On a recent evening a police officer popped his head into La Petite Grocery, which operates caddy-corner from the Second District station. Noticing that four diners at the bar had ordered the LPG Cheeseburger, he ribbed, “Burgers? I thought they only served fancy food here.” Dressed with arugula, onion marmalade and pickles made in-house and lavished with a melt of Gruyère cheese, the LPG burger is arguably the fanciest ground beef on Magazine Street. Oh, but wait, there’s also the burger pocked with Kobe beef fat down the way at Lilette. And the one dressed with béarnaise sauce that you can get with truffle fries further down at Jackson.
In his 2005 book Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story, John T. Edge writes that the U.S. is “at this very moment in the midst of a burger renaissance.” If this golden age of ground beef took its time winding down the Mississippi River, it has finally and undeniably arrived in New Orleans. Ten years ago a burger tour like the one I just completed would have turned up more than one city’s fair share of great burgers among our neighborhood restaurants, diners, bars and local chains. Today, however, some version of a burger is almost expected on the menus of white tablecloth restaurants exhibiting the slightest lilt of Americana.
What is behind this recent glorification of our country’s most iconic sandwich? Perhaps it’s that we long for more comfort foods than usual in this era of war and political discord. Or maybe we’re just hungry and going broke.
Fast-food burgers have long filled eaters with maximum calories for minimum dollars; these days, burgers also allow middle class fans of fine dining to continue eating out and eating well, in a bad economy. It is possible (if not probable) at today’s finer burger haunts to spend as much on a glass of Rioja as on the burger it complements. Whatever the source of our elevated burger hankering, it doesn’t seem to have reached its apex yet in New Orleans.
Initially I fretted that this burger explosion would turn my palate and sensibility against the city’s more traditional burgers, that tried-and-true favorites like Port of Call and Camellia Grill could only compete if I gave them a handicap. As the results demonstrate, I needn’t have worried. A good burger, like sex appeal, comes in many forms.
Bigger is not always better. Sometimes less is more. Then again, sometimes more is more. You know it when you see it – or, in this case, taste it. The local burger renaissance has simply expanded our options – a clear win.
But how is it, exactly, that the burger has gained such a foothold in a city of poor boys? Could it be that our sandwich allegiance is shifting? Ought we to reevaluate? Do we need to stage an anti-bun rally at the next Po-Boy Preservation Festival?
Relax, New Orleanians. I don’t sense any competition. This is a city that appreciates what the appropriate bread and dressings can do for a layered food. Like the muffuletta and the poor boy have done for decades, the burger and the poor boy appear to coexist peacefully. If anything, the burger surge improves New Orleans’ reputation as a sandwich town.
The poor boy does assert itself into our burger culture here and there. The burger poor boy, for instance, which numerous poor boy shops offer as if to say, “See? We do it better.” (Often they do.) When I asked for a cheeseburger at Clover Grill, the waiter responded in typical poor boy shop parlance: “You want that dressed, baby?” Long after the next trendy comfort food usurps the burger at the city’s finer restaurants, long after the slider has slid back into obscurity, when we’re back to eating burgers in just diners and dives, the poor boy will rock steady. We live in the land of poor boys; the burger – however finessed – is still Queen.
Top 5 Burgers
(in alphabetical order):
These burgers exhibited the highest overall quality, excelling in flavor and form. Prices are for cheeseburgers and could give or take a few cents, depending on choice of toppings.
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse
716 Iberville St., 522-2467, $9.50 at lunch/$13.50 anytime at the bar; 10 ounces; with fries; grilled onion bun
Whereas most burgers reveal their entire story in two or three bites, the exceedingly tender “steakhouse” bacon cheeseburger at Dickie Brennan’s has a narrative that doesn’t quit – the broiled patty’s intense, beefy flavor profile changes with every bite. Chef de Cuisine Alfred Singleton reveals why: Cooks hand-form the burgers using the ground trimmings from USDA prime rib eye, tenderloin and New York strip steaks. The multi-dimensional result hardly needs the cheddar cheese and applewood-smoked bacon that automatically gild it, but the kitchen’s use of bacon pieces – versus strips, which are more difficult than ground beef to bite into and often slide out of a burger during eating – is genius.
Martin Wine Cellar
714 Elmeer, Metairie, 896-7300, $10.95; 8 ounces; with fries; lightly toasted sesame seed egg bun
The majority of commercial burger makers in town prefer ground chuck (which comes from a cow’s shoulder area) to sirloin (cut from the midsection, near the hip), in part because chuck’s higher fat content facilitates succulence.
The nicely grill-charred sirloin burger at Martin Wine Cellar somehow defies this science. Besides the trimmings-built patty at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, this one was by far the juiciest specimen I tried during my recent burger tour. And, more typical of sirloin, which is pricier than chuck, its flavor was rich and beefy.
(It does not, by the way, go without saying that burgers taste beefy. Among the descriptors for some other places in my burger tasting notes are “cardboard,” “dog food,” “watery” and “random meat.” If the patty didn’t taste beefy, the burger had zero chance of making it onto this list.)
900 Harrison Ave., 224-2633, $13; 8 ounces; with fries; brioche bun
The broiled Mondo Burger at Susan Spicer’s new neighborhood Lakeview restaurant is another example of how top-shelf sirloin can produce an unusually moist patty. This one had a coarse, freshly ground texture and managed to achieve a pleasant greasiness even with a lean 90/10 meat-to-fat ratio. I especially appreciated the kitchen’s editing chops – toppings are limited to “griddled onions,” which are diced and fried in the nostalgic style of an idealized American diner. The fried onions keep their shape, taste of the griddle and are applied in perfect heap (atop melted sharp cheddar cheese on mine).
Port of Call
838 Esplanade Ave., 523-0120, $10.75; 8 ounces; with baked potato; white sesame seed bun
The Port was a frequent destination during my first years living in New Orleans. I had never experienced a burger joint that got away with serving baked potatoes instead of French fries and the burger was so grand that it sated a craving for steak. But once the novelty wore off, I let Port of Call drift from my radar. With so many superior burgers around, I didn’t miss it. I returned at the tail end of my burger tour out of obligation, positive that it would under-perform. On the contrary, my burger on Labor Day seemed miraculous, with a hard char on the outside and a soft pink on the inside. The freshly ground chuck tasted lean but distinctly bovine and its wig of unwarmed, grated cheddar cheese was not only forgivable but perfect – melted cheese might have marred the patty’s beautiful char.
547 St. Ann St., 587-0093, $8.75; 7 ounces; à la carte; un-toasted white sesame seed bun
Chef de Cuisine Erik Veney says that he and Stanley’s chef-proprietor Scott Boswell tested differently sized patties of ground USDA Select chuck before deciding on seven ounces as the ideal weight for the World Famous Stanley Burger. While eight-ounce burgers are more common, perhaps because “half-pound” sounds better, I noted at once how correct it felt in my hand while lifting the Stanley Burger to my mouth. One bite revealed the same: It was a mouthful, but a more manageable mouthful than half-pounders deliver. The attention to detail extends to melted, high-quality American cheese, the unobtrusive creaminess of which suits the aesthetic of – and helps balance – a burger that’s further dressed with yellow mustard; ketchup; and iceberg lettuce on top of the patty; mayonnaise; and a tomato slice beneath.
Top 5 Burgers of a Distinctive Genre
These burgers are standouts when judged against other burgers of the same ilk.
Best Diner Burger: Camellia Grill
626 S. Carrollton Ave., 309-2679, $4.49; 6 ounces; à la carte; toasted white bun
There’s something just so wholesome about the greasy, well-done, crisp-edged, griddle-fried burgers at Camellia Grill. Dressed with mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce and tomato and slipped between hemispheres of soft, white, toasted buns, they look and taste like exactly what you wanted when you decided to go out for a diner burger. Just as the polite, subtly slapstick service was what you wanted. And the swivel stools. And the icy milkshakes. And the cute little burger plates that could fit nothing else. The meat may not sing, but sometimes the waiters do; moreover, the meat is free of gristle, which isn’t the case with other economy burgers around town.
Best-Dressed Burger: Houston’s
1755 St. Charles Ave., 524-1578, $12; 7 ounces; with fries; toasted white sesame seed bun
The similarities between the burgers at Houston’s and Stanley are striking, from the photo-ready presentation, to the control-freak condiment application, to the handy seven-ounce patty size. Whereas the ground chuck in Stanley’s burger tasted ever-so-slightly more elegant, the dressings on Houston’s were considerably more obsessive-compulsive – which is better, at least for those of us who appreciate the help. From bottom to top, the layering at Houston’s goes like this: bun, yellow mustard, shredded iceberg, burger, melted American cheese, diced white onion, crisp pickle chips, sliced tomato, shredded iceberg, mayonnaise, bun. This is a burger for the (wo)man who wants it all, including two layers of iceberg crunch. Shredded lettuce is superior to slippery lettuce leaves, texturally speaking and also because it never slides out of the burger while you eat as the leaves are wont to do.
Ditto the diced – versus sliced – onion.
Best (Only?) Organic Burger: Courtyard Grill NOLA
4430 Magazine St., 875-4164, $6.75; 8 ounces; à la carte; lightly toasted, crusty white bun
New Orleans typically clues into national culinary trends once they’ve reached the saturation point in other cities. On a trip to New York last summer, I couldn’t hail a cab without hitting an organic and/or grass-fed burger. During my New Orleans burger tour I found only one, at the oddly named and overall excellent Turkish-Persian restaurant that rose from the cinderblock dust where Tee Eva’s sweet shop formerly operated. Owner Eddie Salmanian and his cooks source their beef from Whole Foods Market, where Salmanian says butchers grind it before their eyes. The charcoal-grilled burger is solid if not exciting, lean but flavorful, served on a La Louisiane Bakery bun.
Best Backyard-Style Burger: Phil’s Grill
3020 Severn Ave., Metairie, 324-9080; 610 Palace Drive, Hammond, (985) 340-5225; 1640 Suite C Hickory Ave., Harahan, 305-1705; $7.99; 8 ounces; with one side; toasted white bun
Thick, unevenly shaped and overhanging the bun in places, the burgers at Phil’s conjure backyard get-togethers, hand-formed patties carried from kitchen to grill on dinner plates and … well, Dad. Which is why Phil de Gruy startled me when he said that his Black Angus chuck burgers aren’t grilled at all but rather seared on a flat-top griddle. No matter; the fantasy is what counts. I ordered Phil’s Big Easy burger, the most basic offered on an extensive menu. Here, again, the layering of condiments and dressings was precise, interesting and functional: iceberg, tomato and pickle beneath the patty; cheddar cheese on top.
Best white tablecloth burger: Lilette
3637 Magazine St., 895-1636, $18; ounces; with fries; housemade, glossy-topped white bun
So many white tablecloth restaurants are serving good burgers these days that I could compose a best-of list comparing those alone. They all share a blessing and a curse: luxury condiments. The cucumber-fresh-smelling pickles at La Petite Grocery, the jammy caramelized onions at Patois, the thick artisanal bacon at Lüke, the pickled cherries at Rambla. A blessing because these condiments, most of them housemade, are delicious and a curse because too often they overpower the meat. And at such places, the meat is typically something you want to taste.
Lilette takes it in this category because its burger overcomes the powerful flavors and textures of roasted tomato, arugula, gremolata (minced herbs, garlic and lemon zest) and a hefty little housemade bun. How? The patty is a mix of freshly ground hanger steak and Kobe beef fat. The marbling is visible even in a burger that has been cooked through; it’s also tactile, but only in that the fat melts in your mouth; and it gives off a buttery aroma as you contemplate your first bite. The meat’s flavor, as you might guess, is extraordinary – beef concentrate plus.
Sara Roahen is a writer and food historian. Her first book, Gumbo Tales, chronicles the city’s food culture. Her work usually involves food, cooking, memory, and/or place. Not necessarily in that order. Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Chile Pepper, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Gourmet, and Oxford American magazines.
A word about methodology
I used a dictionary-simple definition of “burger” for my research. In fact, mine looks a lot like Merriam-Webster’s: a sandwich consisting of a patty of hamburger in a split typically round bun.
• The patty had to be made of ground beef. Beef-sausage mixes, turkey burgers, lamb burgers, seafood burgers and veggie burgers didn’t count.
• The patty had to come on a standard-sized bun. In other words, no poor boys, no sliders, no minis.
• No stunt or novelty burgers. This outlawed the deep-fried burger, the caviar burger and the like.
• I tried more than 30 burgers from 28 different purveyors. I always ordered the house burger if such a thing existed. In the absence of a house burger, I ordered the most basic burger available, with cheese because that’s how I like it. I find that burgers achieve the ultimate texture when cooked to the medium side of medium-rare. A mushy rare is as unfortunate as a rubbery well-done and so I ordered accordingly when given a choice.
Fries versus baked potato
Five of the burgers I tried came with a baked potato: those at GB’s Patio Bar & Grill, Lakeview Harbor, Port Of Call, Snug Harbor and Yo Mama’s. (Snug Harbor’s kitchen gets an honorable mention for topping its potato with real bacon instead of prefab bacon bits.) Fries weren’t even on the menu at three of these places, a burger-joint sacrilege that somehow not only took hold in New Orleans but became stylish. The existence of this style creates its own craving. When I develop a taste for a Port of Call burger, the potato is as responsible for the craving as the burger is.
According to Manager Mike Mollere, Port of Call originated the burger-and-baked pairing. The restaurant opened in the 1960s as a steakhouse and the baked potato remained the house starch even after it evolved into a burger joint.
Burger trivia: All five burger-and-baked restaurants made cheeseburgers with unmelted, grated cheddar cheese.
Accompanying the burger boom among restaurants with white tablecloths and pedigreed chefs is a French fry phenomenon. I didn’t finish every burger during the recent tour, but I always finished the cut-in-house fries (or frites, as several menus called them, in reference to the Belgian style of pommes frites to which serious potato fryers aspire).
Among the best fries were those at Mondo, where Chef de Cuisine Cindy Crosbie and her staff use a special variety of Russet potato for its lower sugar content, making for a crisper fry. They let the potatoes age and dry out (also for crispness) before “punching” them through a french fry press, blanching them in hot vegetable oil each morning, letting them cool and then frying them in hotter vegetable oil to-order. Golden, well-salted and lightly crisp, they tasted intensely of potato.
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, La Petite Grocery, Lilette, Lüke, Patois and Rambla all serve superb versions of these twice-cooked fries with their burgers.