A burger is a savage thing.
Let other foods be civilized or corner the delicacy market. A burger, a really great burger, is untamed. Feral. Indecent.
This may occur to you as your Spring Hill BURGER, $17, hits your table. “Best not to cut it,” your server may caution as you reach for your knife. The beast is fully five inches high. “It could disintegrate.” Worse, it could topple—and then where would you be? Eating the thing with a fork, that’s where. And that’s no way to eat a burger. Especially one featuring a meaty half-pound ball of beef, two melting layers of cheese, and chewy-thick bacon, all slathered in the richest Thousand Island dressing you have ever licked directly off your shirt.
Of course you are at Spring Hill, West Seattle’s fashionable bastion of culinary distinction—so that beef is actually organically raised, grass-fed Painted Hills chuck, fresh-ground in-house. The bacon is crafted on site; the cheeses are white cheddar and California’s lovely, rarely seen teleme; the bun is from Dahlia Bakery; and that luscious cream you thought was Thousand Island is actually aioli fired with roasted tomatoes. It’s precious-meets-primal, a contrast so irresistible we had to put it on the cover of the magazine. The fries, deep-fried in beef fat, went directly for primal. Excellent choice. Spring Hill, 4437 California Ave SW, West Seattle, 206-935-1075; www.springhillnorthwest.com
Red Mill Burgers
In this world there are meat burgers and there are fixings burgers. Red Mill, where the length of the ever-present line is rivaled only by the heft of the DOUBLE BACON DELUXE WITH CHEESE, $6.49, is Seattle’s high holy temple of the fixings burger.
Viewed coldly, it really oughtn’t to be that way. Because what we have on the double bacon deluxe with cheese are two terribly ordinary quarter-pound patties, slightly too cooked, heaped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onions, and draped in—we almost can’t bring ourselves to write it—American cheese. This is the burger the Dick’s Deluxe wants to be when it grows up.
That big slabs of pepper bacon (check out the mountain of it next to the grill) and deeply smoky Mill sauce also appear on the burger should not be enough to redeem this baby from the insult of the faux cheese. But here’s the thing: It all adds up to one unexpectedly perfect combination. Stranger still is the moment you realize that the mouth-coating velvet of the cheese may be the biggest part of why. Like we said: It’s the fixings. So who would we be to argue if a person wanted to peel back the top bun and carefully lay in a few onion rings—created with help from Tom Douglas, tweaked with cayenne, and pronounced by GQ magazine the best onion rings in the country? Red Mill Burgers, 312 N 67th St, Phinney Ridge, 206-783-6362. 1613 W Dravus St, Interbay, 206-284-6363; www.redmillburgers.com
At Jak’s, the burgers come with a steak knife. A nice big one. You won’t necessarily need it; soy and Worcestershire sauces make the ground, corn-fed Nebraska beef extra tender and insanely moist, but the sharp, serrated blade is a nice touch just the same. Jak’s is, after all, an honest-to-gosh, Sinatra-on-the-stereo, brass-and-polished-cherry-wood steak house, and chances are good that your dining companions will be carving up filet mignon.
Don’t worry: You won’t feel inadequate. While they politely fork neat bites of steak, you’ll have more fun sinking your teeth into the JAK’S BURGER, $13.14, a half pound of sumptuously seasoned meat topped with a slightly uncivilized pile of blue cheese and a tangle of soft, salty bacon underscored by tangy roasted red-pepper mayo. And you can request a UFO with your protein: The potato pancake–topped pile of garlicky, skin-on mashed spuds used to be like a secret side dish that only the regulars knew, but now servers offer it up along with the night’s martini special and the soup of the day. Don’t take it for granted. Jak’s Grill, 3701 NE 45th St, Laurelhurst, 206-985-8545. 14 Front St N, Issaquah, 425-837-8834. 4548 California Ave SW, West Seattle, 206-937-7809; www.jaksgrill.com
Zippy's Giant Burgers
Even West Seattleites gripe about the obscure Highland Park location of their favorite burger joint, but we think there’s nothing better than coming upon a perfect pile of beef and bun in the middle of nowhere. Just frame your visit to Zippy’s as a summer field trip: Take your time getting there. Meander. Stop and take a photo with a landmark. This way, when you step inside the kitsch-covered, postage stamp–size grill and order behind a guy in paint-splattered coveralls, you’ll feel like you’re on a mythic road journey and you’re about to wrap your hands around a burger worth writing a postcard about. Because truly, the ZIP BURGER, $5.50, a griddle-burnt patty topped with bacon and American cheese between a secret sauce–slathered Franz bun is a classic burger lover’s ideal. Backyard barbecuers dream of flipping it; drive-ins long to serve it. And they can—if they commit to grinding the beef each morning, forming it by hand, and then leaving it alone while it splatters and pops its way to medium-well. For a few dollars you get more than a meal and some wax paper. Zippy’s throws in the essence of convertible cars, AM radios, picnic tables carved with lovers’ initials, and nothing to do but spend all day getting home. Zippy’s Giant Burgers, 1513 SW Holden St, West Seattle, 206-763-1347; www.myspace.com/zippysgiantburgers
Teddy's Bigger Burgers
The burger is a proprietary piece of American culinary culture: beef, bun, cheese, ketchup, good. Gussy up that utilitarian formula with frou-frou adornments and silly special sauces, and the social fabric unravels. That’s what we were thinking as we slid onto a stool at Teddy’s Bigger Burgers and faced down a patty slathered in teriyaki sauce and topped with pineapple slices. Even the clown fish in the massive tank at the center of this Blue Hawaii–meets– American Graffiti burger joint braced for our “What have they done?!” screams.
Oh, but gastronomic xenophobia is the enemy of fortuitous taste exploration. Teddy’s has been a legend in Hawaii for 10 years (the Woodinville location just opened in March) and the burger culture there has yet to implode. Once we got past the perverse notion of putting island fruit between beef and bun, we found that the HAWAIIAN BURGER, $6.15—along with lettuce, tomatoes, white onions, and pickles—deftly walks the line between salty and sweet. This is a six-napkin feast, though: Even if you opt for the dainty five-ounce patty (Teddy’s serves up seven- and nine-ounce versions as well), the mixture of sauces and juices is more than the buttery-soft bun can absorb. But it’s a mess worth taming in the name of blazing new trails in burger consumption. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, 17705 140th Ave NE, Woodinville, 425-408-1604; www.teddysbiggerburgers.com
Soy beans and wheat gluten will never taste like the juicy, fatty flesh of a cow. And why should they? A really tasty vegetarian patty makes stars out of the ingredients from which it is composed, something the chef at 22 Doors —the casual Capitol Hill brunch and cocktail spot that draws spillover crowds from Coastal Kitchen—seems to understand. The VEGGIE BURGER, $12, is a macerated mash-up of celery, mushroom, balsamic, and red pepper (among other things) pummeled into an inch-thick patty—solid enough to keep from crumbling when you eat it, soft enough to stand out against its bean-based brethren—then piled high with a generous slathering of caramelized onions, a gooey slice of fontina, a crisp romaine leaf, and a tangy tomato remoulade on top. The bun is sesame and toasted, the shoestring fries are perfect and plentiful, and the whole experience will forever erase the melancholy memory of every dusty meat-free hamburger that’s ever stuck to the roof of your mouth. 22 Doors, 405 15th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-324-6406; www.twentytwodoors.com
Sometimes eating a hamburger can be a mouthwatering excuse to swallow a lot of nostalgia—and given the right fixings, nostalgia can be pretty tasty.
Burgermaster, a family business that’s been around Seattle since 1952, summons simpler times. Head to one of their drive-ins, where you pull into a parking spot, peruse a menu that’s posted on a pole, and wait for a friendly attendant with a logo on her shirt to sidle up and take your order. By the time you’ve soaked in the kitschy novelty of it all, she’s back and asking you to roll up your window a bit so she can hang the food tray on it. Such charm is particularly enjoyable at the Greenwood location (one of five from Everett to Bellevue), which evokes old-fashioned pleasures despite being situated on Aurora Avenue (although, to be fair, Aurora Avenue has long been famous for a different sort of old-fashioned pleasure…).
Burgermaster’s titular attraction—THE BURGERMASTER, $4.64—is the nifty kind of burger people ordered before burgers got all tricked out. The toasted buns hold pickles, a crisp slice of onion, a thin grilled patty, a hunk of lettuce, a juicy tomato, and melted American cheese. (Yes, American. Love it or leave it.) The whole thing crunches appetizingly together in your hands before you even take a bite. A combo meal with divinely salty fries and a rich shake proves the best things in life aren’t free—they cost about nine bucks. Burgermaster, 9820 Aurora Ave N, Greenwood, 206-522-2044; www.burgermaster.biz
The whiffs of beef and wood smoke will grab you from three blocks away like an olfactory GPS. You’ll circle the county for a parking space. You’ll wait, standing—what’s a little pocking rain—a half-hour to get your food. Maybe. And then you will do something seriously unconsidered, something potentially really painful—sprint across four lanes of speeding traffic, say—just to get inside that grease-flecked brown takeout box already.
Anticipation: It’s the secret sauce on every Skillet BURGER, $9.
Well, anticipation and cambozola cheese and bacon jam. Skillet is the Airstream trailer that trundles to a different neighborhood each day, and this rock star of a burger is why it gets away with such nonsense. Because honestly, here’s what we’re talking about: A golden baseball of a bun, soft with sweet brioche pastry. A half-inch-thick patty of grass-fed beef, smoky and blush-pink in the middle and flapping out the sides. A sheen of bacon jam lending the faintest hoofprint of wickedness. Bits of cambozola cheese for nutty intrigue; arugula just for push-back. A mess of wizened, herb-speckled fries on the side.
It’s not big, it’s just uncommonly tasty. And as the cambozola melts and the brioche goes to butter—the whole burger becomes…I’m not kidding… creamy. It ain’t worth becoming road-splatter for. But worth waiting for? Just ask the 82 people ahead of you in line. Skillet Street Food, www.skilletstreetfood.com
Some people insist that if it didn’t come from a cow, it isn’t a hamburger. Well, some people are still fighting the range wars and they need to call a truce and try Café Campagne’s BURGER D’AGNEAU, $14. Lamb suits a burger at least as well as beef; it has richer flavor and more tongue-coating, chin-dripping saturated fat. Campagne exploits fat and flavor to the fullest with a generous puck of ground lamb cooked to specs (“medium rare” really is) in an oversize, crusty French bun. The toppings, as chichi as Campagne’s elegant bistro decor, will be a revelation to pickle-and-lettuce purists: roasted red peppers, organic baby salad greens, and grilled onions pickled in balsamic vinegar. At heart a straight-ahead burger in classier garb; that irrepressible sheep fat soaks even the organic salad greens. Snag one of the Post Alley tables and passersby will sniff avidly and stare enviously as you dig in. Café Campagne, 1600 Post Alley, Pike Place Market, 206-728-2233; www.campagnerestaurant.com
Stumbling Goat Bistro
Sliders have their detractors. Skeptics say the wee ’wiches are the favored fare of the credulous and the overdined, who salivate over whatever edible novelty the gourmet marketing machine tosses their way. Well, we can’t defend every baby burg ever plated, but judging by the MINI GRASS-FED BEEF BURGERS, $12, at Stumbling Goat Bistro, this is one bovine bandwagon on which we are more than willing to jump. The beef itself (Washington-raised Angus crossbreed) is a miracle of texture: crispy outside, rich-melty inside—the carnivorous equivalent of a perfect chocolate truffle. The farm-to-table Phinney Ridge restaurant keeps things flavorful by raising the fat level to 30 percent, then topping the two-ounce sammies with a teeny pat of Mt. Townsend Creamery Trailhead cheese, a crunchy bit of baby lettuce, and, smothering the buttery bun, a sweet-and-tart onion jam that lingers in your mouth long after the juicy hit of petite patty has passed. Stumbling Goat Bistro, 6722 Greenwood Ave N, Phinney Ridge, 206-784-3535; www.stumblinggoatbistro.com
Step one: So it doesn’t come with fries. Get over it. What the TWO BELLS’ TAVERN BURGER, $9.95, lacks in crispy side carbs it makes up for with its massive sourdough roll. Yes, roll, not bun—a buttery French baguette—that, given the scruffy, old Belltown surroundings, adds a deft gourmet touch for the unsuspecting customer.
Step two: Wait for it. Upon the Tavern’s arrival at your table, let it soften for a few minutes. The thick slices of deli deliciousness challenge even the biggest of biters. Sorry, but there’s simply so much the sourdough needs to soak up: Puddles of greasy bubbles hiding in the crevices of bacon; piles of grilled onions; rich housemade sauce so thick your body surrenders with a, “Welp, there go my arteries, but heck if I care right now.”
Step three: Give your bun a little love squeeze. Thanks to the roll’s now dripping sponginess it’ll go a long way toward giving you a good grip—definitely a necessity.
Step four: Heaven. The five-and-a-half-ounce, perfectly charbroiled patty is so juicy, so slippery and ripe, that each bite is like a sloppy wet one from great aunt Rhoda. But (here’s where patience pays off) those magnificent mouthfuls aren’t flooded by a dripping mess; your plate is only somewhat spattered, your chin (mostly) dry. Because that sopping onion-meat-condiment juicefest? It’s taken over the baguette, not your shirt. Two Bells, 2313 Fourth Ave, Belltown, 206-441-3050; www.thetwobells.com
People of France, we are not the enemy. You know this. Yet you’ve torpedoed our greatest port city with a weapon most mouthwatering. So overpowering is the KOBE BEEF HAMBURGER, $14, at Voilà! Bistrot in Madison Valley, so tantalizing its juicy goodness, that our own citizenry—witness to millions of backyard barbecues in which the American burger is a totem of national pride—has come to question its loyalties. The seduction starts the moment one marches through the doorway—all-American senses scrambled by the shadow play of candlelight on mustard walls. Things get more compromising as one of your countrymen (androgynous, black-clad) pours a Kronenberg 1664 in a glass, bubbles rising to the surface like lost balloons at a carnival, and delivers the package: a toasted bun cradling a hot slab of Wagyu meat topped with caramelized onions and smothered in brie. The flavors storm the Bastille of our palate and commingle so expertly that one can hardly tell beef from bread, onion from brie, good from evil. The taste buds fire a treacherous message to the brain: Forget the Pledge of Allegiance, burn your passport, and shout, Vive la France! This burger is a violation. There should be a United Nations sanction. A call to our allies…. But first, one more bite. Voilà! Bistrot, 2805 E Madison St, Madison Valley, 206-322-5460; www.voilabistrot.com
With a few subtle tweaks—and without sacrificing its wholesome, everyman qualities in favor of highfalutin gourmet flash—here’s how to elevate the standard backyard burger to an exercise in bovine transcendentalism:
1. Use good beef. A basic yet alarmingly often-overlooked element. Try something sourced locally, like Oregon Country Natural Beef, that chars up nicely over an open flame but manages to stay juicy in the process.
2. Use good cheese. Also criminally neglected, but no less important. Melted Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar is a tasty option with a unique consistency. Instead of forming a rubbery yellow dairy helmet over the patty like your conventional Kraft American Single does, the sharp white cheddar softens and separates into an almost brielike consistency.
3. Use good buns. For once in your life put down the Bunny Bread and try something with honest-to-Giada flavor. Dahlia Bakery gives its burger buns a subtle, smoky-sweet taste by baking roasted onions into (instead of onto) them.
Or, know what? You could just leave the grill covered and drop into Palace Kitchen to get all of the above in the PALACE BURGER ROYALE, $14—accompanied by a tangle of crunchychewygreasy fries—without having to strike a match. Yeah, just do that. Palace Kitchen, 2030 Fifth Ave, Belltown, 206-448-2001; www.tomdouglas.com