I tip my hat to the writers who gorge their way through a city or state or even the whole country in search of the best burger. I mean, it’s such a subjective thing, but I can see why a guy or gal would get the critical inspiration to weigh many options and crown a winner. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and you can complain about the tedium of the task while surreptitiously loving every minute. That said, as a writer who once tried to judge six Seattle fish and chips stands in one day, I’d make the argument that such ambitious endeavors are unwise and probably don’t lead to the best judgment.
To me, what makes a burger special is if it satisfies not only the stomach but the soul, on some subconscious level, thus leading to a lasting memory. To qualify for my top 11, the burger had to be delicious, sure, but it also needed to stick with me months or years later, as these 11 do:
1. Clark’s Oyster Bar, Austin, Texas: I dined here during South By Southwest a couple of years back with a friend after hearing buzz in culinary circles. A fantastic burger at an oyster bar? It’d seem dubious to an outsider, but Austinites know that Clark’s is a Larry McGuire/Tom Moorman joint, so it makes sense. Anyway, my friend Rachel and I walked in for lunch, and I spotted Andy Roddick and his wife Brooklyn Decker dining on the patio with friends. A gracious server walked us to a table nearby on the patio, which overlooks a parking lot, and Rachel and I split this thick-pattied, gruyère-topped burger, which is served with rosemary-laced shoestring fries. It was juicy, salty and that one half was the perfect amount of burger. I’d go back anytime and have another.
2. Dick’s, Seattle, Washington: I had to include a greasy fast-food burger on here, and this is my favorite, as far as memories go. Dick’s has multiple locations, but my go-to during my stint living in the Emerald City was the NE 45th St. location, a pull-in/counter service place which probably hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. You get a bag filled with burgers and fries, sit on a curb or in your car, and go to town.
3. Le Tub, Hollywood, Florida: This place was all the rage for burger tourists in the aughts after GQ plucked it from relative obscurity and anointed it one of the 20 burgers you have to eat before you die. I felt like death, hungover in a way only Miami can do to you, when two friends called and said they were picking me up to take me here. We ordered our burgers, found a wooden picnic table on the dock and watched the boats go by as we waited, and waited (they warn you). When the burger finally came, I was almost dead, and the gigantic patty and poppy seed bun brought me back. Thanks Le Tub.
4. Au Cheval, Chicago: It’s probably the most overhyped burger in America but I had to try it (and when I went in 2013, it was still kind of a cult thing). I landed at O’Hare, took a cab straight to the West Loop, got a table, ordered the burger and a pint of Three Floyds IPA, then watched as the snow began to fall outside through the big windows, the juice dribbling down my cheek.
5. Corner Bistro, NYC: Back in the day, if you lived in NYC or visited and had in-the-know friends, you went here to get served a simple cheeseburger on a white paper plate with unremarkable crinkle-cut fries. It’s still great today but in the late 1990s, this dive bar with a surprisingly amazing burger really resonated.
6. Minetta Tavern, NYC: The first time I had this burger, seated in the clubby room near a table where David Byrne and John Waters were sharing a steak, I just had one of those New York moments that you can’t resist. Then the salty, flavorful burger took hold, the caramelized onions and bun and beef and oooh. So good.
7. Husk, Nashville, TN: Sean Brock is an awesome dude. Probably the coolest chef to ever hang out with. And I respect him even more, because when I told him I was going to try another hyped burger during a visit to Nashville, he replied matter of factly, “Why would you do that? Just go to Husk.” His double patty with cheese sauce and benne seed bun is the definition of a memorable burger. I’m dreaming about it now.
8. Bip Burger, Paris, France: I totally buy into the Ernest Hemingway quote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” That said, when I studied in Paris, the nearest burger joint to my dorm was Bip Burger, which I’m pretty sure in retrospect was worse than McDonald’s. But I remember nights by myself heading up the avenue Charonne to grab a burger by myself and it has indeed stayed with me.
9. The Spotted Pig, NYC: It’s in a league of its own, and you never forget your first bite.
10. Knife, Dallas, TX: The memory is fuzzy, because Knife was my third dinner of the night (I was dining around with chefs, also from out of town), but I do know that we ordered like three different burgers, plus steaks, and I couldn’t stop eating. John Tesar is a meat master (and a highly opinionated man!). I’ll be back.
11. In-N-Out, West Hollywood, CA: My go-to New Yorker move during a dabble in bicoastal living was to fly to LAX, rent a car and drive to this location of the iconic chain, where I’d order a double-double with fries and get satisfied every time. I won’t engage in the Shake Shack debate — I like the Shack, usually — but this is about memories, and my In-N-Out memories have lasted a long time.