A “best” burger is a myth.
Burger aficionados can talk fat-to-meat ratios, Wagyu, Angus, preference of cheese and caramelization all day long. But whether or not you love a burger can come down to how the bread hugs the meat, or if pickles are present.
Even the hamburger’s origin can be a point of discussion – some trace it to Hamburg, Germany, and others claim it as fully American. What’s known is that the first time a lot of people tried one was at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo.
It’s a good bet the first time you tried one, in 1954 or 2004, it came from your dad’s or some other relative’s backyard grill, and immediately instilled in you an association between the taste of char and home. And maybe your second burger was from a fast-food place, and though it was not nearly as good, it mimicked that backyard-barbecue ketchup-mustard-pickle combination well enough to evoke fond memories.
Or maybe you come from a mayo-with-lettuce-and-tomato household.
Hardly anybody’s burger background entails two half-pound patties topped by pulled pork, chili, avocado, jalapeño and mac ’n’ cheese – despite all those sexy fast-food commercials with models and stacked burgers.
We, The Bee’s food reviewers, come from simpler burger times. And though we generally embrace new cuisines and flavors, we have found, as we have made the local restaurant rounds, that when it comes to burgers, less can be more.
All we want is char, good meat – cooked precisely medium-rare when we ordered it that way – and a bun that’s fresh, flavorful and size-proportionate to the patty. After those things, all the burger just needs some kind of spark – spiciness or acidity – to cut and/or complement the sandwich’s fattier elements. Too much or too little spark, and the burger gets too far removed from those backyard memories.
The 10 burgers below, all of which meet these specs before adding an elevating “X factor” further distinguishing them from the crowd, are our favorites among the many we have sampled at restaurants and hamburger stands in the Sacramento region.
This list should serve as a solid anchor for a conversation we want with readers about favorite burgers. So email us your thoughts, and photos, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chef’s Burger, South
A brioche bun holds a rounded, half-pound chuck patty covered in Havarti cheese and applewood smoked bacon. Condiments start with a mustard barbecue sauce coating an iceberg lettuce slaw, and keep on coming. Mayonnaise is sealed on the buns via the flattop grill, and a green tomato jam completes the homey yet complex flavor.
Cost: $13, with fries
X factor: Every bite is tasty, yet none exactly alike. The well-seasoned patty carries a nice, consistent char throughout, but can be thicker in some spots than others. Sometimes the barbecue sauce’s sweetness announces itself fully, but at other times a mustard bite intervenes. The burger’s two strips of bacon do not fully cover the patty, making those bites that one takes that do include bacon taste extra special.
Get it at: South, 2005 11th St., Sacramento; 916-382-9722; www.weheartfriedchicken.com
Ettore’s Hamburger, Ettore’s European Bakery & Restaurant
A half-pound of hand-formed Niman Ranch chuck grilled over almond wood joins a house-baked cheddar-scallion bun with Swiss cheese, sautéed mushrooms, tomato, red leaf lettuce and herb mayonnaise for a showstopping extravaganza of juxtaposed flavors and textures. A version of it won the 2013 Burger Battle at Raley Field, and was a runner-up in the 2012 fundraiser.
“So many customers are surprised to find it on the menu of a European bakery,” said marketing director Meggan Rush Ravazzolo, Ettore Ravazzolo’s wife.
Cost: $13, with fries or al-dente pasta salad; add bacon ($2), avocado ($1.50), fried egg ($1.50) and/or caramelized onions (50 cents). The Grey Poupon is at the condiments table.
X factor: The aromatic cheddar-scallion bun embraces the juicy beef for a happy-ever-after ending, with no skimping on the tasty herb mayonnaise. The mushrooms are a bonus. And, oh yeah, you’re sitting in one of the finest bakeries in Northern California.
Get it at: Ettore’s European Bakery & Restaurant, 2376 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; 916-482-0708; www.ettores.com
Fatboy Combo at Scott’s Burger Shack
The Del Monte Meat Co. delivers the fresh-never-frozen pre-formed Angus patties each morning, and the nearby BP French bakery does the same with the buns (“They’re still warm when they get here,” said owner Scott Hackett). The burger is topped with bacon, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle chips, mustard, ketchup, and Swiss and American cheeses. Crinkle-cut fries and a 32-ounce drink are part of the combo deal.
Cost: $8.25 (cash only). Substitute pepper jack and/or cheddar cheeses; trade the bacon for pastrami. Choose from 13 dipping sauces, including teriyaki, guacamole and Thousand Island (35 cents each or three for $1)
X factor: The old-school burger from the ’50s and ’60s lives here. Nothing fancy, just a ginormous meal at a bargain price. We find the “ambiance” a vital part of this burger experience – the only seating is at blue picnic tables in the parking lot near an auto-repair shop, to be enjoyed as traffic whizzes by.
Get it at: Scott’s Burger Shack, 4127 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento; 916-451-4415
Hamburger Provençal, La Provence
It’s surprising to find a burger – much less one this good – at an upscale French restaurant, but there it is: A half-pound of Angus beef (hand-formed, of course) is charbroiled and tucked inside a grilled house-made brioche-style bun, and topped with cheese (white cheddar, provolone, Gruyere or blue), caramelized yellow onion, from-scratch Dijon aioli, lettuce and tomato. Substitute a Caesar salad for the house-cut fries.
“It’s very similar to the burger (the restaurant’s) owner fell in love with at a little boulangerie in France, and wanted to have on his menu,” said executive chef Roderick Williams.
Cost: $13; add bacon for $2, sweet potato fries with habanero mustard for $1.
X factor: The mild sweetness from the bun, caramelized yellow onion and cherrywood-smoked bacon combine to give this burger a subtle candied background flavor, an intriguing change-up.
Get it at: La Provence, 110 Diamond Creek Place, Roseville; 916-789-2002; www.laprovenceroseville.com
Johnny Cash Burger, Broderick Roadhouse
A loaded-burger exception to the understatement rule. But Broderick merges its many powerful ingredients so beautifully that more is more here.
House-made barbecue sauce, pickled red peppers, applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, and fried onion strings battle for dominance atop an 8-ounce Niman Ranch chuck patty. In case this combination sounds too demure, there’s also onion in the Village Bakery bun.
Cost: $14, with fries or house salad. We recommend you shell out $6 to upgrade to banh mi fries laden with pulled pork covered in citrus caramel sauce and pickled vegetables, to complete the snappy-flavor extravaganza.
X factor: Bursts of black pepper keep sweetness and acidity from toppling over the edge.
LB Burger, LowBrau
LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar executive chef Brock Macdonald and crew combine lean Creekstone Farms beef clod heart (from the shoulder) with fatty Niman Ranch brisket in a 7-ounce patty covered in American cheese that is housed in a moist, just-salty-enough pretzel bun. House bread-and-butter pickles add a sweet tanginess, and house aioli with Calabrian chili offers a slight spike of heat.
X factor: Bun clings to cheese and cheese clings to meat, the elements forming a soft, satisfying fatty whole suggestive, texture-wise, of what was a first burger love for many of us, the McDonald’s cheeseburger. But the ingredients of the LowBrau burger – the “people’s choice” winner in the recent 2016 Sacramento Burger Battle – are top quality and assembled with greater finesse.
Get it at: LowBrau, 1050 20th St., Sacramento;916-706-2636; www.lowbrausacramento.com
Pangaea Burger, Pangaea Bier Cafe
Chef Brett Stockdale, sticking to a recipe that his predecessor, Robb Venditti, perfected, cooks a “secret recipe” combination of certified Angus beef cuts over a high-heat gas grill emitting beef-kissing, caramelizing flames. Tillamook medium cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon cover the patty, but the lettuce and tomato (always vine-ripened, but no longer the juicy Ray Yeung local product we tried when we ordered the burger in September) go beneath the meat, on a Bella Bru bun. Spicy house pickles and a sauce that incorporates mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and relish put the finishing touches on this masterpiece of flavor and familiarity.
Cost: $15, with fries
X factor: Our whole “there’s no best” stance nearly crumbled when we took our first bite of this burger, the defending (and repeating) Sacramento Burger Battle champion. But we recognize part of its magic comes from hitting every single backyard barbecue point, including the slatted-grill vs. flattop one, and that our other nine favorites should not be penalized for not being so on the nose.
But neither should the Pangaea burger be anything less than idolized, not when its heavily seasoned patty combines with bacon to deliver salt hits that complement shots of spiciness and acidity.
Prime Burger, Ruth’s Chris
The trim from USDA prime-grade beef is ground together with chuck (for fat), then hand-formed into half-pound patties that are flashed in the same 1,800-degree broiler used to cook the restaurant’s signature steaks, locking in the juices. The thick, simply seasoned patty (salt and pepper) is nestled on a crispy-edged buttered-and-grilled bun that’s literally an ideal fit. Choose from Swiss, cheddar and blue; addictive hand-cut seasoned fries accompany, with lettuce, tomato and onion.
Cost: Bargain-priced at $9 during RC’s Sizzle, Swizzle and Swirl happy hour (4-7 p.m. Sundays-Fridays). Add bacon, sautéed mushrooms and/or sautéed onions for $1 each.
X factor: Only about 3 percent of beef meets the standards for prime-grade labeling, which puts this burger on a pedestal. Prime beef has more marbling than choice, which translates to more flavor, moisture and tenderness. A straightforward burger bursting with juice and flavor.
Get it at: Ruth’s Chris in Pavilions center on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue, in Sacramento, 916-286-2702; and at RC’s in the Galleria center on Galleria Boulevard in Roseville; 916-780-6910; ruthschris.com
Rick’s Deluxe Burger, The Waterboy
House-ground chuck is hand-formed into a half-pound patty, grilled and served on a house-baked bun with plenty of white cheddar cheese, grilled sweet onions, lettuce, tomato and “secret sauce,” with whole-grain mustard and Bubbie’s dill pickle chips on the side. “This is the way I like my burger, even when I make one at home,” owner-chef Rick Mahan said.
Cost: $15, with house-cut skinny fries (or substitute a salad). Bacon is $1. The burger is sold at lunch and occasionally on Monday nights at dinner.
X factor: As one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, Mahan is all about local sourcing and from-scratch cooking. The beef is from 5 Dot Ranch near Susanville, the tangy cheddar from the Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. in Willows. The marvelously flavored bun is a cousin of a dinner roll, made from dough containing milk and olive oil. That luscious secret sauce combines house-made mayonnaise and ketchup with Dijon mustard and cornichons.
Get it at: The Waterboy, 2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento; 916-498-9891; www.waterboyrestaurant.com
Saddle Rock Burger, Saddle Rock
Chef Matt Masera incorporates Brie, white cheddar and bacon into a 8.5-ounce patty consisting of chuck and teres major cuts. The cheese oozes from the patty’s sides as it melts.
Shredded lettuce, house pickles, a “fancy sauce” made with heirloom tomatoes that are hard-roasted and cooked down with red wine, complete the contents within an Acme burger bun.
Cost: $18, with fries
X factor: The burger’s earthy, tangy flavors, richness and cushy texture create a distinctive sensory experience. The patty is hearty but also loose from the cheese, creating a near-sloppy Joe effect but no sloppiness.