Bar Buca

buca
Location
: 75 Portland Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.buca.ca/bar/

Though I think it’s fairly clear that no one should be taking Toronto Life’s new list of the best burgers in the city seriously, Bar Buca serves their number one choice.  As much as I’d like to pretend that list doesn’t exist, that’s hard to ignore.

Bar Buca’s burger — dubbed the Bombolone Burger for the bun it’s served on — costs 14 bucks, isn’t particularly large, and doesn’t come with any sides.  So no, it’s not cheap, but this is a high-end place; I don’t have any qualms paying a premium for a truly exceptional burger.

The thing that really stands out about this burger is the fact that they’ve mixed lardo (essentially cured pork fat) into the patty.  Mixing pork into a burger is a bit of a bastardization, but I hoped the lardo would add richness without overwhelming the flavour of the beef.  I was cautiously optimistic.

I was a bit concerned just by looking at the burger.  The griddled patty looks more like a meatball and isn’t wide enough for the bun — I know this is an Italian restaurant, but learn how to form a burger patty, guys, jeez.  It’s not rocket science.

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Much more concerning is the fact that the burger lacks anything even remotely resembling a beefy flavour, with a taste that I had a hard time putting my finger on.  I knew that it reminded me of something; after several bites, I finally placed it.  It tastes like a slightly muted version of a Bob Evans sausage patty.  I don’t know if this is solely from the lardo, or if they’ve mixed anything else into the beef that would solidify that connection.  Certainly, it wasn’t the most strongly-spiced burger I’ve ever had, but that breakfast sausage taste and texture was undeniable.

The patty was also surprisingly laden with inedible parts that should have been trimmed away long before the meat ever saw a grinder; even hours later, I was still picking stringy bits of gristle from my teeth.  This is inexcusable anywhere, but coming from a high-end restaurant like this (with high-end prices to match), it’s all the more galling.

The menu describes the patty as coming rare, and that’s definitely how they cook it; my burger came almost blue.  Personally, I like my burgers on the rarer side, but if you prefer things a bit more well done, keep in mind that they’re not kidding around.

The patty is topped with roasted cherry tomatoes, and rests atop some peppery coleslaw made with castelfranco lettuce.  These toppings work well enough; the soft roasted tomatoes give the burger a zingy sweetness, and the coleslaw adds crunch and a reasonable amount of peppery bite.

The bun, which the waiter explained is essentially an Italian-style doughnut (a bombalone) that’s baked rather than fried, was a good match for the burger.  It’s a bit more substantial than usual, with a texture that falls somewhere between a traditional bun and a biscuit. Since this is a sloppier burger, the heft of the bun feels right.

The whole thing was decent enough, but best in the city?  Not by a long-shot, but then does it really shock you to learn that a list that includes a frozen burger isn’t entirely reliable?  Would it also shock you if I said that the sky is blue, and grass is green?

2.5 out of 4

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The Opera House Grill

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Location
: 737 Queen Street East, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/theoperahousegrill/

I’m going to keep this one relatively brief.  If you’ve read my recent rant about the Opera House Grill’s inclusion on Toronto Life’s new list of the city’s 25 best burgers, then you already pretty much know what I think about this burger: it’s made with a frozen patty, and it doesn’t belong within a million miles of any kind of “best of” list.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s the worst thing ever.  It’s actually pretty okay, as far as frozen burgers go.  The Shaggy Burger (the one that made Toronto Life’s list) is an impressively ridiculous behemoth of a burger.  Piled high with sweet griddled onions, crispy onion rings, bacon, tsatziki, and a healthy mound of cheddar cheese, not to mention the standard burger toppings like lettuce, pickles, and tomato, it’s pretty much the definition of a kitchen sink burger.

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And I won’t lie: it’s pretty good in the middle.  It’s topping overload, but everything in the pile is fairly tasty, and it all tastes pretty good together.  The big mound of shredded cheddar cheese never quite melts as much as it needs to, but aside from that the toppings are solid.

Where the burger really falls apart (figuratively — the bun held up surprisingly well to all the toppings) is around the perimeter of the burger, where all of the many condiments begin to fade away. That’s when you really taste that hot-doggy, mediocre frozen patty, and realize that greatness is simply never going to be in this burger’s vocabulary.

As for the fries, they clearly came out of the same freezer as the burger patty, and were about as middling as you’d expect.

2 out of 4

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

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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.

Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

mildred
Location
: 85 Hanna Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.templekitchen.com/

It’s been a while since I’ve visited a place from Toronto Life’s list of the best burgers in Toronto, and though my last experience wasn’t particularly great, I figured it was about time to check another one off the list.  This week: number 17, Mildred Temple Kitchen.

I actually tried to go here a couple of weeks ago for brunch, but the restaurant was packed, with a 40 minute wait for a table.  It’s a popular place.

My second attempt was more successful.  I scanned the menu and quickly found the MTK Burger: “topped with tomato relish & crispy tobacco onions, served on a pain au lait bun.”

I’ll get the bad out of the way first: It’s a meatloaf burger, and not a subtle one at that, with all kinds of spices and other stuff mixed in (I definitely saw onions, and there may or may not have been garlic as well).

I’ve laid out my problems with meatloaf burgers a few times before, but my main objection is this: a beef patty on its own (seasoned with salt and maybe pepper) and a beef patty with spices and onions and who-knows-what mixed in are two very, very different things.  They look similar, but they taste so radically different that I don’t know how, in good conscience, you can call them both the same thing.  On a very fundamental level, one is a hamburger, and one is an imitation of a hamburger.  I’ve made this analogy before, but It’s like comparing authentic Chinese food to chop suey; you can call both Chinese food if you want, but no one’s buying it.

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The patty at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen is tasty enough, but all the other stuff mixed in with the beef completely annihilates its flavour — the burger could have been made from ground pork or lamb and it would have made zero difference.  There’s no flavour whatsoever from the beef.  None.

I will say, however, that the burger is otherwise superlative; super juicy and cooked to a perfect medium rare, it has a really satisfying texture with none of the sausage-like consistency that you get from a lot of meatloaf burgers.  There’s also an addictively crispy crust from the grill.  The meatloafy taste of the patty is a bit on the salty side, but otherwise pretty good.

The condiments are quite good as well — the menu doesn’t mention the garlicky aioli, which is quite tasty, if a bit strong.  The abundant crispy onion strings add some texture and compliment the burger quite well.  As for the tomato relish, the burger’s other flavours are so assertive that I honestly couldn’t even taste it.

The pain au lait bun is a bit on the dense side, though with a burger this juicy and this messy, a more substantial bun is definitely needed, so it works quite well.

Seriously, I can’t say enough about how juicy this burger is; in a city filled with overly-lean, dried-out burgers, that alone is a huge plus in its favour.

Pretty much everything about this burger is above average; it’s just a real shame that the beef’s flavour (i.e. the star of the show in a hamburger) has been completely wiped out. Still, for what it is, it tastes pretty good.  It might just be the best meatloaf burger I’ve ever had.

As for the fries, they too were above average, particularly when dipped in the aforementioned garlicky aioli.

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The Harbord Room

harbord
Location
: 89 Harbord Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.theharbordroom.com/

I was a little bit wary of Toronto Life’s list of the best burgers in Toronto after my most recent experience with one of their choices.  The Queen and Beaver served a muddled mess of a burger that was part steak sandwich, part hamburger, and all failure.  It was Toronto Life’s 23rd best burger in the city.

The Harbord Room, however, has drawn raves for its burger from all corners, and is the number one pick on Toronto Life’s list.  So: a much safer bet.  I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to check it out, honestly.

They sell a lot of burgers.  Of the people sitting around me, pretty much everyone got the hamburger.  Which pretty much makes it a burger joint at heart; my kind of place.

The menu describes the burger as follows: “Dry Aged ‘West Grey Farms’ Beef Burger – Sharp Cheddar, Caramelized Onions on an Egg Bun with Fries & Slaw.”  It’s 17 bucks, which is actually not bad for the amount and value of food you get.

What the menu doesn’t mention, however, is the sharply lemony aioli that cuts through the burger’s other flavours like a laser.  My dining companion and I noticed it immediately: why is this burger so lemony?  It packs a punch, and I really, really wish I had asked for my burger without it.

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The grilled patty came cooked to a perfect medium rare.  I guess you could get them to cook it differently, but why would you?

Sadly, the flavour wasn’t quite as knock-me-back beefy as I had hoped; it didn’t have any of the rich, complex flavour you associate with dry-aged beef (or at least if it did, it was completely overpowered by the aioli).  Still, there certainly was some beefy flavour there, and it was clear enough that they were using above average meat.  Perhaps my expectations were too high.

Though the medium rare parts in the middle were quite juicy, the more well-cooked edges were a bit drier than I’d like.  It’s likely that the beef is a little bit too lean, and maybe slightly too tightly packed, but I’ve certainly had worse.

The cheese was creamy and fully melted and the onions were perfectly caramelized, but that aioli aggressively elbowed its way to the front of the line, overpowering everything else and rendering most of the burger’s other flavours moot.  The sesame seed bun, however, was perfect: pillowy and super fresh, with the perfect amount of density to hold up to the substantial burger without ever getting in the way.

So no, it’s not exactly the burger of my dreams; I certainly wouldn’t pick it as my personal favourite burger in Toronto, but I don’t begrudge Toronto Life for picking it as theirs.  It’s quite good.

As for the fries, they were pretty much perfect.  Seriously: they weren’t as hot as they probably should have been, but were otherwise right up there with the best fries I’ve ever had.  The aioli, though clearly overpowering as a burger condiment, was outstanding as a dip for fries, as was the tangy house-made ketchup.

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The Queen and Beaver Public House

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Location
: 35 Elm Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://queenandbeaverpub.ca/

The burger at the Queen and Beaver is… different.  My dining companion noted that my brow was furrowed for pretty much the entire time I was eating it, which is true. It’s an odd one.  I don’t know how to classify it.

The Queen and Beaver has actually been on my radar for a while now, at least since Toronto Life included it on their list of the best burgers in Toronto back in 2012.

It’s a cozy restaurant with food that’s a bit more ambitious than standard pub fare.  This ambition extends to the burger, and sadly, I think their reach exceeds their grasp.

The patty is hand chopped, which means that instead of putting the beef through a grinder like with a traditional hamburger, it’s chopped by hand until the resultant bits are small enough to be formed into a patty.

It’s odd.  The waitress informed me that they suggest medium rare, which was fine by me, that being my preference and all.  And the grilled patty was cooked to a perfect medium rare, but… it didn’t taste like a hamburger.  The hand-chopped patty was formed out of discernibly large chunks of beef, with the effect being that the whole thing tasted like bits of steak that had been mashed into the shape of a hamburger.

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Honestly, I’m loathe to even call it a hamburger — it tastes more like a steak sandwich.  But if it looks like a burger, is called a burger, and has appeared on a list of the best burgers in Toronto…  I guess it’s a hamburger, or at least I should treat it as such.

Sadly, whatever it is, it’s pretty much ruined by an extreme case of over-seasoning.  Along with the bits of steak, there are onions, spices, and something else with a very strong flavour added into the mix (Worcestershire sauce?  HP?  I’m not sure).  Whatever it is, it is very, very strong.  They are presumably using good quality beef (the steep $18 dollar price tag would certainly indicate this), but thanks to all the junk they’ve got mixed in there, it doesn’t have even one iota of beefy flavour.  Maybe it’s a hamburger and maybe it’s a steak sandwich, but either one of those without any beefy flavour is unquestionably a failure.

It comes topped with some thickly sliced bacon which, though it tastes pretty good, is mushy and quite possibly the least crispy bacon I’ve ever had.  There wasn’t even a hint of crispiness — it may as well have been boiled.  Cheese was proffered, but I elected to go without (and I’m glad I did — there’s already more than enough going on here without adding another flavour to further muddle things).

The fresh sesame seed bun was quite good, I’ll give it that.  Kinda sad that the best thing I have to say about this hamburger is that the bun is good, but here we are.  Suffice it to say, I disagree with Toronto Life’s assertion that this is one of the best burgers in Toronto.  I doubt it would be in my top 100, let alone top 25.

The fries were tasty, however.   Thickly cut and maybe a touch underdone, they were otherwise quite good.

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Queen and Beaver Public House on Urbanspoon

The County General

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Location
: 936 Queen Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://thecountygeneral.ca/

Given that the burger at the County General has received pretty much nothing but praise (including nabbing the number nine spot on Toronto Life’s list of the best burgers in the city), I’m a little bit surprised that it’s taken me this long to check it out.  But given my blistering biweekly update schedule, it can sometimes take me a while to get to a place I want to try.

The County General actually just opened a second location on the other side of Queen, so they’re obviously doing okay.  I tend to gravitate towards the west end of the city, so I visited the original.

The place was pretty much packed when my dining companion and I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, though we were able to grab a couple of seats at the bar.  We both ordered the 6oz. County Burger, which is described as follows on the menu: “Cumbraes Aged Beef, Mustard, Mayo, Pickle.”

They asked how each of us wanted it cooked, which is always a delightful question since the default in this city seems to be well done, and I prefer medium rare.

The grilled patty came out a perfect medium rare, and was absolutely outstanding.  Coarsely ground and juicy, it had an amazing texture and a really pronounced beefy flavour.  There is, however, a but.  A big but.

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BUT… the patty’s amazing flavour was largely diminished by an insanely overpowering horseradish mustard.  And I mean insane.  This was like horseradish mustard on steroids.  If this mustard were a person, it would be on a Hulk-esque rampage, flipping over cars and leveling buildings with one monstrous blow.

It was strong, is what I’m saying.

I typically like my condiments on the subtler side — to extend my “if it were a person” analogy, I like my condiments to be less Incredible Hulk, and more Lionel Richie.  But even my dining companion, who is typically unperturbed by such things, found the mustard to be overbearing.  He actually suggested that they should rename the hamburger to a horseradish sandwich with meat; sadly, this wasn’t even much of an exaggeration.

It’s a real shame, because that patty was pretty damn close to perfection.  It’s seriously good.  It was hard to tell, but in the few bites I got where there wasn’t as much of the mustard, it was very obvious that the burger was made with top-shelf meat.  Not to mention that it was cooked perfectly, and featured a really fresh bun that complimented it perfectly.  Without that mustard it is easily a top ten contender.  Probably even top five.  But the mustard kind of kills it, as much as it pains me to say so.

As for the fries, they too were well above average: crispy, perfectly cooked french fry goodness.

Seriously though, as much as I hated that mustard, don’t let it dissuade you from ordering this hamburger, which is otherwise one of the best in the city.  Just ask for the mustard on the side.  Or even better, not at all.  A burger this good has so much beefy flavour that any kind of mustard, even a non-radioactive-monster mustard, only serves to distract from what makes the burger so great in the first place.

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