Big Smoke Burger

Location: 830 Yonge Street, Toronto

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.

Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - the restaurant Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - the menu Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - numbers Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - the dining room Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - the burger Big Smoke Burger (a.k.a. Craft Burger) - the burger
Big Smoke Burger on Urbanspoon

Five Guys

Location: 2150 Burnhamthorpe Road West, Mississauga

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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Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

The Acme Burger Company

Location: 735 The Queensway, Etobicoke

I can’t help, hearing the name Acme Burger, but to think about the Road Runner and his furry nemesis, Wile E. Coyote. Those cartoons were among the funniest and best shorts produced by Warner Brothers in the golden era of the 1940s and ’50s. I’m sad to say that this restaurant is definitely not the hamburger equivalent of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Which is to say that this was not among the best hamburgers that I’ve ever had. Boy, that was a pretty tenuous connection, wasn’t it?

Driving up to the restaurant and seeing signs for chicken souvlaki and Greek salad, my expectations went down precipitously. Generally speaking, if a burger joint has souvlaki prominently on the menu, then the burgers being served up are probably going to be Greek style (ie. with onions and other spices mixed in). As I mentioned in my burger commandments, this is not my favourite style of hamburger. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a burger like that shouldn’t be called a hamburger at all, but I know many would disagree on that point.

The restaurant is laid out a la Harvey’s or Lick’s — you order at the register, you wait, then you tell them what you want from the toppings behind the glass. It’s the usual assortment of toppings; nothing too exotic. I went with tomato, pickles and mayo.

I took my first bite, expecting my taste buds to be assaulted by an oniony, meatloafy patty, and… what’s this? Just meat? Let the good times roll! Sort of. Well, not really.

The patty is a little small. I ordered the six ounce, though I suspect that they gave me the four ounce by mistake. It’s kind of overwhelmed by the large bun, but the bun tasted pretty fresh and didn’t interfere with the burger too much. If the patty had been slightly larger, it probably would have worked much better.

The meat is tightly packed and mostly flavourless. It has a vague meaty flavour, but most of the patty’s taste comes from the smokiness imparted by the flame-broiling. It’s also fairly evident that the beef being used is far too lean, as the well done patty was completely dried out and without a hint of juiciness.

I suspect that the patties have been industrially made — certainly, it’s safe enough to say that Acme doesn’t grind their own meat in house. But I have eaten much worse as far as prefabricated burgers go. They don’t have that strange chewy texture that frozen burgers tend to have, so it’s likely that Acme uses pre-made, unfrozen patties.

I also had an order of fries, which were actually the highlight. Lightly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, they were fresh, hot and had a good amount of salt. I suspect, however, that the folks at Acme are not changing the oil as often as they should be, resulting in a slightly stronger oil flavour than I’d like. Despite this, the fries are definitely above average, even if the restaurant itself is not.

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Acme Burger Company on Urbanspoon

Johnny Rockets

Location: 22 Dundas Street East, Toronto

I was hoping for my first review to be of a local place rather than a big chain, but I was in the area of Johnny Rockets and figured, why not?

Johnny Rockets is a fairly large chain, with over two-hundred locations all over the world, so it’s easy enough to assume that it’s going to be mediocre. My last Johnny Rockets experience was several years ago at their Niagara Falls location, and my memory was that it was decent enough, so I went in with an open mind.

The first thing you notice is the kitchy, 1950s Americana decor, complete with a jukebox playing ’50s pop. The place was fairly empty when my dining companion and I showed up, and we were instructed to seat ourselves. The service was a bit leisurely, but generally fine.

The menu is mostly burgers. They have some other stuff on there, but it’s fairly obvious what their specialty is.

I ordered the Rocket Double, which the menu describes as having “Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, fresh tomato, onion & special sauce.” I opted to go onion-free, as I’m generally not a huge fan of raw onions (I know, burger sacrilege! But I’m just not crazy about them. I find that they have the tendency to be overpowering, and they linger on the palette long after they have worn out their welcome).

The burger came partially wrapped in paper, a nice touch and reminiscent of great American burger chains like In-N-Out. One bite and it was clear that this was a real hamburger: fresh ground beef, no crap mixed in. Good times.

The patty has a good texture to it — it’s loosely formed, and has been cooked on a griddle, giving it a bit of a crust (the crust could have been a bit more pronounced, but it was decent enough). The burger was cooked to well done, but was nicely juicy. It wasn’t the most flavourful beef ever, but it definitely had a somewhat beefy flavour. All in all, not a mind-blowing burger — but just by virtue of being non-frozen, juicy, and without random stuff mixed in, it’s head-and-shoulders above many Toronto burger joints (which is kind of a sad indictment on the local burger scene).

As for the other components of the burger: the mild cheddar cheese was completely melted, which I certainly appreciated (there’s nothing worse than getting a so-called cheeseburger with a cold, unmelted slice of cheese). The “special sauce” was barely noticeable, the lettuce and tomato were fine, and the bun was nice and soft and complimented the burger quite well.

The sides were pretty underwhelming. The fries were pale, dry, and kind of tasteless. It probably didn’t help that they hadn’t been salted at all. They basically tasted like frozen fries that had been prepared poorly. The onion rings tasted like they might have been okay at some point, but it was clear that they had been sitting out for a while.

I also tried the patty melt, which I thought was pretty tasty, though my dining companion wasn’t quite as convinced (it tasted very strongly of caraway seeds, a flavour he’s not keen on but that I enjoy).

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Johnny Rockets on Urbanspoon

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.