Burger Day 2013

For the last couple of years, a bunch of places across Toronto have been participating in The Grid’s Burger Week, in which a five dollar burger is added to the menu of each participating restaurant.  This year, the festivities culminated in Burger Day, which is pretty much the greatest food event I’ve been to in the city.  Certainly the burgeriest.

It really was a sight to behold, with dozens of restaurants all offering a mini burger (they were calling these sliders, but I think we all know that a mini hamburger is not automatically a slider).  It was an embarrassment of riches, and all told I sampled 10 different hamburgers, after which I was pretty much ready to crawl into a cave and hibernate.

The sad (and kind of awesome) thing is, there were a bunch more burgers I would have liked to try, but I am not a burger eating machine, as much as I would like to be.  I was also worried that the crowds would be unbearable, but I arrived right when the gates opened at 11:00, and didn’t have to wait longer than a few minutes for pretty much any of the burgers.  Suffice it to say, it was a great event and I will definitely be returning next year.

But let’s talk about the burgers.  Keeping in mind that I’ve eaten an insane amount of hamburgers and they’re all kind of blending together in my memory, here are my brief thoughts on the burgers I tried, in the order in which I ate them (and in case you’re wondering why the photos get more and more angelic towards the end, yes, I got grease on the lens.  No, it is not easy to photograph ten different burgers in an outdoor setting with no tables while also holding a bottle of water):

Kitch Bar
Not a great start.  The patty itself was pretty meatloafy, with all kinds of stuff mixed in.  It was also cooked a little bit past well done and very, very dry.  The nacho-esque condiments (a couple of actual nachos, pico de gallo, guacamole, and jalapeno) were fine, if a little gimmicky.  The bun was cold, which was unappealing.  Perfectly edible, but nothing I’d want to have again.

Fidel Gastro’s Lisa Marie
After the poor offering from the Kitch Bar, I was afraid that I had a bunch of overcooked, poorly thought-out mediocrities in my future, but this one quickly put me at ease.  It was amazing.  Probably the best burger I ate at the event, and one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while, period.  The beef was absolutely outstanding — coarsely ground, with an amazingly rich and beefy flavour.  I was afraid the condiments — pineapple chili ketchup and banh-mi slaw — would overpower the burger, but they were pretty great, adding a tangy zip while still making sure that the glorious patty was the star of the show.  The sweet, soft bun was also pretty perfect.  I’m not rating these burgers, but if I were I think I’d have to give this one a rare four out of four.  I’ve never been to Lisa Marie, but if they’re serving food of this caliber then I clearly need to check the place out.

This End Up
This one was fine.  Nothing too special, but fine.  The rich pork belly, the cheese, and the umami mayo were actually all quite tasty, but the burger itself was a bit dry and ho-hum.

The Rude Boy
Another so-so burger.  With the pastrami, thousand island, cheese, and sauerkraut, it was essentially a Rueben in a bun with a burger patty.  The patty was okay, but a bit dry and underwhelming.  I’ve actually been meaning to check out The Rude Boy for a while now, but if this is their level of burger cookery, I don’t think I need to be in any rush.

The Dakota Tavern
I actually thought this one had a lot of potential, as the patty had a really satisfyingly beefy flavour, and the grilled, almost burnt onions complimented the burger quite well.  But like the last couple of hamburgers, it was overcooked and very dry.

Goods & Provisions
I was pretty excited to try this one, as I figured the addition of bone marrow into the burger would have added a beefy richness.  There was no beefy richness to be found here — just an unpleasant, almost gamy flavour that was quite off-putting.  The pallid, wan patty looked and tasted like it had been boiled.  It was gross, quite frankly.  As for the tomato and shallot relish, it basically tasted like they boiled a tomato, threw it in the blender, and then dumped the resultant slurry onto the burger.  Worst burger of the day, and one of the worst burgers I’ve had in a long while.

The Good Fork
This was a grilled cheese burger, and unlike all the other burgers I tried, they just cooked a full one and then cut it into quarters.  It was actually pretty good, though not particularly cheesy, oddly enough.  The shallot-teragon jam and the remoulade were both quite good, if a little overpowering.  It’s too bad, because the burger itself was fairly juicy and seemed quite tasty, but it was a bit overwhelmed by the other stuff.

If it weren’t for the unusually awful burger from Goods & Provisions, this would have easily been the worst burger of the event.  The patty was super dense, dry, and way, way, way too finely ground.  It tasted like they blended the beef until it became a fine paste, and then formed the paste into a patty and cooked it all the way to well done.  It was pretty horrible.  The condiments were mostly okay, though the pickled red onions were completely overwhelming.

Holy Chuck
Well, it’s Holy Chuck so you know it’s going to be good.  The beef patty was as juicy and delicious as ever.  The burger also featured an additional patty of ground up bacon, which sounds gluttonously amazing in theory, but which was kind of overwhelming in practice.  It was tasty enough, but the smoky, salty bacon patty completely overpowered the beef.  And when you’re dealing with beef as good as what Holy Chuck uses, that’s definitely not a good thing.

The Stockyards
At this point my body was beginning to shut down from the abundance of beef, so naturally it was time to eat a battered, deep fried hamburger.  I questioned the wisdom of eating something this heavy when I was already catastrophically full, but am I going to say no to a cheese-stuffed battered and fried burger?  No, I am not.  I was not alone in this, either, because this was the only place I had to wait longer than five minutes for.  And boy, am I glad that I did, because it was crazy delicious.  I was afraid that it would be more of a novelty than anything else, but it was legitimately good.  The crispy, crunchy, peppery batter was outstanding.  I know that The Stockyards is supposed to serve some of the best fried chicken in the city, and if this is the batter they use, I can see why.  Note to self: try their chicken.  As for the beef, I usually find the burgers at The Stockyards to be above average, but a bit too lean.  Here, being deep fried and stuffed with cheese, that wasn’t an issue.  The whole thing was really, really good, and while it was far from traditional, it was so damn tasty.

And there you have it.  Ten burgers later I was pretty much ready to pass out, but it was a great event and one that I will happily return to for as long as it’s around.

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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.

Holy Chuck

Location: 1450 Yonge St., Toronto

I think there’s one thing I have to get out of the way before I talk about the burgers at Holy Chuck.  Whoever owns the place obviously likes The Burger’s Priest.  A lot.  Both places have similar menus (right down to the presence of a cheese-stuffed, deep fried mushroom), serve a similar style of hamburger, and have similarly religious-themed names.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this.  Though The Burger’s Priest was a bit of an oddity for Toronto, all they’re doing is serving the type of burger that’s been ubiquitous in the States for many, many years.  Specifically, much inspiration was taken from In-N-Out,  a well known burger chain in the southwestern United States.  If we start seeing even more places that serve burgers in this style (and do it well) in Toronto, that would make me a very happy man.  Perhaps if enough of these places open up and people realize how burgers are actually supposed to taste, we’ll start seeing the decline of frozen patty purveyors like Johnny’s, and meatloaf sandwiches masquerading as burgers like Lick’s.  I can dream, can’t I?

Anyway, Holy Chuck.

I actually went at lunch, without a particularly huge appetite, and planned on getting something reasonably small — probably single patty.  But my general policy is to order any burger off the menu that shares a name with the restaurant, and in this case the eponymous burger consisted of two patties, two slices of cheese, sauteed onions, and bacon.  So much for small.  I also opted to upgrade to the combo, because, well, go big or go home, right?

After a five minute or so wait, I got my burger, as is.  It didn’t strike me that this burger needed any further condiments, though even if it had, I would have been out of luck — for this particular burger, the menu very emphatically states “NO TOPPINGS ALLOWED!

My first impression was that the cheese appeared to be unmelted, though cutting into the burger it was clear that this was thankfully not the case.

Look at that burger.  Seriously.  Behold.  Yes, it’s as good as it looks. Beefy, juicy, greasy, with a perfectly brown crust from the hot griddle, this is close to burger perfection.  The flavour isn’t quite as richly beefy as at The Burger’s Priest, but it’s close. The soft sauteed onions compliment the burger perfectly, as does the thickly cut bacon.  The cheese is American, de rigueur for a burger such as this; so too is the supple, soft bun.

Actually, let me talk about the cheese for a bit.  Two slices is the standard for a double cheeseburger (it’s what they serve at the Priest, and pretty much everywhere else a double cheeseburger is found).  However, I’m starting to think that two slices is just too much, and that one slice is more appropriate.   One slice gives the burger a welcome creaminess and a nice cheesy tang; two slices threatens to compete with the beef in the flavour department.  This is fine if the beef is iffy, but if I’m eating somewhere like Holy Chuck where the beef is above average, I want the toppings to compliment the burger, not compete for dominance.

And yes, the beef is definitely above average here.   Cooked medium well with a blush of pink, the beef is packed with flavour and is fantastically juicy.  I overheard a fellow customer ask if the burgers could be cooked to order, and the man behind the counter responded that yes, they can do anything from rare to well done.   I had already ordered my burger when this nugget of info was revealed; however, though my preference is generally medium rare, this burger was so perfect at medium well that I might just leave well enough alone and continue ordering it without any alterations when I return.

I’ve heard the complaint leveraged that the Holy Chuck burger is too greasy.  This is nonsense.  If someone tries to tell you that they think the burger is too greasy, smile, nod, and immediately discount anything that this person has to say on the topic of hamburgers; it’s sad to say it, but they are lost to the horrors of Toronto’s mediocre burger scene.  We’re so used to too-lean, overcooked and completely dried out burgers that the burgers like the ones served at Holy Chuck stand out as odd.  But this is how a burger is supposed to taste.  A burger that is edible without the assistance of at least a couple of napkins is, to put it bluntly, not worth eating.

I mentioned before that I had a smallish appetite and was considering not getting the combo, but oh boy, am I glad I did.  The fries are perfect: crispy, salty, flavourful, with a fluffy interior and just the right amount of crunch.  I’ve eaten a lot of French fries in my life, and these were among the best that I’ve ever had.  Suffice it to say, this is one area in which Holy Chuck beats the Burger’s Priest quite handily.

If you’re just skimming this review (it is a little wordy, I’ll admit it), the Reader’s Digest version is this: go to Holy Chuck.  Now.   Even if it’s not quite as good, it easily rivals The Burger’s Priest for fast food burger dominance in Toronto.  Wading through so much burger mediocrity for this blog, it’s easy for forget why I even love burgers so much in the first place.  Holy Chuck is just the reminder that I needed. It is a ray of light piercing through the darkness. It’s pretty fantastic.

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