One of the more wonderful moments I enjoyed in Istanbul was biting into a hamburger, of all things, and suddenly deciding to dedicate the next two or three hours of my mental processes to identifying my all-time top five hamburgers, John-Cusack-in-High–Fidelity-style. (By the way, if you haven’t seen High Fidelity, just go to Blockbuster now, seriously.)
This is based on memory. It is also based on pure personal enjoyment rather than anything like an objective standard for the measuring of burger quality. I’ve tried to go into enough detail, where possible, to recreate the magic.
Disqualified Due to Sheer Outrageous Cheekiness: The Garbage Burger, Max & Erma’s, Midwest, USA. I’m not even sure the Garbage Burger counts as a burger; it’s more like a pile. The cooks at Max & Erma’s, the only chain on this list (and the only place on it twice, sort of), decided to put every single burger topping possible on this burger.
10 ounce patty. Lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles, six (6) kinds of cheese, mushrooms, bacon, white onions (grilled), marinara sauce, and guacamole.
Yes, I have eaten a Garbage Burger. And by “eaten,” I mean, “attempted to eat and utterly failed.” Given that it’s estimated at 2,600 calories, that’s probably a good thing. Mine was served basically as a gigantic pile of Stuff, and fell apart so quickly I remember scooping it up with a spoon. But oh, the flavor: it was like getting bombarded with flavors. It is the 1812 Overture of hamburgers.
Someday, somehow, perhaps I–with another extremely hungry person–will again order one of these behemoths, and perhaps then we may finish it.
5. Salmon burger, somewhere in Vancouver, Canada (2002). I feel bad about forgetting where I ate this; it was on English Bay, just south of Stanley Park, at a restaurant with a rooftop terrace where you could watch the sun set.
The thing I remember most about the salmon burger was, it was really, really sticky. Like, paper-napkin-stuck-to-your-fingers sticky. It had been marinated in soy sauce and something sweet and placed in a gentle bun, and nothing got in the way of the excellence of the salmon. Kind of want to go back and see if it’s as I remember it.
4. The Kitchenette Burger, The Kitchenette, Ortaköy, Istanbul, Turkey (2011). A hamburger whose outstanding creativity and bewildering array of toppings don’t stop it from being elegant. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that so much stuff on a burger can produce a result which feels so natural: a chorus of flavors in unison.
Let’s break the burger down and see how it was done.
The first key is clear: a really good bun. This one was sesame, and toasted, not until black around the edges but until it had a nice crunch. The second key is even more obvious: great meat.
This is one of two burgers on the list with “Turkish spicing.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but Turks spice their hamburger patties the way they spice their köftes (meatballs), with things like cumin, garlic, parsley, and diced white onions.
The usual suspects (lettuce, tomato, onions, a pickle I removed) are there. But then the twists: kaşar cheese (sometimes “kasseri”), spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and a sort of tartar sauce with capers and tiny diced bell peppers. Innovative, very Turkish, a distinctive but classy twist on the burger. And as soon as I took the first bite, I knew it was one of my favorites.
3. Barbecue burger, Max & Erma’s, Midwest, USA (2000-2005). Unlike the Garbage Burger, with this one Max knew where to stop. Barbecue sauce. Bacon. Cheddar cheese. Juicy, smoky, marvelous meat. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
2. Backyard burger, my house, Boerne, TX (2005-2010). The second burger on the list to use “Turkish meat,” because my parents are geniuses. My dad does the grilltending himself–charcoal, not gas, of course–and the result is juicy, flavorful hamburgers which taste like home. They’re a comfort, a welcome, a pause to enjoy life in our backyard. I prefer to add the following eclectic group of toppings:
– lettuce and sauteed sweet onions
– Danish havarti cheese
– hickory barbecue sauce (avoid Kraft, it’s oversweet)
– just a little bit of wasabi
Yes! Wasabi. It adds that undertone of kick which makes the burger (white-hot with juices and just off the grill) absolutely perfect.
Well, not quite perfect. The one thing holding my family hamburger back from the top spot is that we have never quite solved the bun problem; wheat buns from the grocery store taste to me more like ways of holding the ingredients than actual additions to the flavor. There has to be a better way–even a better brand in the store. We just haven’t quite found it…
Who could possibly keep our family’s home burgers and their incomparable bliss in second place? I’m glad you asked:
1. 814 Burger, 814: A Texas Bistro, Comfort, TX (2010). I don’t remember all that much about this burger. Its memory is wrapped in a golden fog.
I remember thinking it didn’t have much to it. Lettuce, onions, tomato, pepper jack cheese. Some kind of sauce. A kaiser roll. But as soon as I bit into it, all that faded away.
Aside from being in a more or less pure state of bliss, the only concrete thing I actually remember about the burger was the meat: so thick, so juicy and fresh, not smoky but still characterful, perfect. I remember not believing it. And that’s the last memory before I slipped into euphoria.
Of course, like all mystical experiences, this may have been an illusion, some sort of trick of fate. I’ve only had the 814 burger once. And I’ll tell you this: the moment I get back to Texas, I’m going back to have it again.