Food conversations so often turn to burgers, and then comes the inevitable question: “Who makes the best burger in Philadelphia?”
Stop right there. The “best”? Taste is utterly subjective. Let’s say “favorite.”
OK, then. "Who makes your favorite burger?"
Now we're talking.
Not that I have my own list ranking burgers, but right up there these days is the double-patty creation on a brioche bun at the Common, a new spot at 3601 Market St. in University City where chef/partner Patrick Feury takes inspiration from that all-American classic, the Big Mac. He forms two 4-ounce patties from Pinelands Farms beef and tops them with caramelized onions, shredded lettuce, spicy house-made pickle chips, and good ol’ special sauce. Cooper sharp cheese oozes between the patties. You’ll notice further that there is no tomato, a gutsy move but — in my opinion — a good one: Too often, tomatoes drip their juices and make the bun soggy. It’s $14 and comes with a huge serving of crispy fries cut almost shoestring-thin.
That's one man's opinion, and so I turned to Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, who deems the cheeseburger his favorite food.
He keeps lists of his favorites. To his article from two years ago on his favorites in the suburbs, he adds the burgers at the Ripplewood and the Bercy in Ardmore; Charlie’s in Folsom; Autograph in Wayne; Charcoal BYOB in Yardley; Moo in New Hope; the Farm & Fisherman in Cherry Hill and Horsham; and Stove & Tap in Lansdale.
Among his favorite “fancies” served in the city, in no order, are those at Royal Boucherie in Old City; a.kitchen, Good Dog, and Butcher Bar in Rittenhouse; Pub & Kitchen in Southwest Center City; Kensington Quarter’s Fishtown location; Rex 1516 on South Street West; Bud & Marilyn’s in Washington Square West; and Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village (when they make them).
For value, he digs Josh Kim's at SpOt in Brewerytown (where you can get a plain for $7) and the vaunted $5 burger at Fountain Porter in South Philly.
What does he look for in a good burger?
Ha, he replied. "That’s like asking for a 'quick' take on the secret of life, because a great burger is both all about the details and all about the big picture, too. And there are infinite variations that sing.
"The individual elements must be thoughtfully chosen and perfectly cooked, but they also have to work together as one harmonious message of juicy, straight-from-the-grill savor, from a deeply seared patty with beefy personality (medium rare, if you ask me) to the right bun to frame it up without overwhelming the sandwich as a whole. I’m over the puffy brioche balloons that became synonymous with fancy patties a decade ago. The less eggy “pain au lait” buns are a better soft bun artisan compromise.
"But a good old Martin’s potato roll (with lots of sesame) is just as great for a backyard-style burger, too.
"I’m a fan of the return to flat-patty burger phase we’re experiencing now because it emphasizes the good, quick sear, requires more delicacy of composition, and maybe allows kitchens more easy consistency. And often with these, I think you can taste the quality of the beef more clearly.
"I traditionally don’t overdo the toppings beyond the classics (no good burger is mostly about its toppings), but cheese for me is a must, and I can do fancy all over the map here, from Vermont cheddar to Maytag blue. But a burger is also the one place I think American cheese is as noble a choice as any of them. It’s just a mood. And usually a happy one."