Toronto Life’s New List of the 25 Best Burgers in the City is a Joke

Incendiary headline, I know.  Here’s why.

Toronto Life recently unveiled a brand new list of the 25 best burgers in the city, to compliment the one they published back in 2012.  I was looking through it the other day, and something caught my eye: the Opera House Grill’s Shaggy burger — Toronto Life’s 25th best burger in the city — looked suspiciously like it came out of a box.

I figured that couldn’t possibly be the case, but I went there just to check.

The burger was indeed made with a frozen, industrially-produced patty.  You know, the ones with a rubbery, hot-dog-like texture and a generic, vaguely unpleasant meaty flavour?  Yeah, one of those.  It’s very close if not identical to the ones they serve at distinguished eateries like Cineplex movie theatres and El Furniture Warehouse (the restaurant where everything costs five bucks).

That’s one of the best burgers in the city, apparently.

This is the equivalent of ranking the best movies of all time and including Paul Blart: Mall Cop, or ranking the best bands and including the Baha Men, or ranking the best shows and including Suddenly Susan.

Bringing this back to food, it would be like including a dish sauced with Prego in a list of the best bowls of pasta in the city, or including a Pinty’s product among the best fried chicken, or including Taco Bell among the best taco joints.

I’m belabouring the point, but I feel like I need to make why this is so egregious and galling to me crystal clear.

I’d imagine that the author of the list was won over by the impressively voluminous pile of toppings — tasty stuff like griddled onions, bacon, and onion rings —  and didn’t know enough or care enough to realize that the burger patty itself (i.e. the entire reason to eat a hamburger) was so shoddy.

Of course, publications like Toronto Life have always been more about the toppings than anything else — in fact, the cursory, one-sentence-at-best treatment that the patty gets in most mainstream burger reviews is a big part of why I started this blog in the first place.  But even by that standard, this is absurd.

I’m a burger snob, I know.  You’re probably thinking, “what the hell is he getting so worked up about??” But to me, once you’ve called something that I can buy in the freezer section at No Frills one of the best burgers in the city, that’s that.  You’ve lost all credibility.

So yeah, I’m done, Toronto Life. I guess I’ll miss out on your next hot tip: this little place called Manchu Wok that serves the best Chinese food in the city.

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.

My Ten Burger Commandments

As a way of introduction, I thought this might help you to know where I’m coming from when I’m reviewing a hamburger. These are ten rules that I believe anyone who serves a burger should live by:

1) Thou shall only use high quality beef that has been ground fresh.
Do I even need to elaborate? Grinding quality beef on site results in a tastier burger that can be safely cooked to rare, since you know where the beef is coming from — unlike industrially-produced ground beef, which could come from multiple cows and potentially have been washed with ammonia(!…!!!).

2) Thou shall never serve a frozen, industrially-produced patty.
This seems like such a no-brainer that I shouldn’t even have to include it — yet here we are. I can see if a place like Swiss Chalet serves a frozen burger, because obviously their specialty is chicken, and a hamburger is only present to fill out the menu. I can’t imagine that Swiss Chalet serves more than a burger or two per night (though even then, a fresh hamburger is so easy to prepare that this is barely an acceptable excuse).

But if your establishment has the word “burger” in its name and you’re still serving a frozen burger? Seriously, just pack it in right now. You’re a waste of space. Johnny’s, I’m looking at you.

3) Thou shall not use beef that is too lean.
This is especially important in Toronto, where there is a “law” that hamburgers must be cooked well past medium (whether or not this is a law or merely a guideline is a matter of some debate). A hamburger needs a decent amount of fat (the conventional wisdom is somewhere in the ballpark of 20 percent) for maximum deliciousness and juiciness. There’s nothing worse than biting into what should be a tasty burger only to realize that it’s about as juicy as a stale saltine. A burger with a decent fat content, even when cooked to well done, should remain reasonably juicy. An overcooked, too-lean hamburger is a crime against humanity. It sucks all the moisture out of your mouth and makes you question why you like burgers in the first place.

4) Thou shall not overcook the burger.
This ties in with the above. Nothing can save an overcooked burger. Nothing.

5) Thou shall season your hamburger with salt and pepper — nothing else.
If you’re using good quality beef — and you should be — then all you need is a little salt and pepper to help highlight the beefiness of the patty, and you’re good to go. No other flavours are necessary (aside from condiments, of course). That brings me to…

5) Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger.
It is almost absurd how many burger joints in Toronto break this commandment. A hamburger is the definition of simplicity, with only two primary ingredients: beef (seasoned with salt and pepper), and bun. That’s it. Once you start adding aggressive flavours like onion, garlic, and strong spices, you completely overwhelm that primal beefiness that makes a good hamburger so appealing. What you end up with is more akin to a meatloaf sandwich than a real hamburger. Plus, the texture of the burger often winds up disconcertingly sausage-like (probably because, among other spices, salt has been mixed in with the beef — a hamburger no-no)

6) Thou shall not use a bun that is larger in diameter than the patty, nor shall you use a bun that is so large and/or bready that it overwhelms the beef, throwing off the beef-to-bun ratio.
The bun is there to compliment the beef, not vice-versa. No exceptions. A thinner patty can easily be overwhelmed by a too-big bun, which is a sure-fire way to ruin what should otherwise be a delicious hamburger.

7) Thou shall not automatically call any small hamburger a slider.
A slider is not simply a tiny hamburger; it’s actually a very specific way of preparing a hamburger, generally by cooking a very thin patty atop a bed of sauteed onions, allowing the burger and bun to essentially cook by steam. Real sliders are most notably served at American chains like White Castle and Krystal.

Its diminutive size is merely one element of what makes a slider a slider — not its defining characteristic.

9) Thou shall only use beef.
Turkey “burgers.” Buffalo “burgers.” Lamb “burgers.” Tuna “burgers.” All interesting, potentially delicious meals. And all not hamburgers. Calling a sandwich made with buffalo meat a hamburger would be like calling a sandwich made with cashew butter and sliced strawberries a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s similar, sure, but it’s not the same thing. At all.

10) Thou shall serve burgers immediately after cooking, and not allow them to sit out under a heat lamp, or in those weird drawers they have at McDonald’s.
(Allowing, of course, for the patty to rest for a few minutes for the juices to settle.) Again, this is a simple one: fresh food = good, stale food = bad. I would much, much rather wait a few minutes than be served some burger that’s been sitting under a lamp for who-knows-how-long.