and Worcestershire, and MSG-riffic Maggi brand seasoning, too.
The big freaking deal: The meat is then wrapped in egg, specifically the thinnest, most pliable of omelets. This savory packet then lands on the softest of white buns and gets topped with a cabbage slaw tossed in the house sweet chili sauce. If that’s somehow not enough, pony up a quarter to add a slice of cheese.
The Ramly draws its share of fervent drunk fans, but plenty of Malaysian customers make special (sober) pilgrimages into the thick of Capitol Hill nightlife solely for this. At least one set of (way hip) parents has even bundled their eight- and 10-year-olds in the car for a midnight snack.
Any burger can mop up a night’s worth of inebriation, but this one leaves the taste of fire on the tongue, a clarion call to the booze-addled senses. Subtlety is not what you’re after at 2am.
Wrapping a loaded burger in a whispery omelet requires extra time and space, which sadly means you’ll probably never see this creation outside the wee hours. It’s a cunning combo of fat, spice, and the signature strong flavors that make Kedai Makan a winner even in our more lucid states.
Want fries with that? Sorry, no dice. At the stroke of midnight, everything but the burger, the roti canai, and the tofu salad come off the menu.
See also Palace Kitchen, Sam’s Tavern
1510 E Olive Way, Capitol Hill, kedaimakanseattle.com
6. For people with massive jaws
Some burgers feel more like a Mountain Dew commercial than a meal. A towering monument to excess and extreme is all well and good, but there’s a fine line between gilding the lily (or piling bacon on it) and creating a burger that’s truly transcendent. Georgetown’s Katsu Burger—the rebellious younger sibling of West Seattle sushi bar Mashiko—is both successful and unflinching in its decadence. Every single grass-fed beef patty gets treated like Japan’s tonkatsu pork cutlet—dredged in Japanese panko crumbs, then deep fried till the perfect moment when the outside is crunchy and the meat inside still harbors a faint pink. Just want a regular, pankoless, pan-seared patty, sans fryer? Not happening.
Novelty menu items like the Mt. Fuji (beef, pork, and chicken patties, three kinds of cheese, egg, bacon, etc.) are truly gonzo, but even a selection from the regular menu requires a heap of napkins and a relaxed and facile jaw. Burgers come with the familiar tomato, red onion, and pickles, but a big mess of shredded cabbage and housemade tonkatsu sauce—sorta like ketchup meets barbecue—nudges things toward Japanese-inspired umaminess. Seriously, how is this place not a culty West Coast chain yet?
Want fries with that? Oh yeah; they’re dusted in curry, sea salt, or nori (seaweed) flakes, and they come with your choice of decadent dipping sauce.
6538 Fourth Ave S, Georgetown, 206-762-0752; katsuburger.com
7. For carnivorous game geeks
Seattle continues its culinary invasion of Redmond with the first beefed-up outpost of the cheerfully anarchic Full Tilt Ice Cream—and by “beefed-up,” you know what we mean. At Highscore the burgers come as five- and three-ouncers, served not so much as patties but big balls of meat against which wimpy white-bread buns don’t stand
Take the Boss Level Burger, a startling two-chunk behemoth with thick slabs of cheese (you pick cheddar, swiss, blue, jack, or smoked Gouda) melting down their formidable sides, along with chewy bacon, sweet sauce with a fruity tang oozing out the sides, and—and!—a little mess of fries, balanced right atop the beef. (Genius!) The beast arrives pretoppled on the plate, which takes a good deal of the pressure off, and goes down ridiculous with a root beer float (of course there’s a case brimming with Full Tilt’s full complement of glorious ice creams) and a raging round of Ms. Pac Man.
Yup, just like at the Tilts, the place is lined with arcade machines. This, along with the all-around retro-gamer aesthetic of the place—down to a staff of merrily disaffected youth who will take whatever time they need to make your burger, thank you—lends strip-mall Redmond just the swag it needed.
Want fries with that? Yeah you do: The slim and crispy sweet potato fries are really good. Ice cream in some permutation is also part of the equation, but so far shakes have been disappointingly milky.
See also Zippy’s Giant Burgers (zippysgiantburgers.com) in White Center, with its old-school video games and menu of underpriced burgers
8440 160th Ave NE, Redmond, 425-556-5400; highscoreburgers.com
8. For vegetarians
Hillside Quickie, with its comprehensive menu of hefty vegan sandwiches and spicy soul food with a hippie comfort food bent, was the go-to place for the best veggie burgers in town. Sadly, the U District gem closed earlier this year. Fortunately Plum Bistro—HQ’s fancier Capitol Hill cousin, owned by vegan mastermind, Makini Howell—has a jerk tofu and creamy yam burger on the menu (right next to the oven-broiled lentil burger, tangy pepper seitan burger, and the buffalo portobello burger). It lives up to the standards of its defunct compatriot, which was owned by Howell’s brother and sister. It’s piled high with grilled onions, tomato, and tangy pickled cabbage on a toasted bun. The peppery Jamaican seasoning blackens the tofu patty and soaks through every messy bite. Neither the classy digs at Plum nor the hippie tofu can diminish the fact that this is one of the hardiest burgers in the city.
Want fries with that? The default side for this burger is a serving of russet fries with chipotle sauce, but see if you can swap in the yam and beet chips, which come with a spot-on vegan aioli.
1429 12th Ave, Capitol Hill, 206-838-5333; plumbistro.com
9. For Fans of unusual meat
8oz. Burger Bar
So an ostrich burger is never going to boast the primal crave appeal of, say, an eight-ounce slab of juicy natural beef in a brioche bun heaped with balsamic onions, Hempler’s bacon, Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, and truffle aioli. The latter, 8oz. Burger’s namesake swooner, is why we adore the Broadway outpost of this national chain. But the ostrich burger, and other of 8oz.’s novelty meats, is why we admire it.
Because the beef burgers in this unlikely house of terrific eatin’ would be quite enough: beef that’s hormone free or even grass fed, crafted into creations like an espresso-rubbed patty with fried shallots and Gorgonzola and peppercorn aioli; or a fancy-pants version, the patty crowned with braised short rib, the whole embellished with white cheddar, horseradish Dijonaise, and a good demiglace. Damn, they’re good.
But 8oz. goes us one better, offering not just a token but an array of healthier patties—Diestel ranch turkey, housemade veggie, Anderson Valley Ranch lamb, Durham Ranch wild boar, even a rotating selection of burgers like ground ostrich or venison—that hauls old fattie into leaner territory. The best of these, in our opinion, is the wild boar, whose sweetish, elegantly gamey flavor is winningly offset with bacon, aioli, and a smoky poblano relish. Enjoy it (or anything) in this brisk and buzzing storefront in less than 90 minutes, and your underground parking’s free.
Want fries with that? Sides are across-the-board solid here, but our very favorites are the vanilla malt and the perfect Kennebec potato fries. That’s right, perfect.
See also Uneeda Burger (uneedaburger.com) features elk and emmer burgers, while Lunchbox Laboratory (lunchboxlaboratory.com) offers churken* and dork**, in South Lake Union and downtown Bellevue locations.
1401 Broadway, Capitol Hill, 206-466-5989; 8ozburgerbarsea.com
10. For soaking up craft cocktails
A skeptical barfly might be forgiven for dismissing something called the “Smith burger with fries” as the quintessence of generic. That barfly would be wrong.
There he is now, swinging open the door of Smith, surveying the crowd of aesthetes and hipsters, noting that if you hang enough gilt-framed portraits on delicate wallpaper even rustic wood tables and ironic taxidermy go elegant. He sizes up the bar as a serious one, one that knows its booze—he’s right—and he crosses his fingers and orders the burger, hoping for the best.
And that’s precisely what he gets. He inhales it before he sees it, for this burger breathes a trail of intoxicating wood smoke from grill to table. It’s big—a hearty half-pounder of Painted Hills natural beef, precisely fitted to its sturdy/soft Columbia City Bakery potato bun—and lacquered with dripping cheddar (or swiss or blue), and bacon if you ordered it. The fixings are careful—crisp little gem lettuce, beefsteak tomato, yellow onion, a big old housemade pickle—and on the side, little pots of ketchup and aioli for spreading or dipping.
What it all adds up to, the barfly understands, is more depth of flavor—fine beef gone smoky—than he’s ever encountered in a bar burger. He has no way of knowing that some 20 percent of Smith’s diners order it or that it’s fast becoming known as the best bar burger in Seattle.
He does know it’s wicked good with bourbon.
Want fries with that? Fries and aioli come with the burger; better by a mile are the sweet-potato fries with mustard aioli.
See also The Two Bells Bar and Grill (thetwobells.com) had us at sourdough bun. Beacon Hill newcomer the Oak (206-535-7070) coaxes oceans of flavor out of its char-grilled, grass-fed patties (go for the double-decker Overtime version), and the burger at Quinn’s (quinnspubseattle.com) has perfected the burger--to-bun ratio.
332 15th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-709-1900; smithseattle.com
11. For nothing but burgers
From its old-school Coca-Cola refrigerators to its red plastic burger baskets, Li’l Woody’s is an old-time country burger shack smack in the heart of hipster Pike/Pine. So you may get a little more urban ’tude at the counter than you would out in the sticks: You’ll also get an exponentially better burger.
Think char-grilled Painted Hills beef third-pounders, shoved into pillowy buns with novel combos—Boat Street pickled figs with Hills bacon and crumbled Gorgonzola, say, or Hatch green chilies with spicy queso sauce—along with countless DIY options, including fully 10 kinds of cheese. We’re partial to the Pendleton: a thick and juicy patty embellished with Tillamook cheddar, barbecue sauce and mayo, and a lightly greasy (dare I say tempuralike?) onion ring. A breakfast sandwich, a black bean burger, and a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich round out the options, along with the richest milkshakes on the Hill, made with Molly Moon’s ice cream. The salted caramel shake is an act of god.
Want fries with that? Hell yeah! Crack fries, please: hand cut and golden crisp, served with a baby Molly Moon’s ice cream shake for dipping. Really.
1211 Pine St, Capitol Hill, 206-457-4148
2040 NW Market St, Ballard, 206-257-5259; lilwoodys.com