Burger elegance at Harry's Fine Foods. Photograph by Amber Fouts
Before Dan Crookston took over Ballard’s bare-bones house of badass sandwiches, he had dreams of opening a burger shop. The smash burger he added to the menu is the one that launched those restaurant ownership dreams—a pair of quarter-pound dry-aged patties, housemade pickles, and unrepentantly processed slices of American cheese. But instead of a drippy house sauce, he swipes on his own yellow mustard, a bright peal of flavor in keeping with other house staples like the signature Mean Sandwich (fat hunks of corned beef, mustard, pickled red cabbage, an unexpected gust of mint). The fries: Here, potatoes get baked, then fried, into the mighty creation known as “skins and ins.”
What’s up is down and the world as we know it is forever changed. So yes, it makes perfect sense that this new pizza restaurant on Sunset Hill also makes a smash burger for the ages, confining its sloppy satisfaction inside a gently griddled bun. Thank chef Jason Stoneburner, a partner in the venture and the origin of polishing touches like ketchup with notes of tamarind and shoyu, and onions seared to crispy extremes. Just don’t ask about the provenance of that cushy bun; it’s a house secret. The fries: Massive, memorable waffles.
The NYC chain that’s somehow both a lifestyle and an economic indicator has planted locations in Kirkland and South Lake Union, with another due soon in University Village. While the concretes and chicken burger have their devotees, this is the house that smash burgers built. The original ShackBurger rocks an impeccable bun-patty-topping ratio, but the Westlake location has a Seattle-specific variation known as the Montlake Double Cut: a double cheeseburger which includes Just Jack cheese from Beecher’s, caramelized onions, and a grainy mustard-mayo. The fries: Classic crinkle cut.
Burgers in Unexpected Places
Angus and Longaniza Burger
First a mobile vendor, then a dynamite Ballard breakfast stop, Sazon Kitchen added a burger when it launched dinner service, one completely at home on a menu of tortas and chilaquiles: Spicy sausage mixed into the patty, a cloud of guacamole that puffs out from beneath a brioche bun, sporting a crust of crispy cheese. Ketchup and mustard rep more traditional burger flavors, but the result is so thoroughly excellent you needn’t bother with the lettuce, tomato, and pickle that come on the side. The fries: Gigantic fried wedges too large to describe as jojos, and about 50 times better thanks to the house seasoning.
In Little Uncle’s former home on Madison, the joyful, bootstrapped vibe lives on via new occupants and striking Laotian food, like co-owner Khampaeng Panyathong’s mom’s sausage recipe, all texture and lemongrass, and a khao soi with more funk than a Chaka Khan tribute. None of which prepares you for this: Taurus Ox makes, indisputably, one of the best burgers in town, a pair of proper smash patties, two versions of the condiment jeaw, house-cured pork jowl in place of bacon. It’s cross-culturally clever and drive-across-town good. The fries: Nonexistent—this is Lao food. Sub in some pork rinds or pungent papaya salad.
When a first-rate butcher shop run by a culinary school grad brings the full force of its talents to bear on a burger, well—the result should be this incredible. The one-third pound patty, juicy and well-peppered commands a brioche bun, its inside so grilled it’s almost caramelized. The cheese of your choosing—provolone is a fun changeup from the classics—flows outward over mild pickles and beneath the unobtrusively gourmet spring greens. A burger this well conceived doesn’t need pork, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from adding the Swinery’s sublime house bacon or a crisped packet of belly. The fries: Come as poutine or smothered in bacon and bleu cheese bechamel. But they’re thrice fried in rendered pork fat and tossed with garlic, which is to say they’re pretty damn good on their own.
Restaurant (and Bar) Burgers
Can beef qualify as a secret weapon if you’re talking about burgers? The 28-day dry aged barley-fed ground chuck from Ephrata’s Klingeman Family Farm ensures juicy beef flavor captains each bite, even against an assertive backdrop of frisee and pureed Mama Lil’s peppers. Beecher’s Flagship comes standard on these thick, pink-centered patties, though the kitchen has a tendency to sub in other non-wimpy cheeses, like gruyere, or throw whole mustard seeds into the mayo for an extra bit of bloom. Much like Harry’s original Capitol Hill dining room—layered with antiques, floral china, and vintage brass fixtures—all these striking details yield harmony. The burger’s also on the menu at the newer Harry’s Beach House offshoot on Alki. The fries: Fried with fresh rosemary and sage, then sprinkled with pecorino.
Chef Taylor Thornhill deploys some culinary sleight of hand in the burger that used to be a secret menu item, designed to use up trim at Renee Erickson’s Capitol Hill steak house. His brilliant combo—a dry-aged patty gilded with aioli and caramelized onion jam—delivers the melty sensation of a really great cheeseburger, without any actual cheese. It could also have something to do with the three separate applications of butter during the prep process. Right now a smaller burger with actual cheese (French, naturally) represents on the takeout menu, but Bateau’s two-person burger kit walks home cooks through every butter-drenched step to assemble their own. The fries: Classic frites, naturally, served with aioli. Bateau’s website has specific reheating instructions for takeout orders.
The burger at South Park’s ageless watering hole has long been a legend, and feels just right when consumed within those peeling beadboard walls, beneath old photographs and beer signs. Strip away the atmosphere and it’s still a pleasant, paper-wrapped ode to classic drive-thrus, its slim patty bolstered by American cheese and take-charge pickle coins. The incredible $5 price tag has always been a part of the alchemy, though recent struggles with beef sourcing have bumped costs up temporarily. The fries: Skin on and generously salted.
The Quinn’s Burger
The Capitol Hill tavern opened back in the gastropub’s heyday, though our love of its beer list, meaty menu, and unexpectedly great vegetables has far outlasted the utility of that goofy term. When Quinn’s shifted entirely to takeout, it added an accessible pair of smash burgers—a single and a double—to its limited menu. Bacony and portable, they’re the perfect burgers for this moment, but the classic Quinn’s burger still feels like the proper emissary of that handsome dining room, evolved from Pike/Pine’s Auto Row days. You’d need to stack up three smash patties to approximate one of the house-ground Quinn’s originals. Garnished with relative restraint—bacon, aioli, American cheese, brioche bun—they’re the leatherbound books of cheeseburgers. The fries: Hand cut, medium width, and nicely crisp.
It’s an homage to its fast food original, reworked with a chef’s exactitude: two wagyu patties, citrusy secret sauce, and smoked cheddar on a soft challah bun. Chef Maximillian Petty is prone to going all Good Will Hunting every so often on his burger’s exact formula, but usually lands pretty close to where he started. If this precipice of beef intensity feels like too much, the Little Thomas burger delivers that same carefully wrought combo on a single patty. This neighborhood bistro on Queen Anne Ave just added a custom painted pink jeep that makes deliveries around the neighborhood—complete with milkshake machines in the back. The fries: Crispy, shoestring, and sprinkled with herbs.
Burger Joint Burgers
The Last Gasp
White Center’s scrappy trick shot of a burger shop produces great teetering meat-and-bun cascades, their defining elements unchanged since 2008—charbroiled and houseground, thick, crinkly pickle coins, bun dusted with cornmeal. The Last Gasp, one of the rowdiest members of the special burger lineup wedges a hot link beneath the patty, then adds bacon and a topper of fried egg. All this together should be way too much, but a sheen of American cheese and ample amounts of sauce (plus those pickles) bring these proteins into a zesty alignment. The fries: Not as exciting as the tots.
The concise burger menu—just singles or doubles—looks different, more unruly, since Renee Erickson’s Sea Creatures restaurant group acquired the six-location chain from Josh Henderson. Sink your teeth into the that newly organic bun and it’s clear some tinkering has upped this burger’s game. The grass-fed patty’s not as lean as it once was, and tomato slices show up only during tomato season. A time-tested combo of shredded iceberg, American cheese, housemade pickles, and a mayo-riffic sauce doesn’t need bacon to make it better. But a thick strip of Hempler’s does inject some smoky edge. The fries: Crispy, golden crinkle-cuts.
The Fig and the Pig
If the classic cheddar cheeseburger is midcentury nostalgia, the blue cheese and bacon burger is a more complex powerhouse born of the 1990s but imbued with salty staying power. The Fig and the Pig layers blue cheese and salty bacon on a grass-fed patty, then drops a sweet-tart surprise with a scoop of pickled figs. It’s hard to get past the classic lil (or big) Woody, but the multi-location burger joint does a particularly good job devising specialty burgers that don’t taste like gimmicks. The fries: Skin on, slender, even better with a sidecar of milkshakes for dipping.
Loving Dick’s is an emblem of Seattlehood, available to both lifers and transplants, be they scraping or affluent, sober or buzzed. It’s an emotion not necessarily based on the contents of that paper sack (which sports stats on employee benefits and scholarships). The Deluxe, the most strapping item on this hyperlimited menu, is undoubtedly fast food, but iconic drive-ins don’t build a 70-year legend on crappy burgers. Two thin patties—a collective quarter pound of fresh beef—support properly gooey American cheese, fresh lettuce, mayo, and the gentlest of pickle relish, all between the sort of sweet bun that compresses easily beneath your fingertips. These uncomplicated charms can be yours for a mere $3.80. The fries: Essential to the Dick's experience.
This Japanese-style burger chainlet with its breaded and fried patties is en route to local legend status, legitimizing its Insta-friendly novelty with genuinely thoughtful flavors. Like most Katsu Burger creations, the Wabi Wasabi is a Mountain Dew commercial between two buns, its katsu patty shrouded beneath crunching shreds of cabbage, and approximately half a red onion. The wasabi blast, delivered via mayo, feels like part of the formula, not the dominant force. The fries: Dusted with nori flakes for an extra dose of savory.
Bacon Deluxe with Cheese
At a place this retro (Formica countertops, checkered floors, decades of history) you’d expect the house Mill sauce to be some sort of mayo-ketchup combo, as sweet as the frosty root beer shakes. Instead, it’s an unexpected kick of smoke and spice that makes this otherwise classic burger, roughly the size of a small birthday cake, vibrate on a more complex frequency. Other burgers on the menu have their devotees, but bacon feels central to the Red Mill experience. Not just because the Lincoln log stack of cooked strips practically needed its own press agent in the peak food TV era of the early aughts—those strips crumble an extra kick of salt into each bite. The fries: Pale in comparison with the well-seasoned onion rings.
The smell of truffle accosts you at the door like an invisible maitre d. Kevin Chung’s duo of burger restaurants in Ballard and Capitol Hill lavish the house fries with truffle oil (and lots of garlic). But on the 8oz burger, this overplayed food trend gets mixed with mayo and tempered with arugula and caramelized onions—making a JLo-level comeback. It’s actually one of the more restrained burgers on a menu of intelligent excess: brawny, eminently juicy patties adorned with anything from candied bacon to cave-aged gruyere, starters like short rib poutine, and a snickerdoodle milkshake flecked with bacon. The fries: Actually, more garlicky than truffled.
Burger and barbecue flavors couldn’t mesh better if you offset smoked them for hours on end. The signature burgers at Scott Staples’s fast-casual Fremont hangout display the subtle finesse of his previous life in high-end dining. Rather than rely on a truckload of barbecue sauce, this burger uses just a hint, then amplifies with onion frizzles, a whole roasted fresno chili, and a supporting character–size scoop of coleslaw. Uneeda’s classic burger remains a crazy deal at $5.50, but it’s worth shelling out an extra buck for some cheese. The fries: Sweet potato or regular.