On Toronto Life’s List of the 25 Best Burgers in the City

Toronto Life posted its list of the 25 best burgers in the city a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a so-so list that’s mostly acceptable, though it does have a handful of questionable choices (Apache?  Really?).  It’s hard to fault the author of the list, however; I think the mediocrity of the list is, to a large degree, a reflection on Toronto’s still-burgeoning burger scene.

Yes, despite my positive outlook in my Slab Burgers review, things are not all wine and roses in Toronto.

Things are probably no better in any other Canadian city. As ubiquitous as they are, I think burgers are ingrained in the American culture in a way that they’re simply not here in Canada. It seems odd, given how simple they are, but hamburgers are an American food, and we just don’t have the same relationship with them here in Canada that they do in the States.

Don’t get me wrong — I think in the last five years or so, Toronto has moved forward by leaps and bounds when it comes to burgers. But if you look at Toronto Life’s list, there is an abundance of fancy-pants burgers, and it saddens me that most of the best hamburgers in Toronto are apparently made by upscale restaurants. Of course a restaurant with the talent and resources (and the pricing) of a Harbord Room or a Nota Bene is going to be able to make a great burger. That should be a given.

What concerns me is how few burger joints of note there are in the GTA. If you wanted to recommend absolute can’t-miss burger joints to a visitor to our city, what would you recommend? Burger’s Priest, Holy Chuck, and… that’s pretty much it.  There are a lot of good burger joints in the city these days, but very few that are worth going out of your way to try.

Whereas if you go to pretty much any big American city, there are dozens of unassuming diners and burger joints that, if they were to open in Toronto, would immediately be one of the best places in the city (and that serve up burgers that cost something like half of what burger places in Toronto charge). Even American fast food, setting aside the big guys, outshines something like 95% of the burger joints in Toronto — places like In-N-Out, Steak and Shake, Culver’s, Shake Shack, etc., all consistently put out better burgers than almost anywhere in Toronto.

Not to mention the burger styles that go completely unrepresented here. I’m thinking, most notably, of sliders — real sliders. Though the term has pretty much come to mean a small burger, a slider is a very specific (and delicious) way of cooking a burger that is completely lacking in Toronto.

I do, however, think that things are heading in the right direction, and that Torontonians finally seem to realize that a burger can be more than a flavourless puck of meat or an overseasoned meatloaf sandwich that you cram into your mouth when you need something cheap on the go. I think if things continue the way they’re going, maybe in something like five years, Toronto will be able to compete with cities in the States.  But we’re not there yet.

The Stockyards

: 699 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto
Website: http://www.thestockyards.ca/

It seems to be the general consensus that for griddle-cooked, fast-food-style hamburgers, the big three are The Burger’s Priest, Holy Chuck, and The Stockyards.  In fact, there is a 152-post thread at Chowhound whose sole purpose is to compare the merits of these three establishments.  Obviously, this review needed to be done.

I’ve actually had the burgers here a couple of times before this visit, including once with the express purpose of reviewing it for this blog.  However, I lazily held off on writing the review, and before I knew it so much time had passed that it was too hazy in my mind to write a proper review.

Every time I’ve been here the burger has been very good, but a little bit too dry to be truly great.  But considering the way some people rapturously swoon over this place, I had hoped that I had merely had bad luck on my prior visits.

The Stockyards is a small restaurant — it has a handful of seats along the counter, a few by the opposing wall, and a few by the window.  I’ve come here before only to find the place packed, so keep that in mind if you’re planning a visit.

This time, unlike my other visits, I snagged myself a prime seat by the counter, right in front of where the grill-lady was doing her thing.  It was actually kind of hypnotic, watching her prepare several burgers — placing a ball of beef on the very hot griddle, smashing it down with a circular device seemingly made for that one purpose, letting it sit to develop a rich crust, then flipping it over.  The woman obviously knew what she was doing; her technique was impeccable, and watching her so skilfully prepare these burgers was making me hungry.

But — yes, there is a but, and a fairly big one — looking at the beef, it was clear that something was amiss.  The uncooked ground beef was red, with just a few flecks of white.  I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to the fat percentage in hamburger meat, the absolute bare minimum is fifteen percent.  Twenty percent, or even thirty, is preferable.

This looked more like ten percent, if that.  It might have even been five.  It was even leaner than the ground beef you typically find at the supermarket, which itself is too lean to make ideal hamburger meat. Suddenly my previous too-dry burgers made perfect sense.  Beef this lean will absolutely never yield a particularly juicy burger, even with the most skilled cook in the world behind the griddle.

My burger came looking quite beautiful.  Glistening, with an awe-inspiring dark brown crust, it looked pretty much exactly how you want a burger to look.  I took a bite, and that perfect crust combined with what was obviously high quality beef  — seasoned with just a bit of salt — resulted in a richly flavourful burger.  But it was dry.  How couldn’t it have been, with that beef?  It was cooked all the way to well done, which obviously didn’t help, but it wasn’t overcooked (though you could make the argument that even a perfectly-cooked well done burger is inherently overcooked).

It’s actually kind of tragic, because with fattier beef, this burger would easily be a contender for best in the city.  Hands down.  Everything else is exactly how it should be: the amazing cooking technique, the quality of the beef, the fresh sesame seed bun (Dempster’s, if you’re curious), the toppings.  It’s all, as Guy Fieri would say, on point.

(Did I really just drop a Guy Fieri reference into a review?)

But it’s dry — so, so dry, and despite this it is unarguably a very good burger.  It saddens me, because with just one relatively minor change, it could be so great.  Alas.

As for the fries, they were quite tasty if just a tad overcooked.  However, the portion was absurdly large.  After eating my fill I had barely even made a dent in the voluminous pile.  I know it seems odd to complain about getting too much value, but no reasonable person could possibly finish this many French fries, leading to guaranteed food waste.

The Stockyards - the outside The Stockyards - the restaurant The Stockyards - the burger The Stockyards - the burger
The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder on Urbanspoon

Slab Burgers

47 Charles Street West, Toronto

I have to say, the current abundance of quality burger joints in Toronto really warms my heart.  I remember a time, not more than a few years ago,  when finding a decent burger in the city was quite a challenge — particularly if you didn’t feel like trekking to a fancier place like Bymark and paying a premium.   Johnny’s and Apache frequently topped “best burgers in the city” lists.  If you wanted a fast-food-style, griddle cooked burger, your only option was low-quality chain fare like McDonald’s or Wendy’s.  All in all, it was a grim time to be a burger fan.

Fast forward to present day.  Suddenly, it’s an embarrassment of riches.  Good burgers are easy to find.  Burger joints seem to be opening on a regular basis, and many of them are quite good.  Many people are calling this a fad; I disagree.  There’s nothing quite like a good burger, and Torontonians are only just now realizing this.  Go to any big city in the States, and you’ll find any number of high quality burger joints flipping burgers and feeding the hungry masses.  Toronto used to be a burger dead-zone, and it’s only now catching up to other big cities — and there’s work to be done yet.  So no, burgers are not a fad, and they’re not a flash in the pan.  It just took us a while to realize their worth.

But I digress, so let me get to the topic at hand: Slab Burgers.

It’s an unassuming location, tucked away in an office building just off of Bay.  It’s an oddly designed space, with a couple of tables next to the register, and a wall separating a narrow strip with a few more tables.  They’ve also built a barrier, maybe 6 feet tall, around the area where they cook the burgers, blocking the burger cookery from view.  It’s an odd choice that made me wonder if they have something to hide.

The menu will look pretty familiar to anyone who’s visited Five Guys — the offerings are pretty much identical, with the addition of a chicken sandwich.  I ordered the four ounce burger as a combo with fries and a drink (and like at Five Guys, you order your toppings as you order the burger).  It’s a pretty solid deal at $6.99.

I sat down, and within a few minutes my burger arrived, topped with pickles, tomato and mayo.  I have to admit that my expectations were not very high — perhaps it was the Five Guys copycat menu, or the odd design of the restaurant, but I wasn’t expecting much.  Imagine my surprise, then, as I bit into what turned out to be a damn good burger.

Let me get my one caveat out of the way first: the bun was too big.  I suspect that it might have worked better in the double burger, and it wasn’t quite as bad as it looks in the picture (it was very soft and fresh, and aside from its size it was a good bun), but it was definitely too big.

Disproportionate bun aside, this was a winner from top to bottom.  The beef was clearly fresh and of an above-average quality, and was therefore quite flavourful.  It was juicy, and had a decent amount of crust from the griddle.  With the exception of the questionable bun, the whole thing was very Five Guys-esque — but Five Guys at its best, since that place tends to be a little bit spotty.  It wasn’t a “OMYGOD you must try this burger IMMEDIATELY” burger, but it was damn solid, and one I’d happily eat again if I found myself in the area.

As for the fries, they were top shelf: perfectly cooked and flavourful, I wasn’t very hungry and planned on only eating a handful, but once I started I could not stop.   I cleaned the plate.

Slab Burgers - the restaurant Slab Burgers - the menu Slab Burgers - the inside Slab Burgers - fresh beef Slab Burgers - the burger Slab Burgers - the burger
Slab Burgers on Urbanspoon

Brown Bag Sandwiches

Location: 377 Church Street, Toronto
Website: http://www.brownbagsandwiches.ca/

Some Eastern philosophies state that there should always be balance; if there is good in the world, there must be bad to balance it out.  So it goes, then, that if a burger joint as delicious as Holy Chuck or The Burger’s Priest exists, there must also exist a place that is as bad as those restaurants are good.  Enter Brown Bag Sandwiches.

No, this is not a dedicated burger joint.  It is a sandwich shop — however, they do have a kitchen and a griddle and all of the tools they would need to make a delicious burger, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to expect something halfway decent.  Moreover, the hamburger is the first item on the menu, so it’s clearly not something that only exists to pad out their selection.  It’s front-and-centre, and therefore fair game for scrutiny.  And scrutinize I shall.

I got the burger as a combo with a can of soda and a very generous order of fries, and it came up to about ten bucks, so it’s reasonably priced.

I ordered my combo, waited a few minutes for the burger to be ready (there are a handful of tables in the small restaurant for those who want to eat in), then asked for my hamburger to be topped with pickles, tomato, and chipotle mayo.

The burger is oblong, presumably to accommodate their choice of bread.  It’s a little bit unorthodox, but I suppose that there is no rule that says a hamburger must be round.

You’ve no doubt gathered as much from the opening of this review, but this was not a good hamburger.  In fact, I would say that it was a terrible hamburger.  I’m not even sure that I need to write this review; if a picture is worth a thousand words, then I believe that the picture above communicates all that needs to be said about this burger.  It looks gross, to put it bluntly, and it tasted just as bad as it looks.

It’s a meatloaf burger.  Though this isn’t my favourite style of hamburger, I have no problem recognizing a good meatloaf burger when I see one.  Again, this was not a good burger.  For one thing, it was way overcooked, and the too-lean, impossibly dense beef was egregiously dry.  Sucks-the-moisture-out-of-your-mouth dry. Sahara Desert dry.  Dry.

Even by the standards of a meatloaf burger it was overseasoned, obliterating whatever beefy flavour the meat might have once had.  Then there was the very crusty, toasted bun; this might work okay in some of their other sandwiches, but it was wildly inappropriate as a hamburger bun.  It was completely overwhelming and far too substantial for the task at hand.

Any flavour that the chipotle mayonnaise might have had was annihilated by the strong patty, so I can’t speak to its success as a condiment.  The tomato and pickles were fine.

The burger actually reminded me a lot of the hamburger I had at BBQ Express. This is not a flattering comparison, to put it mildly.  I should also note that my dining companion had the fried chicken sandwich and was similarly unimpressed, so the quality of the food (or lack thereof) was not restricted to the hamburger.

The one redeeming quality of the meal were the French fries.   Though they were a tad overcooked, they were crispy, well-seasoned and delicious.  They came with a side  of ketchup, which they make in-house, and which was pretty fantastic.  Bright and tomatoey, and far less sweet than typical ketchup, it proved to be surprisingly addictive when combined with the above-average fries.

Brown Bag Sandwiches - the restaurant Brown Bag Sandwiches - the menu Brown Bag Sandwiches - the dining room Brown Bag Sandwiches - the burger Brown Bag Sandwiches - the burger Brown Bag Sandwiches - the fries
Brown Bag Sandwiches on Urbanspoon