Thick, juicy and, of course, beefy: These are the three keys to burger bliss. After chomping my way through pounds of grilled meat, I found three new favourites in slightly unusual venues. And to my surprise, they are all local classics that have been recently reinvented.
BEST IN CLASS
Burgers and pinball – could there be a more classic combination? The American is an old-school arcade in a modern pub space (the revamped Electric Owl) where the long communal high-tops are ringed with coin-operated games. Given all the small clusters of bearded and bow-tied gentlemen hunched over the Foosball machines and pool tables on a recent Saturday evening, it appears to be a popular place to start a hipster stag night – or hang out with the family. (Kids are allowed in until 10 p.m.)
All that Skee-Ball tossing requires serious sustenance. Enter the Monarch Burger.
At the nearby Campagnolo Upstairs (1020 Main St.) chef Robert Belcham makes a legendary meat sandwich, the Dirty Burger, which routinely tops all the best burger lists. The owners of the Cobalt Cabaret apparently loved its gooey goodness so much they asked Mr. Belcham to do a burger pop-up when they opened the American last fall. The one-time venture eventually grew into a permanent residency, with the official Monarch Burger counter-service menu launching in late April and now serving upwards of 100 burgers a day.
There is much to love about this messy, made-from-scratch, $11 cheeseburger, which comes wrapped in waxed paper and served in a box (the menu also includes regular, double and veggie burgers). But the best part is the beef, which is pasture-raised, dry-aged for 45 days and seam-butchered by Hopcott Premium Meats in Pitt Meadows.
Mr. Belcham buys whole cows and sets the steak cuts aside for his other restaurants. The rest of the trimmed meat is ground fresh every morning and hand-shaped into four-ounce patties. Seam butchering, which removes the sinew and silver skin, allows for a coarse grind (because the junk doesn’t have to be minced in with the good stuff) and a high fat content (30 per cent to 35 per cent), which is what makes this burger so juicy and tasty.
The patties are smashed on a flat griddle into a bed of diced onions caramelized in lard and beef tallow, lending the beef a delicious sweetness. The buns are fresh-baked Scottish baps, buttered and lightly grilled to achieve the perfect combination of pillowy softness and sturdy crustiness that stands up to the moistness of the beef without disintegrating in the hands.
Each burger is topped with iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes, house-made bread, butter pickles and a secret sauce (a sweet, creamy, pale-orange variation on Big Mac sauce). The cheese is a thoroughly melted Kraft Single – because no other cheese holds a candle to its ooey-gooey, sauce-like texture.
Be warned: This is a supremely juicy, drippy, cheesy burger. And that is what makes it so great. Grab a handful of napkins and wash it down with a ginger-beer cocktail. The bar stocks Dickie’s Ginger on tap – a bracingly spicy, lemony pairing that cuts through all the fat and complements the burger even better than pinball.
Cheeseburger at Crowbar Restaurant
646 Kingsway, 604-336-2769, crowbareastvan.com
How can you tell Crowbar isn’t a typical neighbourhood dive? The shelf of sabered champagne bottles above the reclaimed barn-board bar is the first elevated clue.
Opened last summer by two veteran servers from Gastown’s L’Abattoir, this fancy-pants gastropub in Fraserhood does a roaring spillover trade in customers who can’t get in to Savio Volpe across the street. And it’s a Plan B that generally impresses. Everyone raves about the secret off-menu burger – which isn’t secret any more, and recently received a makeover when the previous chefs departed, leaving Justin Ell in charge.
Thick, rich and intensely meaty, this stand-alone burger is made from six ounces of fresh-ground beef neck and rib-eye, which is dry-aged onsite for 45 days. It’s seared in a sizzling cast-iron pan with beef fat and butter – lending the exterior an extremely crispy crunch – and finished in the oven with a fat slice of ripely aromatic Taleggio cheese. The crusty homemade beer bun is smeared with organic beef-fat mayonnaise.
And that’s all there is – pure, juicy, beefy goodness stacked high between a chewy bun with a double layer of oozy fat. Since I visited, the chef has wisely added a few house-made mustard pickles on the side for customers who prefer some tanginess to cut through the richness. But he refuses to sully his burger with lettuce or tomatoes.
I love the integrity of this brawny burger. Still, a few fries (hand-chipped, of course) might help the $19 bill go down a little easier.
Bacon Cheeseburger at No. 5 Orange
205 Main St., 604-687-3483
Most people don’t go to a skeezy strip club for the food. And on a bright summer day, the ultraviolet lighting, lunchtime clientele (mostly grey-haired men in Hawaiian shirts) and strong scent of baby oil wafting through the dark bar can be somewhat depressing. But ever since Stu Irving, the owner of nearby Cuchillo, overhauled the menu a few years ago, the burger at No. 5 Orange has been widely touted as one of the best in town.
The $10 burger has since been reinvented by chef William Tse, a friend of the owners, who previously worked for Milestones and White Spot. And you know what? It’s really good.
The preformed beef patties might come off a truck from Sysco, Canada’s largest industrial supplier of restaurant food. But it’s 100-per-cent chuck, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, then griddled on a flat top to keep it nice and juicy.
The buns are soft brioche; the cheese, thick cheddar. The bacon is rendered belly meat, thinly shaved, almost like pastrami. The crisp leaf lettuce and tomatoes are bought fresh every morning from Sunrise Market down the road. And the sauce is a creamy-tangy mess of mayo, relish, ketchup, Worcestershire and hot sauce.
This is not a gourmet burger. But it’s a satisfying burger that I would eat on a regular basis. Not that I would come here on a regular basis. But if you happen to be here (no judgment), it’s probably cheaper than a lap dance.