The Almighty Hamburger.
Hamburgers are without question the most popular of American meals. But while a great hamburger is very enjoyable, great hamburgers are outnumbered by terrible hamburgers by a ratio of, I’d guess, about a million to one.
It is the hamburger’s misfortune to appear convenient to cook and serve. In fact, a great hamburger requires at least as much attention to detail as many more ambitious dishes. That fact has energized what is known in the food service business as the “better burger” phenomenon. All parts of the hamburger–everything from the meat, the bun, the garnishes, and the price–have been jacked up a few notches. Or more than a few.
Let’s look at what goes into a hamburger, and how the best ones reign supreme.
The Bun. The Ideal Hamburger starts with a fresh bun no larger in diameter than the meat patty it holds. It is toasted immediately before serving and is warm all the way through. There’s a texture difference between the crust and the interior.
The Beef. Ground very recently (preferably on the premises) from a good cut of fresh beef, USDA Select or Choice grade. However, high-grade beef–USDA Prime or Kobe/Wagyu–are a waste of expense. Reason: the difference between a high-grade steak and a low-grade one strictly had to do with the fat content. Hamburgers already have all the fat that they need to taste great. If the beef is a little low on fat, butcher grinds in some more.
The best cuts are beef for hamburgers are chuck, sirloin, and round, although some other cuts work well (brisket and tenderloin scraps, for example. Patties should be made up by hand, with telltale irregularities and fissures. That will cook up better than a burger punched out by a die. Its diameter should be no more than five times its thickness, so the inside remains juicy. Double and triple hamburgers are feeble ways to get around that need. (Bigger stacks are self-evidently insane.)
The Grilling Method. The Ideal Hamburger hits a hot grill only after it’s ordered. Burgers cooked before you even walk in fail this test badly. The cooking surface can be either a flat-top griddle or a grill open to flames (preferably coming from charcoal or wood). But it’s critical that the temperature be sufficiently hot to sear the exterior of the meat quickly, thereby sealing in the juices and creating a tasty, dark-brown crust.
The Seasonings. The chef applies seasoning to the beef while it’s on the grill. Salt and pepper at the very least, but with an option for other ingredients, too. My own preference is for dry Creole seasoning and chopped fresh onions pressed right into the beef, but the important thing is that a customer has some options.
The Dressings. If this is really the Ideal Hamburger, then no dressings are necessary. A great hamburger should not need cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, relish, onions, or anything else to be delicious. But all those and more should be available, of course. I’ll turn a blind eye to ketchup for the sake of the taste quirks of others.
The Cheese? And The Bacon? A hamburger is better without either of those ingredients. For the majority who prefer cheeseburgers, freshly-grated sharp Cheddar or something of equal or better merit should be options. As for bacon, the only reason it ever went into a hamburger–where its flavor clearly clashes with that of the beef–is the widely-held but erroneous idea that everything tastes better with bacon.
The hamburger segment of the restaurant industry has lately come to understand how avidly American diners want hamburgers that meet these standards. They’ve found that people will pay prices an order of magnitude above what they’re paying for ordinary burgers. The ten-dollar hamburger and the thirty-dollar hamburger meal for two have become commonplace.
But this fact remains: no restaurant hamburger will ever be as good as one assembled at home. Really, a burger is not difficult to make. You just need care, attention,. and a little practice.
Here is a list of the dozen best hamburgers around New Orleans. Much of the research was conducted by my wife Mary Ann (MA) and daughter Mary Leigh (ML), both of whom are avid burger consumers.
1. Keith Young’s Steak House. Madisonville: 165 LA 21. 985-845-9940. Keith Young runs a handsome, very well served restaurant whose specialty is steak, although the menu reaches further out into seafood and–at lunchtime only–a spectacular hamburger of immense size and goodness for the unexpectedly low price of $10. MA says that this is her favorite sit-down burger.
2. Lakeview Harbor. Lakeview: 911 Harrison Ave. 504-486-4887. Lakeview Harbor was created by former Port of Call personnel, who put out hamburgers that rival those at the old Dauphine Street place. Thick, ideally grilled to a nice crust, and juicy, it’s another example of a great hamburger coming from a bar.
3. Atomic Burger. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 3934 Veterans Blvd. . From the outside it looks like a fast-food place. It isn’t. The hamburgers are hand-made and grilled to order, and therefore crusty and juicy. The fries are also fresh-cut, and served too hot to eat. Inside, the place like a space-age cartoon, with shakes chilled down with liquid nitrogen. That’s a bit of a gimmick, but the burgers and fries are decidedly for real. MA calls this the best on-the-run burger place in the area.
4. Port of Call. French Quarter: 838 Esplanade. 504-523-0120. The archetype of a now-common New Orleans culinary institution: a bar with a superior hamburger. To this day–even as name chefs open hamburger joints all over town–most of the city’s great hamburgers are still found in bars. The Port of Call set the standard over fifty years ago, and still does. If only it were easier to get a table!
5. Company Burger. Uptown 3: Napoleon To Audubon: 4600 Freret St. 504-267-0320. Company Burger tapped into two powerful currents when it opened in 2007: a) the fertile market for better hamburgers and 2) the unexpected blossoming of casual eateries on Freret Street. The place was instantly popular, allowing it to open with not just hamburgers but also a full bar with cocktails, offbeat beers, wine, and some unexpected house rules. What else could the no-lettuce or no-tomato rule mean?
5. Company Burger. CBD: 611 O’Keefe Ave. 504-309-9422.
6. Tru Burger. Riverbend: 8115 Oak St. 504-218-5416. Tru Burger looked at first to be a trend, with gourmet chefs from Patois taking time out of their brilliant bistro to take advantage of the burger boom. The result is a place that feels like a fast-food joint, but which serves first-class, grilled-to-order burgers at modest prices, rendered exciting by what may be the best fries in New Orleans.
7. Mondo. Lakeview: 900 Harrison Ave. 504-224-2633. Chef Susan Spicer’s casual restaurant (she lives in the neighborhood) rivals Lakeview Harbor, but with more of a family feel. The hamburgers are of standard rather than steakburger size, and are among the two or three best in those dimensions.
8. Zea. Harahan: 1655 Hickory Ave. 504-738-0799. The owners of Zea’s five location come from the chain-dinnerhouse arena. All such restaurants always have at least a pretty-good burger. But these local chefs have a good sense of taste, and by using much better buns and dressings and excellent burger patties, make a first-class hamburger, served in a comfortable environment with good service.
8. Zea. Kenner: 1325 West Esplanade Ave. 504-468-7733.
8. Zea. Metairie 3: Houma Blvd To Kenner Line: 4450 Veterans Blvd (Clearview Mall). 504-780-9090.
8. Zea. Covington: 110 Lake Dr. 985-327-0520.
8. Zea. Harvey: 1121 Manhattan Blvd. 504-361-8293.
9. Barcadia. Warehouse District & Center City: 601 Tchoupitoulas St. 504-335-1740. The blocks of Tchoupitoulas Street from Poydras to Andrew Higgins are lined with casual hangouts filled with young adults every evening. The best hamburger along this strip is Barcadia, which has the beef, bun, and fried (especially the fries) right on. It’s a big one.
10. Phil’s Grill. Metairie 2: Orleans Line To Houma Blvd: 3020 Severn Ave. 504-324-9080. Phil DeGruy uses good fresh meats. I say “meats,” because the choices are not limited to beef. Any filling that can be put on a bun qualifies as a hamburger here. The list starts with the standard ground beef, but beyond that you find various wild game (bison, elk, and beyond) birds, vegetables. A pad thai burger. All this diversity brings the standard burger down a notch, but even that is far better than average. Best part: improved buns.
10. Phil’s Grill. Harahan: 1640 Hickory Ave. 504-305-1705.
11. Beachcorner. Mid-City: 4905 Canal. 504-456-7470. Like the Port of Call and enough other hamburger specialists to be convincing, the Beach Corner demonstrates a long-running phenomenon: the best hamburgers come not from restaurant but from bars. They serve the classic thick steakburger in a joint immediately adjacent to the cemeteries at the head of Canal Street.
12. Ye Olde College Inn. Uptown 4: Riverbend, Carrollton & Broadmoor: 3016 S Carrollton Ave. 504-866-3683. An institution for decades uptown, Ye Olde College Inn got a new lease on life when Katrina destroyed their old building. It came back string, with, for example, hamburgers made from herds of cattle that the restaurant owns itself. It’s not the same as the pre-K College Inn burger–it’s twice that size–but it’s freshly made and good.