The Best Burger in Every State
You never forget your first visit to Swenson's Drive-In, pride of Akron, Ohio, one of the finest little restaurant chains in the country that most Americans haven't heard of. The house specialty is the Galley Boy, one of the most curious burgers in the country, a double with cheese in the middle, served with two special sauces: a smoky, sweet, and just-a-little-bit hot barbecue and a tartar-like sauce that tastes like it was made with dill pickles and some onion. A toothpick sporting a stuffed green olive ties the whole thing together, and believe me when I tell you that this is one of the more memorable fast food burgers you'll ever try. It is also one of the ugliest.
Swenson's goes all the way back to the end of the Great Depression, long before the advent of the visual age in which we're now trapped. They didn't get to where they are now—with a nearly-global fan base that includes hometown legend LeBron James—making pretty food. Not so long ago, this wouldn't have been all that remarkable, but after collectively staring into our phones for what feels like an eternity, the way our food looks has become almost more important than the way it tastes.
Certainly, there is beauty in a well-composed tray of barbecue, or a painstakingly-constructed sandwich, or one of those Detroit pizzas that probably wouldn't be nearly as popular if they didn't look so good on social media, but when it comes to the hamburger, everything runs aground. Here's why—too often, burgers have become not about the meat, but rather the way they look dressed up for the camera. Nowadays, the guy at the corner diner still grinding beef on the daily for his boring-looking (but delicious-tasting) burgers is hardly ever going to be lucky enough to be as famous, or appreciated, as the food stylist down the street who knows how to make the cheese look just so, as it melts down the sides. Both burgers might be spectacular, but only one of them is going to be Homecoming Queen.
That day at Swenson's, I had to admit that I'd fallen into the same trap as everyone else who spends too much time scrolling. I had to eat one, then two, then I don't know how many more burgers in Akron to understand where exactly I'd gone wrong. To this day, I haven't managed to take a picture of a Galley Boy that would entice someone to eat one, but it doesn't matter. I know it's delicious.
Since then, my attitude towards burger research, something I've done extensively, both on and off the clock over the years, has changed significantly. Like a Texan waiting in line for barbecue, what I care about most these days is the meat. Is it good? Source high-quality beef, season and prepare it correctly, and I'm in. Put it on a really great bun, and we'll be friends forever. Hold all the toppings or condiments, at least until I know what kind of foundation we're standing on. Does anybody else feel me on this? The following list, packed with classic, straight-shooting burgers and the old-school institutions still making them, is for you.
The first thing to know about Mobile is that the city's first recorded Mardi Gras celebration took place in 1703, a decade before New Orleans was even founded. So fine, one city became more famous than the other, but the similarities between the two remain striking, perhaps nowhere more than in Mobile's own Garden District, a charming patch where Callaghan's Irish Social Club has thrived since the 1940s, evolving over time to become a prime destination for not only live music and good times, but also for a near-perfect bacon cheeseburger. The bedrock: Angus beef, hand-smushed but never smashed, cooked up on a vintage flat top and topped with quality vegetables, plus very good bacon. Instead of fries, there's a cooling tomato, cucumber, and onion salad to balance things out.
For steaks and martinis in cozy surrounds in Anchorage, it's always going to be the neon-lit Club Paris, or at least we hope so. One of the city's finest classic haunts for well over half a century isn't just a top pick for a blowout dinner, it's also home to one of downtown's best lunch specials. That is, a high quality, reasonably-priced burger, made with the day's filet mignon trimmings. Make that burgers, because you've got choices, starting with the superior Paris Special: 8 oz. of ground tenderloin, broiled (perfectly), served on a French roll with au jus on the side.
Sizzling beef on the grill, anointed with liberal splashes of red wine, both for the purposes of funk and juiciness—why didn't we think of the wineburger before? That's okay, because somebody else did, somewhere on the East Coast, and a very long time ago. These days, Phoenix is where they are mostly found, and Harvey's Wineburger, appearing on the scene in the 1950s, is the current standard bearer—good Bordeaux cooking wine, good, fresh-ground beef, crisp veg, no other condiments. These burgers are an affordable treat; go ahead and add a second patty for a couple of bucks more.
Dating back to 1903, the Ohio Club in Hot Springs is said to be the longest-running bar in the state, a colorful, celebrity-studded nightclub and gambling den that managed to power through Prohibition and the Great Depression like a champ, and if you know Hot Springs' colorful history, you know that's not terribly weird. Burgers came later, but these days, they're a top draw at a venue that over the years has hosted everyone from Mae West to mafia dons. Go thoroughly old school and ask for a patty melt, oozing cheddar and shedding griddled onions, on rye bread.
Caesar salad, roast chicken, omelettes—the late, great Judy Rodgers made San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, now well past its fortieth birthday, famous for doing the simplest things incredibly well. The burger here is of course no exception, receiving the same special treatment as the pillowy ricotta gnocchi, or the delicate, house-cured anchovies that end up on so many tables to start the meal. As burgers go, this one might not quite qualify as "clean eating," but it's damn near adjacent—long-salted grass-fed chuck ground down in small batches, chargrilled and served on toasted rosemary focaccia swabbed with bright yellow aioli, and topped with pickled onions and zucchini—everything made in-house, naturally.
People talk about Bud's Bar in Sedalia like it's out in the middle of nowhere, and to be fair, that certainly was the case when the home of the state's best burger opened up shop, back in the 1940s. These days, it's a very short drive from the southern fringe of the Denver suburbs, but this casual little dive remains cash only, and stays focused on the important stuff, which is making great burgers, vintage-style, with onions and pickles. (You can bounce right on out of here if you want anything else.) Pressed and grilled and topped with American cheese, there's a rumor that you can request jalapeños, though we've never tried.
There are more than a few claims to the first hamburger, enough that the Library of Congress has weighed in on the matter, and it turns out that like us, they are extremely pro-New Haven. Besides being one of America's best pizza towns, the city is also home to Louis' Lunch, where Louis Lassen started out in the late 1800s, pressing steak scraps in upright grills and serving the results in a sandwich. Today, Lassen's great-grandson is at the wheel, and this diminutive establishment still prepares and serves their juicy, default-to-medium-rare burgers the same way. Fully dressed, you get griddled onions, ripe tomato slices, and some nicely melted cheese; don't even think of asking for anything else. Well you can, but they probably don't have it. And also they might shame you.
Shooting straight north from Wilmington, parallel to the Brandywine Creek, Concord Pike and its shopping centers were most likely the pride and joy of the Chamber of Commerce set, back in the car-happy 1950s. These days, the whimsical Charcoal Pit stands as a whimsical, Southern California-worthy relic of that very different era, a swooping, neon-lit coffee shop where you bring your main squeeze for frosted chocolate malts, monster ice cream sundaes, healthy portions of onion rings, and a selection of chargrilled burgers. Play a tune on the mini jukebox, order the 10 oz. Home Run burger, a straightforward classic topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and a slice of American cheese, and hang around for the semi-regular President Biden sightings; he's been hanging out here since high school days.
Suppose you are looking for the best burgers in Miami. What you are really looking for is the best Frita. Otherwise known as a Cuban burger, this beef and pork blend is seasoned liberally with cumin, pepper and paprika, served on an absorbent Cuban roll, and topped with onions and a shower of crispy potato matchsticks, for an irresistible crunch. In Little Havana, you can get a Frita pretty much anywhere, or at least it seems that way, but begin at El Mago de las Fritas, translating as as Frita Wizard, or Frita Magician, and they're not joking, After more than 35 years in business, the city named a street after founder (and grill master emeritus) Ortelio Cardenas.
How does Atlanta like their burgers? Every which way, honestly. From high-end to hole-in-the wall, carnivore's dream to plant-based beauty, this is a city obsessed with burgers, even if the landscape has shifted recently. Battle lines have once again been redrawn—right now, those in search of the best know to make tracks for that one Chevron station in suburban Dunwoody, where pop-up veteran Billy Kramer operates NFA Burgers, which moved into permanent digs in late 2019. The menu is simple, single or double, but the burgers are anything but boring, starting with top-notch Angus beef smashed down (but not too vigorously) on the grill for those nice, crispy-caramelized edges. Pickles, mustard, the house secret sauce, and cheese are the standard toppings; a soft roll from Martin's holds the whole decadent package together.
Pretty little smashburgers on pliable potato rolls are not hard to find nowadays, not even in states that are thousands of miles away from everywhere, but at The Daley, a modern, thoroughly focused little gem in Honolulu's historic Chinatown, the object of considerable affection is a very Hawaiian thing indeed. Built on a foundation of locally-raised grass-fed beef (from Kunoa Cattle Company on Kaua'i), the burger is cooked with onions for flavor, and served on a potato bun baked just up the road at local icon La Tour. No teriyaki burgers here. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Most of us just had to sit still and survive the pandemic; Hudson's Hamburgers in Coeur d'Alene, still in the same family after five generations, managed to power through not only shutdowns and quarantines, but a break-in and a fire as well. Serving the city and passers-by since 1907, the recipe for success has always been magnificently simple, beginning with fresh ground beef smashed down onto the flat top, making it all nice and crisp around the edges. Toppings-wise, your choices are thinly sliced onion, pickles, or both—plus, since the 1960s, nicely-melted American cheese, if you like. Housemade hot sauce, which customers add themselves, is non-negotiable. Go wild.
Things get a little muddled in Chicago sometimes, a city where "popular" is sometimes confused with "best", and certainly when it comes to burgers. Sure, the ones you've heard of may sound essential, but ask around, and the crotchety old-timers (*raises hand*) will tell you—flavors of the month come and go, so call us when one of them outlasts the accurately named Top Notch Beefburgers on the South Side, where they still grind fresh top round in-house and cook their hand-cut fries in beef tallow. Opened in 1942 by a family of Armenian immigrants, the restaurant, which moved to its permanent home in the 1950s, is fashioned like a classic old coffee shop, with a long counter and spacious booths, little league teams on summer nights, and politicians holding court at election time. Instead of a regular burger, which comes on a floppy, sesame bun that simply doesn't do the meat justice, opt for a classic patty melt, your choice of a quarter-pound, half-pound, or even three quarters if you're that hungry, stuffed between slices of crispy, buttery rye with loads of grilled onions and American cheese.
Long before smash burgers were a trend, Hoosiers just called them burgers. The now internationally popular style is nearly ubiquitous here, from regional chain restaurants to vintage mom-and-pop operations like The Workingman's Friend, a true tavern tucked into a part of Indianapolis you probably weren't looking for. Over a century old, this woman-owned and -operated restaurant remains in the same family of Macedonian immigrants that founded the place, back in 1918. Racks of Cheez-It packets, a DeKuypers display collecting dust, and a forgotten half-pot of coffee on the burner pass for decor at the glass-brick bar, backlit by pink neon. Belly up and order a double cheeseburger, so smashed it's not even funny, served Big Mac-style with bread in the middle, plus cheese on both patties, shredded iceberg, and a bit of mayonnaise spread thinly on the bun. (Ketchup is always Red Gold, the preferred local alternative, but you probably don't need it.) This is one of Indy's essential bites, in one of the best bars in the Midwest.
The B&B Grocery has been a go-to for meat lovers in Des Moines for nearly a century now, but it wasn't until relatively recently that one of the city's finest butcher shops made the successful pivot to one of the most sought-after sandwich shops in the state. Customers would observe the staff making their own, rather spectacular lunches, which of course had people asking questions and making special requests; eventually, the proprietors gave in and hung out a menu. Burgers here are as classic as they come, set apart by one simple fact—you're almost never going to fail when you let the guy who butchered the cow cook your burger. For just over ten bucks, you get the Quadzilla, more than a pound of grilled beef (split into four patties), oozing American cheese everywhere, and topped with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles on a griddled bun. The backyard barbecue burger of your dreams, basically—just four times the size.
Back in 1922, when Bob Kinkel opened up the six-seater Cozy Inn in downtown Salina, fun-sized, grilled onion-stuffed sliders cost just a nickel. These days, the city's most iconic burgers go for about $16 a dozen, which is still a pretty damn good deal. One ounce patties come on fresh, custom-baked rolls; there's no cheese, there are no fries, and don't bother asking. You can, however, get ketchup, mustard, pickles, or all of the above. There are still only six seats at the counter.
A vintage Vulcan Hart grill from the 1950s is the focal point at Laha's Red Castle in the small town of Hodgenville, less than an hour south of Louisville, a drive connoisseurs will make at least once, sometimes twice, and then very likely over and over again. Opened in 1934 and passed down in the Laha (say "lay-hay") family ever since, the burgers here are small but mighty, and mighty affordable. Fresh ground beef gets pressed down on the flat top, then a mess of raw onions goes on top of that. The pot of chili often sitting on the grill right next to your burgers isn't just there for its health. Ask for some. That, plus a little mustard, and you've got the best thing coming out of Hodgenville since 1809, which is when President Lincoln was born.
After serving in World War II, brothers Alcide and Marc Judice came home to Lafayette and opened a burger joint, which they called Judice Inn, and to this day, when you want a burger in Cajun country, you want the generously-seasoned creations (not afraid of a little spice, this crowd) at this still-in-the-family haunt where they grind the beef and bring in fresh, locally-baked rolls daily. Besides an abundance of flavor not found in in your typical American beef patty—think pepper, for a start, black and cayenne—all burgers come out baptized in the house tomato-based special sauce, once again well-seasoned, with plenty of shredded lettuce and a slab of raw onion on the side. Don't ask for ketchup or fries, because they don't exist.
On paper, the Big Mac always sounded like a fine idea; in real life, the world's most famous fast-food burger will mostly disappoint you—so much potential, so rarely realized. Countless restaurants have made valiant attempts at creating something that is nearly the same, but better. They might want to take lessons from the historic (and lovingly updated) Palace Diner in Biddeford. Taking its place on a small but exceptional menu, the Palais Royale is everything you want when you walk into a McDonald's, but never get—two generously portioned smash burgs, cheddar cheese melting everywhere, a bird's nest worth of shredded lettuce, pickles, and just enough secret sauce, on a toasted sesame seed bun. For the same price, you could get three or four Big Macs, but you'd never leave quite this satisfied. Comes with fries, made from flavorful Maine potatoes.
Classic bars, taverns, pubs—call them what you want, Maryland does them better than many states. Hamilton Tavern is a Baltimore neighborhood institution, serving one of the city's great tavern burgers, and it's the blessed simplicity, but with great local ingredients, that pushes them past the post. One might eat just that beautiful, organic Roseda Farms beef on a fresh, locally-baked sesame roll on its own and still be fully taken by the flavor; however, the house favorite, the Crosstown Burger, is nicely complemented by a slab of melty horseradish cheddar cheese, plenty of crisp, shredded iceberg, and discs of red onion. Always ask about specials—we've seen burgers come out here topped with crab cakes.
Chef-owner Tony Maws likes to say that after caving in and adding a burger to the menu at Craigie on Main in Cambridge, he wasn't going to try and please everyone. Rather, his goal was to create the kind of burger that he'd like to see in the world, the one he would like to eat regularly. If this was a diversion tactic, it backfired—what seemed like half of Boston showed up to the restaurant, said they'd have what he was having, and the burger became a local icon. Getting your hands around one in pre-pandemic times was a whole rigamarole. These days, a few taps on your phone and you've got one to go—grass-fed local beef, cheddar from Vermont, lettuce, red onions, and a housemade ketchup spiked with mace, on a perfect roll from Clear Flour Bakery, one of Food & Wine's 100 best bakeries in America.
Detroit is slider country, and has been for roughly a century now. If you know where to look, you will find a sprinkling of bite-sized burger joints for bite-sized burgers throughout the region, perhaps none quite so beloved as Motz's, which has outlasted pretty much every other commercial business in hard-luck Delray, in its heyday known as Detroit's Little Hungary. Take a seat at the stainless steel counter facing the grill for a journey back in time. Watch the cooks press the fresh ground beef down on the grill with the onions, in various stages of caramelization; both go onto a fresh, locally-baked roll with pickles, ketchup, and mustard—a solid return on your $2.50 investment.
Somebody else invented the Jucy Lucy, Minnesota's fabled, potentially hazardous (at least to your shirt) cheese-stuffed contribution to American burger culture, but you can ask anyone in St. Paul, and they'll tell you that the best one in the Cities can be found at The Nook. Here, they call it the Juicy Nookie, a wonderfully simple work of art—quality meat oozing your choice of American or cheddar in a soft bun that absorbs the worst/best of the burger's excesses. Bonus points for the vintage basement bowling alley, accessed via a side staircase; there are tables where you can sit and eat and watch the goings on. Burgers are delivered downstairs via dumbwaiter.
During the Great Depression, anyone with a nickel could get a burger in towns like Corinth, Mississippi. What kind of burger exactly depended on where you went, but most of them contained very small amounts of beef, teased out with plenty of filler, day-old bread crumbs being a popular choice. Nickels were called slugs back then, and the name somebody came up with stuck: the slugburger was born. In certain parts of Mississippi, this classic creation remains a favorite, even if most places offer a proper beef burger as well. Latham's Hamburger Inn in New Albany still serves something very close to the original article, almost a century after the burger's heyday—fried in a cast-iron skillet, it crisps up around the edges, almost crunchy like a fritter. It's served on a griddled bun with the usual fixings, and if you're still hungry, the state of Mississippi has a whole Slugburger Trail you can explore.
Restaurants typically come and go like clouds in the sky, but since 1937, Kansas City has been able to depend on Town Topic, the iconic little diner at 20th and Broadway. At any hour, on any day of the week, you can come here, and you should. Fresh beef is pressed so thoroughly onto the flat top you can practically see through it, with liberal amounts of onions pressed on top of that (so the two cook together), lots of seasoning, and—boom—you've got another great, pre-trend smash burger. Once one of America's great burger towns, things have changed considerably in the last couple of decades, and Town Topic, which used to have locations all over town, now runs a decidedly smaller operation. But the original is still here, and if generations of locals have a say in the matter, it won't be going anywhere, anytime soon.
Travis and Kelsey Walnum started flipping burgers out of a camper van back in 2015 at a brewery in Missoula. Fast-forward a few years, and Wally & Buck was moving into a permanent home downtown, serving up local, grass-fed beef, smashed down onto the grill, but ever so sensitively. The Wally is the the most popular burger on the very short menu for good reason, topped with sharp cheddar, bacon jam, the house secret sauce, griddled onions, and crisp vegetables. The house brioche buns are nice and pliable. There's a creative rice and bean burger that comes vegan, but it's good enough to attract carnivores, some of who may or may not be topping theirs with that excellent bacon jam.
Don't be fooled by the modern surroundings at Stella's Bar & Grill in Bellevue. The history of the best burger in Nebraska goes all the way back to the 1930s, when Estelle Francois Sullivan and her husband opened a tavern in one room of the family home. Mr. Sullivan soon passed, but Estelle, left with four kids to raise on her own, kept the tavern going. Her Stella Hamburgers ended up a Bellevue favorite, and remain so, generations later—Estelle's great-great-grandniece, Stephanie Francois, keeps the tradition going. Each burger starts as 6.5 ounces of fresh-ground beef, hand pressed onto a cast iron grill. Some people are content with the classic; others prefer double and triple deckers, with all manner of trimmings, though between the meat and a mighty fine bun delivered daily from a popular Italian bakery down the road, you don't want to drown out the flavor—cheese and onion will be plenty.
Some of the most unique dry-aged steaks you'll ever try are being served most nights at Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas, Jose Andres' winner of a steakhouse at the Sahara. But in the middle of the pandemic with dining habits severely altered—yes, even on The Strip—the restaurant came up with a winning idea: a burger, except no less magnificent than the rest of the meat the restaurant is known for. Served on a fine house-baked sesame bun, the generous patty is a 50/50 blend of wagyu short rib and brisket, topped simply but creatively with shredded iceberg lettuce and melty pub cheese. Fries on the side—very good ones.
Built by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. back in 1940, Gilley's PM Lunch in Portsmouth is one of America's best diners, albeit small enough that for much of its life, the restaurant was actually a mobile operation. Since 1974, Gilley's has been hiding out on the same back street, which everybody seems to know how to find. They come to admire the beautiful vintage porcelain and oak interior, and to sit at one of just a handful of stools at the counter, where they might order some of New Hampshire's best hot dogs, or supremely scarfable, three ounce burgers. Skip the bun, not that there's anything wrong with the house chiliburger, say, or even a classic cheese—for a real New England experience, order the burger served with housemade baked beans and fat slices of white, buttered bread for dipping. Hand-cut fries are made with Maine potatoes—not to be missed.
There was a time when tiny diners like White Manna in Hackensack dotted the landscape, and this one's the descendant of a prototype exhibited at the 1939 World's Fair, meant to showcase the future of fast food. Today, it's history, but remains as relevant as ever, or at least as popular. Thanks to the pandemic, the rugby scrum at the counter might have gone away for awhile, with the restaurant pivoting to pickups at the back door, and instead of waiting cheek by jowl indoors, you could sit by the Hackensack River out back (it's so much nicer than you're thinking), wait for somebody to bellow your name into the fresh air, and leave without your clothes smelling semi-permanently like fried onions and sizzling fat. (Life is about tradeoffs.) In the end, it's always the same—you unwrap your little burgers, and you think to yourself that you'd forgotten how small they actually are. Moments later, you're once again completely satisfied. The simplicity is striking—a daub of fresh-ground, onions on top, cheese melting everywhere out of the pliable, miniature potato roll. The result is one of the smallest, best burgers in America.
In the Land of Enchantment, a burger without roasted green chiles on top is a missed opportunity. After all, you can have it everywhere, from time-honored taverns to regional fast-food outlets by the side of the highway. But there's another local tradition that's even more wild, which is the Tortilla Burger, and none are more famous than the one at The Pantry in Santa Fe, the city's best-known diner and a fixture on the local landscape since 1948. These are messy, knife-and-fork-type deals. Generous amounts of ground beef are wrapped in a flour tortilla with pinto beans, then doused in red chile and topped with cheese. Wild? More like wildly delicious.
The burger at Peter Luger in Brooklyn—one of New York's most iconic steakhouses, and there is definitely some competition—is a gift to passionate proponents of the idea that a burger should be judged solely by the actual beef. Here, the burger has over a half-pound of prime dry aged, served medium rare on a quality sesame bun with plenty of raw onion. That's it, that's the whole thing. This is one grown-ass hunk of meat, the flavor is all funk and fat, and you can add cheese to make it more like any other burger you're used to, but resist temptation on the first outing and choose instead the thick-cut bacon that people eat with a knife and fork as an appetizer. On its own, you've already got one of the more memorable bites in the city. On the burger? Ridiculous. Thanks to the pandemic, at least for the time being, you can order takeout online.
As scrapple is to Pennsylvania, livermush is to North Carolina. That earliest of nose-to-tail creations is a salty funky loaf historically made from the pig's liver, plus anything else that was left over once a hog had been processed at the slaughterhouse. It remains an acquired taste, but fried up in slices, it makes for a mean breakfast side, or a great sandwich. Brooks' Sandwich House in Charlotte has always been a reliable source of the stuff; here, however, you can get yourself a slice on top of one of the house burgers, which you'll order "all the way," with mustard, onion, and beef chili. Nicely charred on the outside, never overdone on the inside, they're not enormous, at least until you add that slice of livermush. For years, brothers David and Scott Brooks ran the place together. Scott was tragically killed in a robbery in the restaurant parking lot, back in 2019.
There are plenty of great beer bars that do burgers, and plenty of outstanding burger joints that know a thing or two about beer. JL Beers, which started as a casual one-off in downtown Fargo not so long ago, is very good at both, enough that they've grown into a proper regional mini-chain, with locations as far away as the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls. Keeping it simple is part of the winning strategy. Here is an establishment confident enough in their sourcing prowess to offer up a house burger that's essentially meat (very good meat) on a bun (simple, but also very good), with just a bit of sauce and pickle to keep the condiment-crazed at bay. There are other burgers on the menu; this one's where you start.
The competition would be fierce, but if one were to build a list of the best states for burger lovers and rank it in order, Ohio would have to be awfully close to the top. From Troy to Toledo, Akron to Zanesville, the Buckeye State works overtime to keep its considerable burger heritage alive, sustaining classic drive-ins, slider joints, dive bars, civilized taverns, and the various fast-food chains that were invented here. There is only one Zip's Cafe in Cincinnati, however; for almost a century, this neighborhood treasure has been doing the simplest thing, with the best ingredients, beginning with fresh chuck from local butcher Avril Bleh. Burgers here are a generous third of a pound each, cooked up on the flat top, served simply on a local bun with the classic accompaniments. Just like at a great steakhouse, this one's all about the meat, though you might order a cup of chili on the side—you're in Cincy, after all.
The onion burger is a relic from the Great Depression, back when meat was scarce and onions weren't. Fry cooks in the small town of El Reno started pressing large amounts into the beef as it cooked on the grill, and why didn't everybody else think of this, a long time ago? Today, beef isn't quite so difficult to come by, and while El Reno remains the creation's spiritual home, Food & Wine's editors are partial to the updated version served at Tucker's Onion Burgers, a mini-chain in Oklahoma City where extra high-quality beef pushes the experience over the top.
Portland went burger crazy over the pandemic, and good ones have been popping up all over the place, but none have been quite so alluring as the fun-sized American Standard at Naomi Pomeroy's darling little Expatriate cocktail lounge, which had already not-so-secretly been a destination for good cheeseburgers before the world turned upside down. For $18, you get two plump, 4 oz. beauties, simply served with ketchup, mustard, onion, and generous amounts of American cheese, on a buttery roll from a local Vietnamese bakery. This might sound simple, and it is, but the whole package ends up so very precise, and awfully hard to improve upon, reminding us how many burgers these days are designed to look good for the cameras, with everything else coming second.
People who are passionate about burgers tend to have a lot of opinions about how they ought to be cooked. Some people find chargrilling essential, others swear by a flattop, and it's kind of difficult to get the two camps to meet in the middle. If anybody could make it happen, it might be Tessaro's, the Harrington family's legendary tavern in Pittsburgh, famous for having their own in-house butcher. Burgers here are grilled on cast iron over local hardwood coals, typically with the utmost care, then tucked into a soft, fresh bun from a nearby bakery. The flavor is terrific, enough that the restaurant is confident enough to offer up a straight hamburger with absolutely nothing else, though you certainly have the option to dress yours to the nines.
Opened in Central Falls during the Great Depression by a recent immigrant from Poland, Stanley's knows hardship. The restaurant survived those first few years, it survived World War II, car culture, and changing tastes. Then came a pandemic, and current owner Louie Alberta had to admit publicly, late last year, that things weren't looking good. When Rhode Islanders found out that one of their favorite burger joints was about to go under, they turned out in numbers, donating nearly $20,000 to keep the restaurant afloat. The plan worked, ensuring at least one more generation gets through the door to try the burgers. The trick here is a method common in other parts of the country, less so in New England—onions are pressed into the meat while on the grill, allowing the two to cook together, adding a burst of extra flavor.
Why something so simple—and so delicious—as a pimento cheeseburger isn't on menus all across the country remains a mystery. Even if you're not fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where prepared pimento cheese spread isn't sold in local supermarkets, it's simple enough to make; the tang of sharp cheddar, a hint of spice from the pimentos, and creamy mayo are all perfect complements to a great hunk of ground beef. Some people like to scoop the spread right on top of the burger, others fold lettuce in between as a buffer, keeping the cheese at temperature longer—there's really no way you can screw this up. Just as there is pimento cheese all over the South, so too are there pimento cheeseburgers, but most can agree that the spiritual home (of the latter at least) is Columbia, South Carolina's capital city. You'll find a very good example at the fun-loving Rockaway Athletic Club, which is neither athletic nor a club, but rather, an entertaining indoor-outdoor bar and late-night hang.
We've encountered more than one unsuspecting outsider who, judging the looks of their first burger at Nick's, which has served Brookings for nearly a century now, can't help but wonder—is this really the best that South Dakota has to offer? The house specialty is definitely not of these visually-minded times, a small, modest-looking burger fried in beef tallow and topped with a mustard-based pickle and onion relish, inside a bun that definitely wasn't sourced by someone with Instagram savvy. But it's not about looks here, it's about flavor, and the locals know it's the best. (Just try getting a seat at the counter during the busy period, which seems to be most of the time.)
When the most recent owners of Memphis nightlife legend Earnestine & Hazel's decided to sell this year, there was plenty of interest, enough to drive the price well over ask. The sale came with strings attached, however—whoever bought the place had to promise not to change a thing. And there is so much to protect and preserve. Operated as a bar, a jazz club, and a brothel (all the way up until the early 1990s), there are so many stories, ghost stories for sure, tales of legends, musical and otherwise, who have passed through. There is the jukebox that is said to have randomly interrupted with a round of "I Feel Good" on the day James Brown died, and also there is the Soul Burger, one of the more famous things to eat in the city that isn't barbecue. Typically consumed very late at night on the way home after a few, or a few too many, these burgers are not rocket science; they're topped with cheese, pickles, grilled onion, and mustard. But rolling in here in the small hours for your first one, bathed in the dim light of one of the South's great dive bars—it's the very definition of essential.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Tom Perini decided to open a restaurant at Perini Ranch, out in Buffalo Gap, not far from Abilene. Pretty much since day one, connoisseurs have been going the distance (it's a long drive from most places) for some of the finest steaks in the country, grilled over mesquite coals. That is, unless they're after one of the country's most celebrated burgers: a half-pound of 100% ground chuck, perfectly seasoned, hand patted and grilled: the Ranch Burger comes with cheddar, grilled mushrooms, onions, and—not to steal New Mexico's thunder or anything—green chiles.
Ask almost any long-time local on the east side of Los Angeles, and they'll be quick to claim ownership of the pastrami burger, that classic treat that appeared post-war in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and older suburbs like Alhambra and Anaheim. Ask someone in Salt Lake City, and they'll be equally certain that the pastrami burger belongs to them. Here's the thing—both cities are correct. Los Angeles may have invented these retro flavor bombs, with assistance from transplanted New Yorkers, but it's Salt Lake that's celebrating them the most enthusiastically, going back to the 1980s when a family member from Southern California got involved in the fledgling Crown Burgers mini-chain, perfecting the recipe for the burger that would become the most iconic in the city. Known for classic, over-the-top decor varying slightly by location, one thing stays the same—the burger, which begins with a quarter pound of beef, griddled and covered in cheese, topped with another quarter pound of pastrami, and ample amounts of fry sauce, that essential Utah condiment sometimes mistaken for Thousand Island dressing. (Close, but no.)
The West Jefferson burger at Waterbury's Prohibition Pig, which incidentally is home to the best barbecue in Vermont, is something of a work of art, and you'll eat it right away, if you know what's good for you. Topped with a delicate pimento cheese fritter and delicious heirloom tomato relish, this is one burger that must be appreciated the moment it comes over the pass. Then again, this is a restaurant that deals in quality, local meat only, so you could order the classic—ketchup, mustard, pickle, or even just ask for it plain—and walk out very happy.
"Yes, Ladies Enjoy Eating Here," announces the sign on the door at the 91 -ear-old Texas Tavern in Roanoke, only recently celebrating the full reopening of its ten counter stools, after 14-plus months of struggling by with takeout-only. For nervous lifelong customers of the 24/7 diner, it was quite the homecoming, everyone piling in for chile (not a typo) dogs and Cheesy Westerns, the latter quite easily the city's most iconic $3 meal—a cheeseburger with a fried egg, pickles, and sweet relish, plus onions if you want. Founded in 1930 by Nick Bullington, the restaurant is currently owned by great-grandson Matt.
From secluded neighborhood bars to splashy steakhouses, you're never very far from a great burger in Seattle, but to loyal customers, which can sometimes feel like the vast majority of the millions of people living in the Puget Sound region, the burger that matters most is the one at Dick's Drive-In. Dick's isn't just about modestly sized, affordably priced, delicious hamburgers, top-flight fries, and great milkshakes, served everywhere from Kent to Everett—it is also one of the great gathering places for every kind of Seattleite, from tech mogul to man counting the spare change in his pocket. The beef, cooked up 1/8 lb. at a time, comes fresh, never frozen, and the buns are baked locally, delivered each day. A plain hamburger is still $1.80. French fries are made with local potatoes, hand-cut and cooked in sunflower oil—one of the best fast-food bites in the country.
From the blue bloods whose families have vacationed in gorgeous Greenbrier County since forever to the generations of locals who've patiently looked after them, everybody seems to eventually end up at Jim's Drive-In in Lewisburg, celebrating well over half a century in business, and a good number of those years in the loving care of the Massie family. One of the country's last great carhop service restaurants has, for most of its life, been that kind of essential gathering place every community wishes it had, serving up stellar shakes, slaw dogs (as is the style here) and good, honest, quality burgers—scraggly, hand-formed patties sent out with a magnificent char. Cheese, onions, lettuce, and tomato—that's all you need. Except maybe an order of the onion rings.
You know how you show up to a really good steakhouse, and your dry-aged ribeye (or whatever) comes out sizzling, with a pat of really good butter melting into the already well-marbled side of beef? When they do it, it's fine, so why do people furrow their brows when they find out that in Wisconsin, which does not call itself America's Dairyland for nothing, burgers are often given the same, special treatment? Solly's Grille in Milwaukee, around since the Great Depression, has something of a reputation for flooding the zone, so to speak. Don't be surprised if your burger, a quarter pound of quality sirloin, procured from a local butcher, topped with the famous house stewed onions, comes out in a pool of salty Wisconsin butter. Go ahead and dip. Lots of people do.
In the 1960s, when the Harlem Globetrotters played the city of Rock Springs, population roughly 10,000 at the time, Nick Skorup, owner of Grub's Drive-In, was the one who fed the team when they were refused service at another local restaurant. That's just the kind of guy he was, and that's the kind of place Grub's was, the place everybody went, from hungry workers to amorous young couples. Skorup opened up shop shortly after the Second World War, and quickly became known for his double cheeseburgers, which from the start were known as Shamrocks, for no particular reason other than the fact that the diner made its debut close to St. Patrick's Day. Skorup's family still runs Grub's, and the star of the menu remains the Shamrock: 1/4 pound of beef split up into two patties, which comes with cheese, mustard, pickles and onions. Grab a seat at the half-moon counter and chow down.