There is something about springtime – perhaps it’s the smoky scent of burning charcoal that begins wafting from backyards or the primal urges that start kicking in across the entire animal kingdom – that makes me crave beef burgers. Luckily for all of us, Vancouver is in a golden age of burger bliss. You no longer need a steak budget to afford the recently trendy gourmet burgers showered in truffles or smeared with foie gras. The modern burger is smaller, less complicated and somewhat old-fashioned, but no less indulgent. Here are three new ones that are worth seeking out.
Moderne Burger Burgerette
865 West Broadway, Vancouver, 604-739-0005. Moderneburger.com
Moderne Burger opened 18 years ago at 2507 West Broadway with streamline forties flair. The Chevy-blue vinyl booths and chrome-plated speed whiskers were as much of a draw as the classic hamburger platters and old-fashioned vanilla cokes.
After being forced out last year by a block-wide demolition, a new compact model resurfaced last month, further east on Broadway in an office-building lobby shared with Tim Hortons.
It’s an efficient counter-service operation with smaller patties (four ounces) and lower prices (starting at $6.95). And owner Peter Kokinis has spiffed up the space with his old neon palm trees and skyscraper ceiling lamps. But some of the charm is inevitably lost when you’re reduced to using the same modular tables – and unkempt washrooms – as the Timbit crowd.
Hand-formed beef patties are still made with fresh, Triple-A Angus. In a nod to contemporary mores, it’s now grass-fed and hormone-free. A custom charbroiler with elements on top and bottom has never given the greyish meat much caramelization, but it does lock in the juices.
Mr. Kokinis used to be a purist who eschewed seasoning. His tastes must have changed because the beef is now extremely salty. Pickles, however, are still verboten. House sauce (ketchup mixed with Thousand Island) offers a smidge of tang and red onion adds crunch. But a limp slice of romaine is merely decorative, while anemic tomatoes only serve to moisten milquetoast sourdough buns – which are already too small for double patties and fall apart in the hands.
Terrific hand-chipped fries are cooked lightly golden to order. And the milkshakes are still so thick your cheeks hollow out when you suck through the straw – no plastics ban here, or side canisters for extras as in the good-old Moderne Burger days.
The new Burgerette does offer great value when compared to fast-food chains, but as a former standard-bearer, it now tastes more dated than quaint.
2042-B West 4th Ave., Vancouver, 604-736-8828. Hundy.ca
Ah, now it all makes sense. When Mike Robbins and Jeff Parr (of AnnaLena fame) opened Their There café in Kitsilano last year, I couldn’t understand why they left half the floor space unfinished and covered in plywood. As it now turns out, they were keeping a secret burger concept under wraps.
From Thursday to Sunday night, after Their There closes, the lights go down, the music cranks up and the plywood walls are rolled open to reveal extra booth seating and arcade games.
More importantly, the pastry case is replaced with an even larger selection of natural wines and craft beer than is available during the day (a short list of cocktails is also on offer), while the menu switches from breakfast sandwiches and cronuts to burgers and fries.
They call their Hundy a “minimalist” burger – as in, pared down to the essentials – but it tastes maximalist and is meticulously thought out. A basic hamburger costs $10 (cheese and bacon can be added for $1 each). The thick and juicy, crisply griddled patty, a brisket-shoulder blend from Two Rivers Meats, weighs exactly 6.2 ounces. It is stuffed between a sweet brioche bun made in-house that is buttered then toasted on both sides in a vertical burger-bun oven.
Each and every bite is carefully calibrated to include tangy pickle (thinly sliced and spread out evenly under the beef), a crunchy mouthful of shredded iceberg lettuce (a compressible illusion that makes the burger look even larger than it is) and a creamy lick of umami-rich aioli mixed with ketchup, Worcestershire and Dijon.
Don’t forget to order a side of kimchi poutine. The lightly fermented kimchi isn’t overly funky or spicy, but it is crunchy with carrots. And when tossed with darkly golden, double-cooked fries and melty cheddar curds in a spoon-coating pool of ham-hock gravy, the decadent mess is utterly addictive.
905 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-283-1385. IG: @downlowburgers
As far as secret concepts go, this one is even more niche. DownLow Burgers is only open on Mondays, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or whenever the burgers sell out). And it’s located way out on Commercial Drive, where the DownLow Chicken Shack usually operates the rest of the week.
But these burgers are so monstrously beefy, chin-drippingly juicy and downright delectable that I’m surprised they don’t wipe the floor with DownLow’s somewhat gimmicky Nashville hot chicken (although the menu is now expanded to include more fried-chicken styles).
Why only Mondays? Owners Doug Stephen and Lindsey Mann brine their fresh chicken for 24 hours, but they can’t get deliveries on weekends. Instead of closing on Mondays, they resurrected their extremely popular Merch Burger – from their old restaurant, Merchant’s Workshop – and added a few variations.
The $13 cheeseburgers all start with a seven-ounce patty of coarsely ground, intensely flavoured dry-aged beef from Two Rivers Meats that is simply seasoned with salt and iron-smashed on a flat grill. The weighted implement doesn’t flatten the meat because it’s only smashed on one side. But it does brown the surface with an intensely crunchy, evenly caramelized grip.
Even with a fluffy yet sturdy potato bun from the terrific Livia Bakery, these burgers still get fairly drippy (watch your lap) as they’re slathered in sauces. Which flavour to choose? There’s the Fat Boy (Coney Island chili, mustard and mayo), Not in Kansas (bourbon BBQ sauce and backyard slaw), the Merch (herb-flecked aioli, which, to be honest, tastes a bit musty) and the Americana (a creamy Big Mac-style sauce, which balances the fat with a nice whack of acid).
Smoked onion rings are popular – Vancouver Magazine says they’re the best in town – but I found them excessively greasy. In any case, a burger this good stands on its own. The only thing it really needs is evening hours and wider availability.