It's time to induct a new class of burgers into the Enquirer Burger Hall of Fame. I named 20 to the HOF in January 2012, but we were just warming up. The burger is as popular as ever, and there are new versions all the time, not to mention old favorites we just haven't discovered yet.
First time around, I included a lot of burgers for their heritage, their longevity, the loyalty of their fans, and the surroundings in which they are enjoyed -- as well as their taste, of course. This time, I'm concentrating more just on good burgers. Really good burgers. This time around, I intended to always get coleslaw on the side. But French fries are so good. ...
So what makes a burger a really good burger?
Here are my criteria:
1. The meat has to be juicy. Ideally, some meat juice should drip from the burger onto your plate and hands. This happens far less often than it should.
2. The meat has to have a taste of being cooked: Some burgers could have been microwaved for all the cooked-meat flavor they have. Really good ones have a charred touch of the grill, or the taste of meat that has met a really hot griddle.
3: Ideally, it can be ordered to temperature. I like steak medium-rare but I order burgers at medium.
4: The bun and the toppings should support the meat, not cover it up. For the very best burger, the bun should be worth eating on its own. This time around, many of the burgers I've tried are a little less baroque than some that were in the first class. One or two toppings appropriate to a burger: cheese, mushrooms, maybe bacon.
That's it mostly. However, burgers that meet these criteria often cost $13. So I also have some burgers in here that are a good value for less money: maybe a little less juicy, cooked a little past pink in the middle, but a good burger you can afford for lunch.
BrewRiver has a mighty awesome burger, my favorite of all the ones I tried this time around. Here is the No. 1 lesson this burger teaches: Use a bun that is delicious to eat on its own. This is on a sourdough bun from Sweet William bakery, a local baker, and is a bit chewier than the usual burger bun, but delicious on its own.
It also has an excellent flavor innovation: crisped portabella mushroom chips that add their bit of umami without adding the slipperiness and moisture that fresh mushrooms do.
Plus it was pink inside (the only burger I got that was perhaps cooked a little less than medium). They have the beer to go with it, and also homemade pickles and ketchup and nice coleslaw.
Metropole's burger is made from bison meat, which comes from the company's farm in Kentucky. The meat itself is flavorful and lean. So it's not super-juicy, but it's moist.
They serve it on a large brioche-style bun, with cheddar. I got it with a whole-grain wheat berry salad, which was sort of like having a veggie burger on the side.
This locally owned burger shop uses a broiler to cook their burgers, and you can tell; they've got a nice char. My Kalifornia Burger was almost pink inside, and there was no actual meat juice, but it was juicy to bite into.
The addition of avocado, corn salsa and sprouts was good, and burgers come in many variations, including a Jambalaya and a Brie and apple burger. On the side, I opted for a nice tangy broccoli slaw. That's different.
There are a few burgers on the menu at the Lager House on the river. I passed up the moer-burger with pastrami bacon and a fried egg to have the simpler Alehouse burger, with ale-braised onions, mushrooms and tomato jam, which is just enough, I think.
It was the drippiest burger I tried and pink in the middle. It comes on the kind of bun that squishes up as you eat it, keeping everything together.
I made a little exception to the usual no-chain rule, as Bobby's Burger Palace has only one location in Cincinnati, at the Horseshoe Casino. The burgers are good, nice and thick. They're served on sesame buns, which I've always liked, and the cheese is American, which melts and drips all over the bun and burger.
The L.A. Burger has one genius ingredient: no, not the chips that "crunchify" it -- the watercress. And with its curvy, two-sided counter, BBP is a fun place to sit.
A lot of people try to come up with a unique burger by varying the toppings. Three Meat Burger in Anderson Township changes up the meat. You can order a beef-chicken-turkey burger or a beef-lamb-chicken burger (or all beef).
I went for the one with lamb, which gives the burger a bit of a Greek or Middle Eastern flavor. And, if you get their special red pepper dervina sauce, it's even more so. It wasn't the very best of the burgers that I tried, but for the price ($4.50 for a single, $5.50 for a double), it's a good meal. Fries are extra.
Here's another good deal, and another burger place with a bit of Greek flavor. Happy Days is a cute diner on Warsaw Avenue, with breakfasts and meatloaf and grilled cheese.
Their 1/3-pound burger is spiced a little, and is a nice thick hand-formed patty, fat and lumpy.You fill out an order pad when you order it, with four free toppings, plus condiments, and some more optional toppings. Their Facebook page shows creations that customers have created.
The taste of Montgomery Inn barbecue sauce is a Cincinnati touchstone -- generations of people have grown up loving its particular combination of sweet and tangy. You can get it on ribs, of course, but it's also good on a burger. Their Western BBQ Burger is a half-pounder with bacon, cheddar and sauce.
The one I tried at the Boathouse one night was maybe cooked a little past medium but that didn't ruin the meat. Especially because there was a ton of thick, crisp bacon on it to amp up the meat flavor. Nice whole-grain bun. Of course, Saratoga chips on the side, with more sauce.
So when it came to trying a burger, I passed up their Baa Baa Black Sheep, loaded up with stuff like goetta and bacon and cheese and fried egg, for the simpler Guinness burger. It's a good half-pound, served on an airy egg bun with mild beer-braised onions and Swiss. I liked the skinny battered zucchini fries on the side.
This is a very modest burger, but that has its charms. Mansion Hill Tavern hosts live music, especially the blues, at night, but you can drop in for lunch during the day and order this simple, hand-shaped, bumpy burger on a bun, chips on the side.
It doesn't have fancy toppings, but it's juicy and beefy. Pay with cash. Maybe have a beer and a cigarette, if that's your thing.