I love burgers — no, you didn’t hear me — I said, I LOVE burgers. To me, the best burger is 6 ounces of freshly ground chuck, seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, and cooked over a hot wood fire until a slightly crispy crust forms on the outside with a medium rare center. Add some homemade mayo, a soft, freshly baked bun, and that’s all you need. Cheese? Nah, not necessary. Bacon? I’ll save that for the BLT (using that same homemade mayo, thank you very much). I might add a thin slice of onion or tomato, but not very often. As you suspected, yes, the best burger in the Triangle is the one I make at home, using my meat grinder attachment, getting the good fatty cuts of chuck (and maybe some short rib meat, too), and doing everything to my own, overly snooty standards.
However, with a wife who doesn’t eat red meat, I don’t put on my Sam-the-Butcher-meat-grinding hat very often. In fact, the vast majority of my burgers are eaten out, and too often I end up slightly disappointed (heck, the best restaurant burger I’ve had was at Chicago’s Naha, but that’s another story for another day). Now, a mediocre burger is still pretty damn good — it’s meat on a bun, and how can you go wrong with that? However, it’s been my experience that the national burger chains, such as Red Robin, Fuddruckers, and Five Guys, fall woefully short. Some of the classic burger institutions of the area just don’t have a great burger. Sorry, folks, but Char-Grill is fun, and I enjoy a Steak Junior as much as the next guy, but their burgers aren’t good enough to make a detour.
Here is my list for top burgers in the Triangle. These are almost all places that grind their own meat. Also on this list is a burger that really doesn’t comport with my ideal criteria, but it’s a local guilty pleasure. And note that I do not claim to have tried all the burgers in the Triangle, and most of these places are in my town of Raleigh. So click on the link below to get my current top five.
- Raleigh Times Bar: The Raleigh Times has been my favorite bar and grill since it opened. Even though my friend Ashley Christensen left long ago, the food is as good as when it opened (except I don’t think they make their own mayonnaise anymore — but who does?). Their half-pound Angus chuck burgers are ground on-site, and they manage to put a bit of a crust on them. When I accompany this with one of their Belgian ales, I’m in complete heaven.
- Porters City Tavern: The casual restaurant of the Urban Food Group’s mini-empire, Porters has been my “go-to” burger joint for the last several years. Maybe it’s because the place is only a mile from my house. Maybe it’s because their 8 ounce burger is so juicy and tender that it’s the only burger I routinely cut in half. Maybe it’s because the burger is cooked precisely to order every time. And maybe it’s because my two sons both have concluded Porters is their favorite burger. Who cares, as it’s a great sandwich?
- Abbey Road Pub and Grill: This dark Cary establishment serves a whopping 10 ounce Angus burger that is cooked to order. It’s almost too big, quite honestly, but I’m not complaining. The meat lacks the flavor of my other favorites, but if Abbey Road were located next door, I’d weigh 50 pounds more.
- The Federal: Another bar and grill (seeing a pattern yet?), this Durham institution has always been one of my favorite places in the region. Their peppery burger is not as huge as the other places’, but it’s the perfect size for their kaiser roll. It’s funny, I always want a PBR to drink here, even though they have a great beer selection. No one ever accused me of being rational.
- Cloo’s Coney Island: Cloo’s sliders are my guilty pleasure. These are small burgers cooked well-done on a flat-top. They’re a bit too heavy with the condiments, but other than that, I can eat half a dozen of these suckers. Just don’t tell my wife!
There you have it. I know there’s probably a dozen places that I need to try, but I just haven’t made it there. I need to get back to the Angus Barn and try one of their monstrous-sized burgers. I’m woefully ill-informed about Durham places, but I assure you, I’ll try them. If I’ve missed a favorite, let me know, explaining why I should give it a try, and if you’re convincing, I’ll give the place a try and report back here.
May 7, 2008 Edit: Players’ Retreat: Although I’ve lived in and around Raleigh for seemingly forever, I have never been to the Players’ Retreat, generally referred to as “The PR.” It’s an NC State hangout bar that’s really smoky. I just don’t usually want to eat meals at such places. I was at the PR last night, attending an election day party for a candidate I was supporting and ordered a burger. The menu said the burgers were from black angus beef, ground in-house, and cooked to order. In fact, the menu recommended you order them RARE. Very cool. So I got one, and damn, that’s a mighty fine burger. One of the best around. Maybe THE best. I then learned that the PR has over 60 types of scotch available. Obviously, they want my business. And with LocoPops right around the corner, well, I might have found a second home.