Meat of the Matter

Our fearless editorial director reflects on the power of the perfect burger.
Rachel Hart  |   January 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

Although technically it didn’t get its start here, the burger has become the ultimate American dish, and I love seeing how the iconic sandwich has evolved in different cities across the country.

In L.A., you’ll invariably find an option served with a pile of avocado slices.

In Wisconsin, land of plentiful beef and cheese, cheeseburgers come with a practically obligatory side of cheese (and are often speared with one of those miniature paper American flags on a toothpick).

A few years back, restaurants in major cities—like New York—elevated the humble handheld to gourmet status, ushering in the luxe, overpriced burger trend.

Here in Seattle, we run the gamut of burgers (including the occasional salmon burger, which, as you’ll read in our best burgers story, doesn’t really count), with a preference for gourmet toppings, unusual meats and artisan buns.

The whole gourmet burger thing has come full circle, though, and the current trend is paring those patties down to the classics, focusing on dang good-tasting but simple burgers. This is great news for burger purists like me. I have tried to go the unusual flavor-combo route—especially at places like Lunchbox Laboratory, whose menu includes fanciful toppings such as truffle mayo and balsamic onions. While those burgers are tasty, they still leave me hungry for, well, a burger.

Beef, bun, extra-sharp cheddar cheese (real cheese, not that gooey American stuff), tomato, lettuce, raw onion, ketchup, mustard, mayo and dill pickle slices—that is a burger. It’s all about that combination of these superfresh ingredients, and for me, in particular, it’s about the bun. A fresh, soft bun (no crusty bread that can tear up the roof of your mouth) is a must—and it can’t be tainted with that kitchen-back-room smell, or it kills the whole experience.

Every burger aficionado has The Burger they compare all others to.

Mine is the classic cheeseburger from Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry in Madison, Wisconsin, where I lived before moving here. It has all the ingredients on my burger wish list above, plus it falls apart perfectly in your mouth, and eating it is the most messy, glorious, ungraceful process—which is an important part of the experience.

For our burger story this month, food editor Ali Scheff heroically ate her way through dozens of burgers and found deliciousness in many unexpected places—and in every price range—but for me, burger Nirvana is achieved by sticking with the classics.

Burgers have another special significance for me. My 9-year-old son, Alessandro, never had much of an appetite or an interest in food, taking two or more days to finish a tiny jar of baby food when he was an infant. I, on the other hand, live for food and plan activities and vacations around it. How could we possibly be related? But one day, he discovered the bacon cheeseburger at Little Coney in Ballard, found his food groove, and is now on a mission to try every bacon cheeseburger in town (so far his other favorites are Uneeda and Red Mill). We do a lot of bonding over burgers these days, and during those inevitable awkward teen years down the road, I am counting on the therapeutic power of scarfing down a good burger together.

Until next time,

Rachel Hart