Best burgers in the Philly suburbs: A fistful of hot buns from Craig LaBan's new Ultimate Dining Guide
Great burgers come in all styles and sizes in Pa. and N.J. but still bring the sizzle.
Craig LaBan has scoured the Pennsylvania and Jersey suburbs and produced an Ultimate Dining guide with more than 200 recommendations for the best places to eat and drink. This preview highlights some of his top picks for burgers. Go to philly.com Thursday for the full guide or buy the print version at philly.com/store.
Nothing calls to me more than the power of a great cheeseburger, my all-time favorite indulgence. So I was heartened to discover during my 4,000-mile journey across Philly's suburban landscape that my trusty burger radar was picking up the signals loud and clear. I followed the sizzle to old-school slider grills, updated burger counters featuring grass-fed meat, luxury patties worth the splurge, an array of alt-meat burgers and more than a few stellar Big Mac updates. Here are a few fistfuls of my ultimate burger favorites beyond the city limits, plus a list of tasty patty contenders worth a mention.
336 Kedron Ave., Folsom, 610-461-4228
There's a sense of timeless wonder to a counter seat at Charlie's — the Delco institution that's been serving hamburgers and shakes since 1935. It has occupied this no-frills shack in Folsom since 1986, when then-owner Bernard "Bunny" McDonald moved it from the original location in Springfield. Now owned by McDonald's son, Steve, Charlie's still cooks every little patty fresh to order just a few feet away, toasting the buns on the shiny side of the flattop for extra flavor. And what those tiny-sized burgers lack in size ("I ordered a double." "That is a double.") they more than make up for in a powerful griddle savor. There are no froufrou truffled toppings here — unless the Velveeta-like cheese that oozes between the layers counts. But you can get raw onions on the "Bunny" cheeseburger combo, or fried onions and pickles on the "Charlie." Either way, you'll want two. And you'll also want a black-and-white shake whirred-up with Potts-brand ice cream made by Bassetts, which is as classic as a burger-and-shake counter lunch can get. $
STOVE & TAP (2 bells)
329 W. Main St., Lansdale, 215-393-8277; stoveandtap.com
In a part of Montgomery County particularly dominated by chains, few restaurants have done as good a job of reinventing the neighborhood tavern with quality ingredients as much as this massive, bi-level corner project from two alums of the Stephen Starr orbit. Chef Benjamin "Biff" Gottehrer (formerly at the Dandelion) does a great job updating American comfort foods with scratch cooking and creative twists, and while the menu ranges wide, the burger is one of his best works. It's a nearly perfect double-pattied ode to the Big Mac on a classic Martin's potato roll, but with two quarter-pound short rib-brisket patties and a brandied "secret sauce" with smoked tomatoes and capers that are so much better. $$
137 S. Main St., New Hope, 267-743-2192; eatmoo.com
Reimagine the burger-and-shake shop for the 21st century with a go-local, grass-fed twist and you'll have Moo, a hip food truck-turned-storefront on New Hope's Main Street whose sleekly tiled little dining room with communal tables feels like a fresh indie take on Shake Shack. Top your excellent LaFrieda patty with an organic egg, a summer ripe tomato or crispy bacon from a Pennsylvania farm. The hand-cut fries made from local potatoes are required. And definitely do not miss the shakes made from Trickling Springs Creamery ice cream whirred up with local blueberries and crumbled cookies. $
AUTOGRAPH BRASSERIE (2 bells)
503 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-964-2588; autographbrasserie.com
The strip-mall manse in Wayne once occupied by Le Mas Perrier has been revived by the White Dog's Marty Grims and chef Ralph Fernandez as a clubby American brasserie that simply exudes Main Line posh. The meat-centric menu is pricey, so it's no surprise that the burger is up there, too. But I consider it a $19 investment well spent. A half-pound blend of prime NY strip, filet, short rib and chuck is seared in a cast-iron pan, then layered with two kinds of cheddar, ripe beef steak tomatoes, caramelized onions, chipotle-infused Thousand Island, and blades of apple-smoked bacon that fly off the edges of that bun like crispy wings. Open wide, devour. $$$
18 S. Orange St., Media, 610-566-1660; eatatbittersweet.com
The savvy weekend crowds line up on Orange Street for the hearty, scratch-cooked brunches at this funky deep-blue cafe, who come for the fluffy buttermilk pancakes and huevos rancheros. But Bittersweet also happens to make some of my recent favorite takes on alt-burgers — a juicy turkey patty layered with cranberry Dijon mustard sauce, and a flavorful black bean burger with mango-red pepper relish that holds is shape until the final bite. $
Other patties of note:
THE FARM & FISHERMAN TAVERN
This stellar duo of updated suburban taverns channels some excellent burger instincts, with the kind of meat-source menu distinctions (you choose from grass-fed or "Industrial" brisket patties) one might expect from a farm-to-table-minded kitchen. I usually opt for the minerally taste of the grass-fed "Colonial." But the best choice may actually be the Astoria lamb patty topped with feta and tahini ketchup. $-$$$
MISTRAL (3 bells)
160 N. Gulph Rd., King of Prussia Mall, King of Prussia, 610-768-1630; mistralkop.com
The high-concept modern plates can be exciting at this beautiful King of Prussia sibling to the Princeton original. But sometimes, a mall mission stokes a more primal hunger, and the standout burger here, an 8-ounce blend of chuck, flap and brisket topped with bacon jam, hits a level of satisfaction the many burgers here just chains don't quite reach. $$-$$$
THE WHIP TAVERN
1383 N. Chatham Rd., West Marlborough (Springdell), Coatesville, 610-383-0600
When in Chester County horse country, the Black Mack is a double-pattied Angus update to your Big Mac craving. $$-$$$
CHARCOAL BYOB (3 bells)
11 S. Delaware Ave., Yardley, 215-493-6394, charcoalbyob.com
I've only made it to this river town BYOB for its inventive evening dinners — so far. But the restaurant's old-school diner DNA is still on display at lunch, albeit updated with the Plescha brothers' signature avant-garde touches. The burger isn't just house-ground from brisket, short rib and hanger steak, the patties are infused with butter. Yardley, here I come. This buttery beauty is on my wish list. $-$$$
Bonus content: Check out the music video for "Cheeseburger, I Hold," a song written by Craig LaBan in 2007. That's our own masked critic singing!