W Burger Bar

Location: 10 College Street, Toronto
Website: http://www.wburgerbar.com/

Unlike a lot of burger places in Toronto, the W Burger Bar is a real, no-foolin’ restaurant: waiters, tables and all.  The prices, though, are about in line with what you’d typically pay at a burger place in Toronto, so you’re not getting charged extra just for the pleasure of sitting down in a restaurant and being served (aside from the tip, of course).  That’s not to say that this place is cheap, only that paying in the ballpark of seven bucks for a burger is, sadly, pretty much the norm in Toronto.

The menu lists a variety of daily specials; thinking it was Wednesday, I was all set to order the Kobe burger, which normally costs 19 dollars (!) but is marked down to ten in the middle of the week.  In fact, I did order it, or attempted to do so, at which point my waitress patiently explained to me that no, it is not Wednesday, it’s Tuesday.  Whoops.

Tuesday’s special is the bison burger, but since this is a burger blog and not a sandwiches-that-kind-of-look-like-burgers-but-aren’t-actually-hamburgers-at-all blog, I opted to take a pass on that one.

I wound up ordering the regular beef burger.   Which is fine — it probably makes for a more useful review, as I suspect that most people will be reluctant to spring for the pricier Kobe and will be getting plain ol’ beef.

I’ve been to the W Burger Bar once before, and I recall that last time I was given the choice to have my burger griddled or grilled.  This time I wasn’t asked, and it came grilled.  It wasn’t a problem for me, as I like both cooking methods pretty much equally, but if you have a preference one way or the other I’m assuming you can still request it.

The burger is actually pretty damn solid.  Nicely grilled and not too densely constructed, this was probably one of the better tasting burgers I’ve had recently.  It had a surprisingly complex beefy flavour, and was obviously made from higher quality beef.  The biggest issue here is the pervasive dryness that plagues so many Toronto burger joints.  The burger had some juiciness to it, but it was definitely drier than it needed to be.

Toronto burger establishments, take heed: fat is your friend.  You’re not doing us a favour when you use leaner, “healthier” beef.  A hamburger needs a a good amount of fat, especially when cooked to the legally-required well done.

Boy, do I wish that more burger places in the city would cook to order (there are a few restaurants that do this, but it is very, very rare).  If this burger had been cooked to medium or medium rare, the too-lean issue would have mostly faded into the background.  This could have been a great hamburger, instead of merely a good one.

As for the toppings, there’s a fairly lengthy selection to be had; I went relatively simple, with pickles, tomatoes and chipotle mayonnaise.   The mayo added a creamy tanginess, though no actual heat (chipotles are supposed to be spicy, are they not?).  The pickles and tomatoes were fine.  The soft sesame seed bun was fresh and complimented the burger well.

My dining companion ordered the 50/50 fries (half regular fries, half sweet potato) of which I sampled a few.  The thinly cut fries were a little soggy, but tasty nonetheless.

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Earl’s Kitchen and Bar

Location: 40 Colossus Drive, Woodbridge
Website: http://www.earls.ca/

First off, I must apologize for the shoddy quality of the pictures.  This was an impromptu trip to Earl’s, and the only camera I had on hand was the one in my cell phone.  Crappy cell phone camera + dark restaurant = the worst pictures ever.  I debated whether I should even use them at all, but what — am I going to do a blog post with just words?  What am I, a caveman?

Earl’s is a slightly more upscale than normal chain restaurant, akin to a place like Moxie’s (which, FYI, has a terrible burger) or Milestones.

I wasn’t even going to order the burger.  Without my camera, I didn’t feel like I could do a proper review.  I figured I’d just return at some point and order the burger then.  I had even ordered something else, but shortly after my waitress left, I spotted someone else receiving the burger.  One look at it and I knew that I needed to have it immediately.

The Bronx burger is a towering behemoth of a hamburger.  It is described thusly: “half pound Certified Angus Beef patty, beer battered onion rings, roasted garlic aioli, red pepper relish, aged white cheddar and rocket greens, toasted sesame seed burger bun made from scratch every day.”  And indeed, with the large onion rings piled on there (among other toppings), this is not a burger for the weak-hearted.  Piled high, it’s one of those burgers where you really have to open wide to take a bite.

Now, I think it’s fairly clear at this point that my general preference is a more sparsely-topped burger.  I find that too many toppings can obfuscate what makes a burger so great in the first place: the beef.  But every now and then, I have no problem eating a kitchen sink burger, with everything the chef can think of thrown on there.

However, while all the individual toppings on this burger were actually of a fairly high quality, in this case, the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts.

The main problem with this burger is that all the tastes are working against each other.  Pretty much every single topping on it has a very strong, very distinctive flavour, and none of the tastes compliment each other particularly well.  It’s like a symphony where everyone is playing in a different key; even if everyone is playing beautifully, it’s still going to sound like a mess.

There’s the very strong garlicky aoili, the roasted red peppers, the rocket (which basically tastes like arugula, another strong flavour), the thickly battered onion rings (which feature a much more strongly-spiced batter than traditional onion rings), and of course, the beefy patty (which fights valiantly for attention among the many assertive flavours).  There’s also the cheese, but it’s completely lost among the other flavours and textures, and may as well not be there at all.  There’s a lot going on in this burger, and while I did basically enjoy it, the lack of harmony among the ingredients made for a sub-par experience.

You want another iffy metaphor to describe this burger?  No?  Well, you’re getting one: you know that expression “there’s a party in my mouth”?  Well this burger is like there’s a fight in your mouth, and all the ingredients are battling it out for your attention.

As for the beef itself?  It tasted pretty good, actually.  Cooked to well done (I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that you’re almost never going to get a burger in Toronto cooked much less than medium well, if you’re lucky), the patty has a fairly pronounced crust, with a decently beefy taste and a fair amount of juiciness.  This is, of course, based on the few bites I got on the outside of the burger, without the many toppings to get in the way.  But even in the middle, when the taste of the beef itself had no chance among the other ingredients, I still appreciated the presence of an above average patty on a textural level.  You can pile as many toppings as you want on a frozen burger; you’re never going to mask that off-putting chewiness.

The big, bready bun would probably be too substantial for a more traditional hamburger.  It worked pretty well here, though, since this is a burger that requires a bun with a bit more heft to hold it all together.

The burger was accompanied by a generous helping of fries, which were thinly cut and very reminiscent of the ones served at McDonald’s.  There was, however, something a bit off about them that I can’t quite put my finger on; they tasted vaguely processed.  I’d be very surprised if it turned out they were freshly cut in-house.  Regardless, they were pretty good.

I’d definitely like to return to Earl’s at some point; the hamburger had a lot of promise.  I just wouldn’t order the Bronx burger next time.

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Earls Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Big Smoke Burger

Location: 830 Yonge Street, Toronto
Website: http://bigsmokeburger.com/

In case you’re confused, this is the place that up until a few weeks ago was known as Craft Burger — apparently the owner wanted to trademark the name, but ran into problems  thanks to American chef Tom Colicchio and his Craft-centric chain of restaurants (Craft, ‘wichcraft, Craftsteak, etc.).  This is a complete aside, but if you ever find yourself at ‘wichcraft, order the turkey sandwich.  Best turkey sandwich ever.

Anyway, Big Smoke Burger = Craft Burger.  Nothing has changed but the name.

The location I visited, around Yonge and Bloor, is quite small.  I showed up at around six and was able to find a seat without any difficulty, but by the time I left it was already pretty packed.  There have been a few times in the past that I’ve wanted to eat here, discovered that there wasn’t a seat to be had, and left sad and burgerless.  Be warned.

You can pick your own toppings, but they have a number of customized burgers that seem to be the main draw.  Using the philosophy that it’s generally a safe bet to order an item on the menu if it shares a name with the restaurant, I got the Big Smoke Burger (I used this same philosophy on my last visit and ordered the Craft Burger, which didn’t particularly work out — but then I’m not crazy about mushrooms on a hamburger, and that burger featured mushrooms prominently.  I dug my own grave on that one).

I ordered at the register, was given a number, and took my seat.  It probably took about ten minutes to get my burger, but I was happy to wait.  I’d much, much rather have to wait a bit than receive a pre-made burger from under a lamp.

As seems to be the trend at Toronto burger joints, classic rock was playing on the radio.  What is it about burger places and classic rock?  Not that I’m complaining; Riders on the Storm is a solid song to eat a burger by.

The burger is pretty good.  The meat is tightly packed and a bit on the lean side, so the well-done burger is drier than it should be.  But it’s good quality meat, it’s not overwhelmingly dry, and has a decent flavour — or at least it seemed to.  Why am I not sure if the meat had a decent flavour?  That’s a good question.  A good question indeed.

The Big Smoke Burger is described as having “horseradish mayo, caramelized onions, smoked cheddar, tomato & lettuce.”  The horseradish mayo, sadly, is the culprit behind my inability to properly discern the flavour of the beef.  Sweet, strongly vinegary and completely overpowering (and oddly enough, without any discernible horseradish flavour), the sauce — which is slathered on the top and bottom bun — completely overwhelms the burger.  I would order this hamburger again, but I would definitely either substitute the horseradish mayo for regular mayo, or just omit it altogether.

The other elements of the burger all worked quite well.  The sweet caramelized onions were perfectly cooked, and were soft and yielding without being mushy.   The smoked cheddar was nicely melted and added a welcome creaminess to the burger, though if it had any smoky flavour it was completely obliterated by the super-strong mayo (I didn’t like that mayo, can you tell?).  The lettuce and tomato were good as well, and the bun was soft and fresh and complimented the burger perfectly.

I got the combo, which came with fries and a soda.  The fries were pretty darn good, though they were a tad overcooked, and were a bit on the crunchy side.  Despite this they were still some of the better fries I’ve had in a while, so I have to imagine that they’d normally be pretty fantastic.

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Five Guys

Location: 2150 Burnhamthorpe Road West, Mississauga
Website: http://www.fiveguys.ca/

When I heard that Five Guys was coming to Canada, I was understandably excited; there’s been a lot of hype around this burger chain, and I was excited to see if it could live up. Well, it’s been a couple of years (they started their Canadian expansion in Alberta), but Five Guys is finally here.

The Mississauga location is pretty big, and the decor is no-nonsense: the red and white checkered theme runs throughout the restaurant, which is filled with simple wooden tables, and big bags of potatoes and peanuts (you can help yourself to to peanuts while you wait for your burger). There are no pretensions that this is anything but a fast food burger joint (unlike, say, McDonald’s, with its weird new coffee house aesthetic).

You line up at the cash register near the entrance, you tell them what you want on your burger (it’s the standard assortment of toppings, with grilled mushrooms and onions adding some variety), they give you a number, and you wait for your order to be ready.

The order comes in a big paper bag, regardless of whether you’re eating in the restaurant or taking the food home. I’m assuming the reason for this is the way they serve their fries: they overfill the container of fries, allowing the excess to fall into the bag. It’s a huge portion, and the large order of fries can easily feed a group of four. The fries are pretty great, too — they offer regular fries and “Cajun style” fries, which are doused in a very strong Cajun seasoning. The Cajun fries are an interesting novelty, but the seasoning is overpowering, and they grow tiresome pretty fast. Stick with the regular fries.

But what about the burger? Ah yes, the burger. It’s cooked in the classic American style of smashing a ball of ground beef down onto a hot griddle, which gives each burger an irregular shape and gives the meat a tasty brown crust.

The patties are cooked to well done, but they remain pleasingly juicy with a satisfyingly beefy taste. It’s not the richest, beefiest hamburger you will ever eat, but for a fast food place it’s pretty damn good. On this particular visit the burger wasn’t quite as juicy or beefy as previous visits (I’m told that they are in the process of switching over from American to Canadian beef and are still working out the kinks), but it was still well above average.

The burgers come tightly wrapped in a thick foil wrapper, which is kind of ingenious because it allows the supple bun to get slightly steamed, suffusing it with hamburgery goodness. And indeed, the buns compliment the hamburgers pretty much perfectly: they are soft, pliant and slightly sweet, and allow for a perfect beef-to-bun ratio.

It’s kind of sad that a big American fast food chain has managed to waltz in and outshine something like 90 percent of the local burger joints, but that is exactly what has happened. And I have to say, I am heartened by the crowds at this place. The Mississauga location of Five Guys has been open since January, and of course it was very busy when it first opened; people were curious. But here we are a few months later, and the place is still pretty crowded every time I go. Torontonians are voting with their wallets — we’ve had enough dry, flavourless burgers, enough meatloaf sandwiches, and enough frozen patties. Hamburgers are a quintessentially American food, so I guess it’s only appropriate that an American chain is coming in to show us how it’s done.

I’m seeing some complaints that Five Guys is overpriced; it’s pricey, sure. But you get what you pay for. You want a cheap burger? Go to McDonald’s and order off the value menu. Let me know how that works out for you. And to be fair, if you want a roughly equivalent burger at McDonald’s (which would probably be one of the Angus Third Pounders), a combo will run you something like eight bucks. That’s only a couple of dollars cheaper than a burger, fries and a drink at Five Guys. I will happily pay the extra few dollars for a vastly superior burger.

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