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 Burger’s Priest

Location: 1636 Queen Street East, Toronto
Website: http://theburgerspriest.com/

In many of the reviews that I’ve written thus far, I’ve complained about the burgers being too dry.  I started to wonder: was I making that complaint too much?  I doubted myself.  Am I insane?  Is a burger not supposed to be as juicy as I think it’s supposed to be?  Have I been unfairly maligning hamburgers that are, in reality, acceptably juicy and not — as I perceive them to be — egregiously dry?

I started to have what amounts to a burger-lover’s existential crisis.  Maybe the perfect hamburger, as it exists in my mind, is just not feasible in the real world.  Maybe my standards are astronomically high, and a good burger is supposed to be a bit on the dry side.  I started to try to justify it in my mind: maybe dryness helps add character to a burger.  Maybe dryness, in the way that it tends to suck the moisture out of your mouth, makes you hyper-aware of the meat you’re eating.  Maybe the increased effort it takes to chew and swallow dry beef only increases your appreciation of the meal at hand.

Basically, Toronto’s awful burger scene started to mess with my head.

Thank God for the Burger’s Priest.  This is a place that opened up a couple of years ago to immediate hype.  I instantly knew I had to go there, and yet it took me two long years to actually go.  In the meantime, having heard nothing but effusive hype about the place, I was afraid that my expectations were getting unreasonably high.

I’m happy to say that aside from one fairly major caveat, the place has lived up to my expectations and then some.

An aside: I must apologize for this photo.  One of my food blog pet peeves is the ubiquitous photo of a half-eaten burger being held in the photographer’s hand.   I don’t want to see your stupid hand, or your gross half-eaten meal.  Sadly, the folks at the Burger’s Priest didn’t have any knives they could give me, so I had no way of feasibly cutting my burger in half.  And yet I had to show you the inside of this glorious hamburger.  So here we are.

Moving on.  You’ve probably heard that the restaurant is small.  It’s smaller than you’ve heard.  About the size of a large walk-in closet, this is a take-out place only.  There are a few stools, but you’re probably better off taking your food outside and sitting down on one of the grassy patches in the vicinity of the restaurant.  Of course, this will be a challenge once it starts to get really cold, but right now the weather is just too nice for me to even think about the ugly unpleasantness of the Canadian winter.

I walked in, and it being an off time (around 2:00), I was able to immediately order a Double Double from the vaguely surly woman behind the register (I’d be a bit surly too if I were crammed into that tiny space with four sweaty cooks) and within a few minutes, I had it in my hands.

I opened the bag, and rivulets of grease and burger juices began to flow from my burger.  This was a glorious burger to behold: glistening, with a gorgeously browned crust that can only be the product of a burger chef who really knows what he’s doing.  The two patties each had a slice of bright orange American cheese (a must for a true, classic cheeseburger) that were gooey and melted.

Just looking at it, I knew it was going to be a great hamburger.

And it was; but let me get that big caveat out of the way first.   The patties were excessively salty.  At first I thought that perhaps they were using a overly-salty brand of American cheese, but my two dining companions both elected to go cheese-free, and they too found the saltiness issue to be problematic.

Aside from that, this was pretty damn close to burger perfection.  It’s telling that despite the oppressive saltiness of the beef (it really was quite salty) I still enjoyed the hell out of this burger.

It’s a gloriously, magnificently, decadently juicy burger.  One bite and I immediately knew that my burger crisis was completely unfounded.  Yes, a burger can and should be juicy.  I held the proof right there in my hands.

The medium-well patties had a great, beefy flavour (which was, sadly, partially obscured by the saltiness) which was only magnified by that amazing crust.   Seriously, take a closer look at that crust and tell me that you don’t want to eat that burger right this minute.

The gooey cheese complimented the burger perfectly; the other toppings were standard burger fare, and worked quite well.

Like the American cheese, the soft, squishy bun may turn off those who have become accustomed to fancier burgers.  Those people are wrong.  This is a classic bun for a classic burger; it provides just the right amount of heft without getting in the way, and gives the burger a perfect bun-to-beef ratio.

The medium-cut fries were golden brown with a robust potatoey flavour.  They were a bit soggy, but that may be because I didn’t start eating them until after I had finished my burger.

If it weren’t for the over-salted patties, I’d easily give the Burger’s Priest a perfect score.  Alas, as much as it pains me to do so, I cannot give a perfect rating to such a salty hamburger — despite the fact that I’m fairly certain that this visit was just an aberration, and that the patties normally have a reasonable amount of salt.  However, I’ll definitely be going back at some point soon.  If my suspicions are correct, I’ll update this post and change the score.

Update (7/27/2011) – I just went back.  This time I got a double burger with no cheese and my usual toppings (mayo, pickles, tomato) just so I’d be sure about the saltiness issue.  It was perfect.  The burger had just enough salt to highlight its absolutely amazing, almost ridiculously beefy flavour.  It was just as juicy as last time.  This was a burger so beefy and so juicy that it puts every other Toronto burger joint to shame.   Seriously — every Toronto burger joint proprietor should be forced to eat a burger here so they can see how a burger is supposed to taste.  It’s easily the best burger I’ve had in Toronto, and probably one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  I can now happily bump this up to the perfect rating it so richly deserves.

Update 2 (7/29/2012) – I felt like I would be remiss if I didn’t update this review to note that, on my last couple of visits, the aforementioned ridiculously beefy flavour has been greatly diminished.  It’s still a great burger, and still a very strong contender for best in the city, but it is no longer anywhere close to the best burger I’ve ever had.

The Burger's Priest - the restaurant The Burger's Priest - fresh The Burger's Priest - the menu The Burger's Priest - the cooks The Burger's Priest - the wrapper The Burger's Priest - the burger The Burger's Priest - the burger The Burger's Priest - the fries
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