Jack Astor’s

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Location1900 The Queensway, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.jackastors.com/

This is going to be a short one.  It’s hard to write all that much about a burger that so conclusively straddles that middle ground between good and bad, and that is exactly where this burger falls.  “Meh” is pretty much the perfect word to describe it.

Jack Astor’s is a casual chain restaurant, and as expected from a restaurant such as this, there are burgers on the menu.  I wasn’t expecting much, and I got pretty much exactly what I expected:  a perfectly edible hamburger that is almost instantly forgettable.

I ordered “The Classic,” which is their no-frills burger topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion (which I removed), and mayo.

The burger was fine.  This being a chain place, I had feared that they might serve a frozen burger or a meatloaf burger, but this was thankfully not the case.

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There are a couple of fairly significant issues that keep this burger firmly in the “meh” category.  First, and most predictably, the burger is too dry.  I know I sound like a broken record here; apparently wanting a hamburger to be juicy in Toronto is an unreasonable request, which is actually kind of maddening. But no, I’m not going to get into another rant about overcooking and acceptable fat percentages.  Not for you, Jack Astor’s.  Not for you.

And yes, the burger is overcooked, which just compounds the dryness issue.  The grilled patty is a bit over-charred, resulting in a burger that is a bit too crunchy in spots.  It’s also a little bit too tightly packed and dense, which makes it a tough chew.

The second issue is that it’s a bit bland.  The beef is obviously not the greatest, and while it tastes okay, it doesn’t taste like much.  Add in the fact that if it was seasoned with salt and pepper, I couldn’t taste it, and you’ve got a pretty bland burger.

Otherwise, the toppings were fine, and the fresh brioche bun, though slightly over-toasted, suited the burger well.

All in all, it’s not a bad hamburger — it’s just aggressively unmemorable.

As for the fries, though a tad on the soggy side, they were otherwise quite good.

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South St. Burger Co.

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Location1020 Islington Avenue, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.southstburger.com/

South St. Burger Co. is a fast casual burger chain (“fast casual” denoting a fast food restaurant with — supposedly — better food than a place like McDonald’s or Burger King, and prices to match).  I want to like South St. — I really do.  I can appreciate that they’re a chain with loftier goals than, say, Hero Certified Burgers, who use the absolute cheapest, most odious frozen patties they can find.

South St. proudly proclaim that they use only fresh beef, and kudos to them for that.  Sadly, although this is a step in the right direction, there is more to making a good burger than simply using fresh beef.

The restaurant has a pretty standard set up — you order your burger, wait for it to be ready, then pick from the toppings behind the glass.

Actually, those toppings warrant mention: though I went simple with just mayo, tomato, and pickles, they have a fairly impressive selection, including different types of mayo (garlic, wasabi, or curry), relishes, and chutney.

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I actually remember liking this place a lot more when it first opened — I think the quality used to be higher.  On top of this, South St. came to Toronto slightly before the burger trend hit this city hard, when a place serving fresh, non-frozen, non-meatloaf burgers was much more of a novelty.

The grilled, well done burger is very, very dry.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll note that they’re clearly using beef that is way too lean.  The patty is very tightly packed and very dense, making the whole thing a bit of a jaw workout.

It’s also clear that the beef just isn’t that great, as it has that vaguely unpleasant taste that you associate with lower quality beef.

The bun was nothing too special, but it was fine, and the pickles, tomato, and mayo were pretty standard.  I suspect to make a South St. burger worth eating, you need to be really aggressive with their more unique condiments.  My dining companion got a variety of toppings on his burger, and he enjoyed it.

As for the fries, they’re made by New York Fries, and are expectedly good.   I asked for the curry mayo and the garlic mayo on the side for dipping, which I would strongly recommend. The curry mayo in particular was quite delicious, and really kicked up the already tasty fries.

South St. Burger Co. - the outside South St. Burger Co. - the menu South St. Burger Co. - the restaurant South St. Burger Co. - the restaurant South St. Burger Co. - the burger and fries South St. Burger Co. - the burger South St. Burger Co. - the burger
South St. Burger Co. on Urbanspoon

Bier Markt


Location199 North Queen Street, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.thebiermarkt.com/

Bier Markt is an upscale Toronto-area chain, akin to Milestones or Earl’s.  They’ve recently expanded into the west-end with an Etobicoke location, which is the one that I checked out.  I went on a Sunday afternoon and they had a musician performing live, which thankfully wasn’t too loud, as I didn’t particularly feel like having to yell and strain to hear my dining companion (how much of an old curmudgeon am I, exactly?).

The menu features two burgers: the Classic Burger, and the T-Bone Burger, which is made with Kobe beef.  The T-Bone Burger is 24 dollars (!), so I went with the Classic Burger, which isn’t cheap itself at 15 dollars.

No, this place isn’t exactly the best deal in the city.

I wasn’t in a beer mood, so I just went for a soda, but the place has an impressive beer list (over 150, according to the website), which is probably one of its bigger selling points.

The burger comes topped with lettuce, tomato, onion (which I removed), and pickles, with two small ramekins of ketchup and mustard on the side.

The grilled burger was (of course) cooked to well done, and had a pleasantly beefy flavour.  Clearly, they’re using above-average meat.  As well, the burger had some char from the grill, which added a good amount of flavour and texture.

Sadly, there’s a big caveat here: what should have been a great burger was marred by excessive dryness.

Of course, cooking a burger to well done never helps in the juiciness department, but even then it’s clear that the beef Bier Markt is using is far too lean.  The menu specifies sirloin, which if true does explain a lot.  Sirloin is an exceptionally lean cut of beef, and thus is completely inappropriate for use in a hamburger.

I’m tempted to go off on a rant about how a hamburger needs a decent amount of fat to be really good, but I think I’ve done that in at least half of the reviews I’ve written for this blog, so I’ll just point you to the archives.  Seriously: I love Toronto, but an alarming amount of people here just have no conception of what makes a hamburger great.  It’s frustrating, but what can you do?  Ultimately it’s an American food, and we’re not in America.

As for the rest of the burger: the toppings were all quite good, and the fresh brioche bun complimented the patty perfectly.

All the components were there — good toppings, good quality beef, good cooking technique, and a nice, fresh bun.  If only they were using fattier beef, this could have been an amazing burger.  C’est la vie.

Oddly, the burger came with “root vegetable crisps” on the side instead of fries.  They were essentially like thickly-cut chips, and were a bit bland, but were satisfyingly crunchy and kind of addictive.

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Lick’s


Location1585 The Queensway, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.lickshomeburgers.com/

If you live in Ontario (and since you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you do), odds are that you’ve been to Lick’s.  They’re fairly omnipresent, and they’ve been around for ages.  At one time, a visit to Lick’s meant the promise of above-average burgers in a casual, fast-food style setting.  Though they’ve always served meatloaf-style burgers (not my favourite), they were, at one time, pretty darn good.  Their success was justified.

That was a long time ago.

I’m not sure about the exact moment of their decline, but it probably would have been at some point around when they started selling frozen Lick’s-branded patties in supermarkets.  These frozen patties, I would imagine, are the same ones they serve in their restaurants.  And like all frozen patties, they’re not very good.

At the very least, the employees weren’t singing.  For those of you fortunate enough to have never been subjected to this aural assault, the employees at Lick’s used to sing ’50s pop songs while they cooked up the burgers and fries.  Loudly.  And very far off key.  It was unpleasant enough that it made me second-guess going to Lick’s, even back when it was good.  Thankfully, they seem to have ended this policy, as my ears have been unmolested on my last couple of visits.

I ordered a homeburger combo (their standard hamburger) with fries and a soda, waited, picked out my toppings from behind the glass, and sat down.

What’s there to say about the current Lick’s hamburger?  It’s a frozen burger and it tastes like a frozen burger. I could end the review right there, but I will say a few words.

It’s a strongly salty burger with that distinctive rubbery chewiness you’d expect from a patty of its ilk.  To its credit, it does have a slightly beefier flavour than you’d expect, though it is mostly drowned out by the hot dog-esque chewiness/saltiness and the other spices.

I ordered the burger with pickles, tomatoes, and Guk, a mayonnaise-based sauce that Lick’s also sells in supermarkets.  The sauce is fine, though its flavour is overwhelmed by the strong patty.  The toasted sesame seed bun was fresh, and complimented the burger well.

The fries, like the burger, have gone downhill.  Though they were once above average, they’re now pale and lifeless — bland and vaguely unpleasant.  I ate a few and felt no need to subject myself to more.

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Royal Meats Barbeque


Location: 710 Kipling Avenue, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.royalmeats.ca/

I debated whether or not to even write this review.  Royal Meats serves a burger that is, without question, untraditional.  There’s a quote from an interview with Aaron Sorkin, of all people, that seems apropos:

Waitress: Our soup today is New ­England–style clam chowder. And a tuna burger is also available.

A tuna burger? That’s a phony hamburger.

Waitress: It’s really very nice!

You can’t just smash anything into a patty shape and call it a burger, a turkey burger, a tofu burger, a tuna burger.

Aaron Sorkin has a point (which is a sentence I never thought I’d write on this blog); I’m willing to accept that the burgers at a place like Goody’s or Woody’s are legitimate burgers, despite my belief that a true hamburger should be nothing but ground beef seasoned with salt and pepper, because they are at least made entirely out of beef.  The ersatz burgers at Royal Meats, however, with their mixture of veal, pork, onions and other spices, are much harder to accept as a legitimate hamburger.

So the question is: do I review it?  Is it hamburgery enough to warrant inclusion in this blog?  If it were a tuna burger or a turkey burger, the answer would be much more straightforward; those are clearly not hamburgers, or at the very least are in a very different category than the burgers I review on this blog.

The Royal Meats burger, on the other hand, is close enough to a legitimate hamburger to straddle the line between faux burgers and the real deal.

But if it looks like a burger and it’s called a burger, then I suppose it’s fair game to judge it like a hamburger.

Royal Meats is a Balkan place, which helps to explain the unorthodox burger.  They’ve got two of them on the menu: half pound, and one pound.  I ordered the half pound, was given a pager that would go off when the burger was ready, and sat down.  Several minutes later, my burger was ready; I got it topped with lettuce, tomato, and the house sauce– a reddish white spread that tastes of onions, peppers, and some kind of soft cheese.

Whether or not it’s a hamburger is up for debate, but it is tasty, there’s no doubt about that.  Veal is generally fairly mild, so most of the flavour here comes from the pork, as well as the onions and seasonings mixed into the burger.  It tastes more like a sausage flattened into a patty shape than a hamburger, but it’s definitely satisfying for what it is.

It’s also quite juicy, with a nice texture and a decent amount of flavour imparted from the grill.  The bun, too, differs from a traditional hamburger.   Called a lepinya bun, it’s denser and chewier than your typical hamburger bun, with a yeasty flavour that’s reminiscent of sourdough.  It suits the burger well.

As for the unique house sauce, it would overpower a traditional burger, but this burger’s more assertive flavours easily stand up to this aggressive spread.

The lightly battered fries are clearly frozen, and they have a processed flavour that is strongly reminiscent of Pringles.  They were decent enough, though I felt no need to finish them.

Going back to my original quandary, I now wonder how to rate this burger.  Taken on its own merits, it probably deserves three out of four.  It’s good.  But as a hamburger, it’s kind of a failure (if it is a hamburger at all).  This being a hamburger blog, I’m compelled to give this burger my lowest passing grade: two-and-a-half out of four.

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Royal Meats BBQ on Urbanspoon

Hero Certified Burgers


Location25 The West Mall, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.heroburgers.com/

Baffling.  That’s the only word that comes to mind in response to Hero Burgers’ expansion and continued success.  I’ve been meaning to review this local chain for a while now, but I’ve been putting it off because I had it a couple of times a few years ago, and I remembered it being pretty bad.

“Pretty bad,” as it turns out, doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors of what they serve at this place.

I visited the location in the Sherway Gardens food court (and if you ever find yourself here, The Construction Site — a grilled cheese place — is a bit over-priced but pretty darn tasty).  They have a four ounce, a six ounce, and an eight ounce hamburger.  Knowing that I would probably want as little of this burger as possible, I went with the four ounce.  I selected my toppings (pickles, tomato, and Hero Certified Sauce), received a number, and waited.  A few minutes later I had my tray and took a seat.

The first thing I noticed is how odd the patty looks; pallid and wrinkly, it’s clear just looking at it that it’s a frozen burger.  It looks like the most unappealing frozen burger you’ve ever seen, only with its deficiencies multiplied ten-fold.

I cut the burger in half, and again, it was obvious that something was amiss.  Thanks to this blog I’ve cut through quite a few burgers, and I’ve never felt anything like this; it was rubbery and tough, like trying to cut through a piece of calamari.  Any idea that I might be pleasantly surprised was completely out the window at this point.  Even still, I was unprepared.  I took a bite and grimaced.

It’s the worst burger I’ve ever had.

I’ll say that again, because it bears repeating: it is quite literally the worst hamburger I’ve ever had in my entire life, and I say that as someone who has eaten a lot of burgers in his lifetime.

I’m not even sure where to start.  The texture, I suppose.  It was horrific.  Chewy and rubbery in the worst way imaginable, it was completely alien from anything even remotely resembling real, fresh beef.  All frozen burgers suffer from some degree of chewiness, but never this bad.  It was disgusting, to be perfectly blunt.

Then there was the taste.  Zero beefiness, and not even much saltiness — not much of anything, other than a rancid, turned-meat flavour.  My dining companion took a bite and described it as fishy, and I can’t say I particularly disagree.  Again: disgusting.

Seriously, take a closer look at this burger:

That is not how ground beef is supposed to look.

The toppings were fine, and the bun was a little bit too dense but mostly fine, but it’s all completely moot; this burger could have featured the greatest, most delicious bun and toppings of all time and it still would have been a complete wash.  I was hungry, and for the first time in the history of this blog (and in my life, I’m pretty sure) I couldn’t finish my hamburger.  I didn’t want to finish it.  It was so gross.

I honestly didn’t believe it was possible for a burger to be this bad.  When I was able (and willing) to eat the entire burger from BBQ Express, I assumed that there would simply never be a burger so bad that I couldn’t finish it.  I assumed that even the worst burger in the world had some nugget of desirability, some small appeal, even if only in its deepest reaches.

I was wrong.  There is nothing appealing about the burger at Hero Certified Burgers.   It is where dreams go to die.  It is a shriveled disc of pure despair, from which all hope is forever lost.  If there is a hell, then it is what they serve there, all the time, no exceptions.

It’s bad, basically.  Inedible.  It should be avoided under all circumstances.

Not that it matters, because you should never go to this place for any reason ever, but the fries were pretty good.  They were crispy on the outside and nicely fluffy on the inside, though it’s obvious that they prepare the fries in the same oil that they use for the onion rings — oil which hasn’t been changed in a long, long time.  How am I so sure?  The fries tasted like onion rings.  Not just a little bit like onion rings; blatantly so.  It was bizarre, but surprisingly tasty (though since it is merely the result of Hero Burgers’ incompetence — seriously, change the oil every now and then — I can’t even give them credit for it).

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Hero Certified Burgers on Urbanspoon

Magoo’s


Location4242 Dundas Street West, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.magoosburgers.com/

Magoo’s is another one of those neighbourhood joints that really packs them in; pretty much any time you go, the place will be filled with  families, couples, and other locals looking for their burger fix.  It’s been around since 1987, which makes it relatively new compared to old-school places like Apache or Johnny’s, but it’s still been around for more than long enough to develop a loyal following.

And, I’m sorry to say, like most old-school burger joints, it trades more on nostalgia than taste; it’s just not that good.

I ordered the Magourmet hamburger (which is their six ounce burger; there’s also a four ounce option on the menu) as a combo with fries and a soda, and it came up to about ten bucks.

The layout was much like most old-school burger joints; you order, then when the burger’s ready, you pick your toppings from behind the glass.  I went with pickles, tomato, and Magoo Sauce, which the menu describes as “Mayo/Garlic.”

The grilled burger is meatloaf-style, with other stuff mixed in with the beef.  It has a generic meatloaf burger taste; it essentially tastes like whatever spices they’ve mixed in, without much meaty flavour (if any).  The lack of any beefy flavour is odd, because it’s not one of the stronger meatloaf burgers that I’ve had, which makes me think that the quality of the beef isn’t all that great.

It’s also surprisingly dry.  They boast that they use “100% lean ground beef,” which I’m pretty sure isn’t even possible — and even if it were, it certainly isn’t something to be proud of in the context of a hamburger.  Either way, it’s clear that the beef is too lean, resulting in an unpleasantly dry burger.  It also had a somewhat unusual texture; I suspect that perhaps the beef has been ground too finely.

The toppings were fine.  The Magoo Sauce was as advertised, and was a decent roasted garlic mayo.  The dense, chewy bun, however, was far too substantial for the burger at hand, and completely threw off the bun-to-beef ratio.

As for the fries, they were fine.  They were perfectly tasty, though there was nothing special or memorable about them.

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