Billy’s Place

Location: 5945 Dixie Road, Mississauga
Website: None

Whenever I go to a little hole-in-the-wall place that I’ve never heard of, I get a little bit excited; could this be a great new discovery?  A hidden gem?  A place I’ll excitedly recommend to everyone I know?

Spoiler alert: this was not one of those places.

Walking in didn’t exactly fill me with confidence; the place looks like it hasn’t changed much since it opened (probably in the ’70s or ’80s, judging by the decor).  It was also completely deserted at around 12:30 on a weekday, which was a bit worrisome — this seems like the type of restaurant that should have a bustling lunch crowd.

There was a fairly large rear-projection TV (the type they stopped making something like fifteen years ago) in the corner of the restaurant playing the Bruce Willis flop Hostage, which was a bit of a head-scratcher.  This wouldn’t have been so strange had the TV just been tuned to TBS or something, but nope — it was a DVD.  Someone (the owner, presumably) had actually gone to the trouble of buying Hostage on DVD, which is pretty bizarre.

I looked at the menu, which is posted fast-food style on the wall behind the counter; if nothing else, this place definitely wasn’t overpriced.  The hamburger combo comes with a six ounce burger, a generous serving of fries, and a can of soda.  The price?  $6.15.  It’s almost suspiciously cheap.

I ordered the combo, and within a few minutes it was ready.  I asked for the burger topped with pickles, tomato, lettuce, and mayo, and I was good to go.

The first thing I noticed about the burger was the aroma.  This is a meatloaf-style hamburger, which was quite apparent from the garlicky smell wafting from the patty.

I took a bite.  Even by the standards of a meatloaf-style burger, this was aggressively spiced, with a strong garlicky taste that pretty much slaps you in the face.

It also had a sausage-like texture, with the beefy flavour thoroughly eliminated by the strong seasoning.  The taste and texture were so far removed from what you’d associate with beef, that I’m pretty sure that this could have been made out of ground pork without the taste or texture being particularly affected.

It wasn’t bad, I guess.  It was juicy and reasonably tasty for what it was, though it was pretty much a complete failure as a hamburger.  I mean, proponents of the meatloaf-style burger will argue that the additional ingredients should serve to compliment the beefiness of the burger, which certainly wasn’t the case here.  Whatever beefiness this (probably low-quality) beef had was completely annihilated by the other ingredients, which makes it kind of hard to argue that it was any kind of success as a hamburger.

As for the fries, they were kind of bad despite being fresh out of the frier.  They were obviously frozen, and they were completely unsalted, resulting in some seriously bland fries.

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Apache Burgers

Location: 5236 Dundas Street West, Etobicoke
Website: None

Apache Burgers is one of those really old school burger places that’s been around forever, looking about the same and serving up the same food for decades on end.  People tend to get pretty nostalgic about places they’ve been visiting (and food they’ve been eating) since they were children.  Which probably helps to explain why this place is frequently named as one of the best burger joints in the GTA.

Apache Burgers is fine.  My burger was perfectly edible.  But one of the best places in the GTA?  Not by a long shot.

I arrived just before 1:00 PM on a weekday, and the place was fairly crowded.  Unlike most burger joints downtown where you’ll mostly find twenty-somethings, the demographic here was pretty varied: families, teenagers, workers on their lunch break, and an older couple who have probably been getting burgers here for years.  The place does well, no doubt about it.

It’s a pretty standard layout: order your burger, pay, wait, then pick your toppings from behind the glass.  The whole restaurant was pretty clean and not run-down at all, so I’d imagine that they’ve renovated recently.

I elected to go with the Apache Burger, since it’s generally hard to go wrong ordering a restaurant’s namesake item.  The Apache Burger is basically a double cheeseburger: two beef patties, two slices of American cheese.  I topped it with pickles, tomatoes and mayonnaise (which you’ve probably noticed are my go-to burger toppings).

The burger is not bad.  It’s not good, certainly, but it’s not bad.  The quality of the meat itself is fairly mediocre, and certainly no better than a fast food place like Wendy’s, so how Apache became a burger joint of note is a complete mystery to me.  It’s not even cheap — my Apache burger was $6.79, and with just a small drink and no sides it came up to about ten bucks.

Apache uses prefabricated patties for their burgers, though they are of a slightly higher quality than your average frozen burger.  They don’t have that telltale chewy texture that you typically get from a frozen burger, so that definitely puts them head-and-shoulders above Johnny’s in the great Johnny’s-versus-Apache debate.  But being better than Johnny’s is not exactly a tall mountain to climb.

The patties also had that vaguely gamy, somewhat unpleasant taste that you associate with lower quality beef, but they were basically okay.  They weren’t too dry, and they had a decent texture to them.

The cheese was gooey and fully melted, which was a definite plus.  The other toppings were fine, though the guy who assembled my burger was a bit heavy-handed with the mayo.

The bun is a little too big and bready.  It’s overpowering.  It basically worked in my double burger; the single, however (which is what I ordered the last time I was here), is completely dominated by the large bun.

“Meh” is a good word to describe Apache Burgers.  It’s fine, I guess, but if you go there expecting something above average, you will be sorely disappointed.  Personally, given the caliber of the burgers served here, I’d sooner just go down the street and order from Wendy’s.  At least it’s a bit cheaper.

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The Burger’s Priest

Location: 1636 Queen Street East, Toronto

In many of the reviews that I’ve written thus far, I’ve complained about the burgers being too dry.  I started to wonder: was I making that complaint too much?  I doubted myself.  Am I insane?  Is a burger not supposed to be as juicy as I think it’s supposed to be?  Have I been unfairly maligning hamburgers that are, in reality, acceptably juicy and not — as I perceive them to be — egregiously dry?

I started to have what amounts to a burger-lover’s existential crisis.  Maybe the perfect hamburger, as it exists in my mind, is just not feasible in the real world.  Maybe my standards are astronomically high, and a good burger is supposed to be a bit on the dry side.  I started to try to justify it in my mind: maybe dryness helps add character to a burger.  Maybe dryness, in the way that it tends to suck the moisture out of your mouth, makes you hyper-aware of the meat you’re eating.  Maybe the increased effort it takes to chew and swallow dry beef only increases your appreciation of the meal at hand.

Basically, Toronto’s awful burger scene started to mess with my head.

Thank God for the Burger’s Priest.  This is a place that opened up a couple of years ago to immediate hype.  I instantly knew I had to go there, and yet it took me two long years to actually go.  In the meantime, having heard nothing but effusive hype about the place, I was afraid that my expectations were getting unreasonably high.

I’m happy to say that aside from one fairly major caveat, the place has lived up to my expectations and then some.

An aside: I must apologize for this photo.  One of my food blog pet peeves is the ubiquitous photo of a half-eaten burger being held in the photographer’s hand.   I don’t want to see your stupid hand, or your gross half-eaten meal.  Sadly, the folks at the Burger’s Priest didn’t have any knives they could give me, so I had no way of feasibly cutting my burger in half.  And yet I had to show you the inside of this glorious hamburger.  So here we are.

Moving on.  You’ve probably heard that the restaurant is small.  It’s smaller than you’ve heard.  About the size of a large walk-in closet, this is a take-out place only.  There are a few stools, but you’re probably better off taking your food outside and sitting down on one of the grassy patches in the vicinity of the restaurant.  Of course, this will be a challenge once it starts to get really cold, but right now the weather is just too nice for me to even think about the ugly unpleasantness of the Canadian winter.

I walked in, and it being an off time (around 2:00), I was able to immediately order a Double Double from the vaguely surly woman behind the register (I’d be a bit surly too if I were crammed into that tiny space with four sweaty cooks) and within a few minutes, I had it in my hands.

I opened the bag, and rivulets of grease and burger juices began to flow from my burger.  This was a glorious burger to behold: glistening, with a gorgeously browned crust that can only be the product of a burger chef who really knows what he’s doing.  The two patties each had a slice of bright orange American cheese (a must for a true, classic cheeseburger) that were gooey and melted.

Just looking at it, I knew it was going to be a great hamburger.

And it was; but let me get that big caveat out of the way first.   The patties were excessively salty.  At first I thought that perhaps they were using a overly-salty brand of American cheese, but my two dining companions both elected to go cheese-free, and they too found the saltiness issue to be problematic.

Aside from that, this was pretty damn close to burger perfection.  It’s telling that despite the oppressive saltiness of the beef (it really was quite salty) I still enjoyed the hell out of this burger.

It’s a gloriously, magnificently, decadently juicy burger.  One bite and I immediately knew that my burger crisis was completely unfounded.  Yes, a burger can and should be juicy.  I held the proof right there in my hands.

The medium-well patties had a great, beefy flavour (which was, sadly, partially obscured by the saltiness) which was only magnified by that amazing crust.   Seriously, take a closer look at that crust and tell me that you don’t want to eat that burger right this minute.

The gooey cheese complimented the burger perfectly; the other toppings were standard burger fare, and worked quite well.

Like the American cheese, the soft, squishy bun may turn off those who have become accustomed to fancier burgers.  Those people are wrong.  This is a classic bun for a classic burger; it provides just the right amount of heft without getting in the way, and gives the burger a perfect bun-to-beef ratio.

The medium-cut fries were golden brown with a robust potatoey flavour.  They were a bit soggy, but that may be because I didn’t start eating them until after I had finished my burger.

If it weren’t for the over-salted patties, I’d easily give the Burger’s Priest a perfect score.  Alas, as much as it pains me to do so, I cannot give a perfect rating to such a salty hamburger — despite the fact that I’m fairly certain that this visit was just an aberration, and that the patties normally have a reasonable amount of salt.  However, I’ll definitely be going back at some point soon.  If my suspicions are correct, I’ll update this post and change the score.

Update (7/27/2011) – I just went back.  This time I got a double burger with no cheese and my usual toppings (mayo, pickles, tomato) just so I’d be sure about the saltiness issue.  It was perfect.  The burger had just enough salt to highlight its absolutely amazing, almost ridiculously beefy flavour.  It was just as juicy as last time.  This was a burger so beefy and so juicy that it puts every other Toronto burger joint to shame.   Seriously — every Toronto burger joint proprietor should be forced to eat a burger here so they can see how a burger is supposed to taste.  It’s easily the best burger I’ve had in Toronto, and probably one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  I can now happily bump this up to the perfect rating it so richly deserves.

Update 2 (7/29/2012) – I felt like I would be remiss if I didn’t update this review to note that, on my last couple of visits, the aforementioned ridiculously beefy flavour has been greatly diminished.  It’s still a great burger, and still a very strong contender for best in the city, but it is no longer anywhere close to the best burger I’ve ever had.

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The Yellow Griffin Pub

Location: 2202 Bloor Street West, Toronto

The Yellow Griffin Pub isn’t a burger joint per se, though they do take pains to make sure you know that they serve over 35 different burgers, which make up the bulk of their menu…  so basically, it is a burger joint; it just calls itself a pub.

Semantics aside, sitting down and looking at their menu is an overwhelming experience.  There are an absurd amount of burgers to choose from, which range from relatively simple to completely over-the-top.  After some deliberation I elected to go with the English Breakfast Burger: “Buckingham baked beans, HP Sauce and crowned with a royal fried egg.”

The menu proudly proclaims that the burger will take 20 minutes to cook, which seems like an insane amount of cooking time to get an eight ounce burger to well done.

The burger arrived looking very promising, with the top bun askew and the toppings and sizable patty in full view.  Thinking that this could very well be a great hamburger, I started to get excited.

I took a bite.  My excitement quickly turned to befuddlement.

This is a strange burger: it’s ridiculously dry, with a weird texture and no discernible beefy flavour.  That’s not to say that the patty is flavourless — it has a flavour, but a funky one that I can’t quite put my finger on.  I briefly thought that perhaps they had given me a bison burger by mistake, but I’ve had a bison burger before and it certainly didn’t taste like this.

The texture is almost reminiscent of kibbe, an Arabic dish in which ground beef is mixed in with bulgur (a grain) and other spices.  I’m not sure what they’re putting in the patty, but there’s almost certainly a filler of some sort.  It’s quite off-putting, texturally.  I think the beef is also probably ground too finely, contributing to the odd texture.

Even the toppings were kind of a miss.  The “Buckingham baked beans” were completely dry, and basically just tasted like they took a can of plain beans, dried them out very thoroughly, and then dumped them on the burger.  I Googled the term “Buckingham baked beans,” thinking that perhaps this is a euphemism for plain beans without any sauce or seasoning, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Odd.

The fried egg was fine.  It’s hard to mess up a fried egg unless you overcook it, and though the yolk was completely solid (I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not), the egg wasn’t overcooked.  As for the HP sauce, if it was present, it was applied so sparingly that I couldn’t taste it.

The bun was a little too dense and a bit oversized in relation to the patty, but it was decent enough.

I think special attention should go to the sides, because they were the clear highlight of the meal.  One of the choices was fried pickles, which you don’t see very often in Toronto.  Of course, I had to order them.  I’ve had fried pickles a few times before, but never this good.  The crunchy, flavourful breading works perfectly with the zingy, crisp pickle.  It also comes with a creamy dipping sauce that compliments the pickles perfectly.   I would probably return if only to get the pickles again; they’re that good.

My dining companion ordered the onion rings, of which I sampled one, and which was definitely above average.

If the Yellow Griffin Pub were just a standard pub, the bizarrely awful burger would be easy to shrug off as something that’s just present to fill out the menu and give people something to eat while they drink their beer.  But burgers are clearly front and centre here.  For a place that purports to be serious about burgers, it’s kind of stunning how spectacularly the Yellow Griffin Pub misfires when it comes to their hamburgers.

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