a bite out of the best burgers in town
Like Diogenes with his lantern, we went seeking an honest burger. Faithful readers know that I and my fellow Seekers also went on a Pizza Odyssey (October 2010) and a Beer Odyssey (March 2011). Never satisfied, this spring we embarked on a Burger Odyssey.
The “Ground” Rules
This was not an easy challenge. Almost every bar and restaurant serves some variation of the humble hamburger. Our Seekers could not possibly sample every good burger in town. The hardest part was narrowing the field. It is more accurate to say that we went with a carefully selected sampling, rather than the “best.”
We started with the consensus burger mainstays – among these, Casey’s Tavern, Blimpy Burger, Sidetrack, and of course, Knight’s Restaurant. We included some newer boutique burgers, such as the locally-raised, grass-fed beef burgers at Grange, Frita Batidos, and Zingerman’s Roadhouse. We went to places that offered a unique spin on the familiar, such as Blue Tractor’s half-pound non-ironically named “Carnivore Burger,” with pulled pork, bacon, smoked cheddar and fried jalapeño chips. In simple contrast was the Black Pearl’s unadorned Kobe Burger.
We also visited, in no particular order, Jolly Pumpkin, Old Town, Arbor Brewing, Grizzly Peak, Great Plains Burger Co., Quickie Burgers, Cubs AC, Frasers, and the Corner Brewery. Finally, I visited Five Guys, because someone persuaded me that we should do one chain restaurant for comparison purposes, and that is a consistently highly-praised chain.
Except for Sidetrack and Corner Brewery, we did not include restaurants outside of Ann Arbor. There were simply too many. We also did not visit some other fine burger places. For example, Red Hawk was ultimately eliminated because it was one of dozens that used Knight’s meat, and did not feature a signature burger but just the “usual toppings.” Put differently, if you like the burgers at Casey’s and Fraser’s, you will likely enjoy the high quality, consistent product that Knight’s Market also purveys to places like Red Hawk and Cubs AC. Another missed item was the bleu cheese-bacon burger at the Original Cottage Inn, despite it being one of our panelist’s favorite burgers ever.
But everyone has a burger limit, and so did our panel. Each of us, in the aggregate, sampled around twenty hamburgers, most on three separate “Odyssey Days.”
We went to four or five places on each evening, typically sharing a single burger four ways, and one order of fries. We also had assigned “homework” to visit other purveyors on our own. We were dazzled by some, nonplussed by others. There were some unexpected surprises, good and bad. And the next day, we all felt a little heavier.
Arbor Brewing Co.
114 E Washington St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
This local brewpub’s $13 “arburger” is described as a 1/3 lb. premium grass-fed, dry-aged, locally sourced (McLauglin Farm) beef burger, topped with chipotle mayo, chive cream cheese, beer battered onion rings, lettuce and tomato; it’s served with a side of sweet potato fries. It’s served open face on a dense, firm and highly worthy Ed’s Bread onion roll. The meat was nicely cooked, with good flavor, perhaps a bit underseasoned. The flavors married well but with perhaps less of a “wow” factor than the diverse ingredients suggest, though the mayo has some bite. You may want a knife and fork with this one.
Mike and Rosemarie also tried the “Dubliner” with Irish cheese, mushrooms, onion, and a peppery arugula that balanced the sweetness of the beef.
SCORE: ABC averaged out to a respectable 52.2 (out of a possible 70), and 7.8 (out of 10) for the crisp fries.
551 S. Division
Ann Arbor MI 48104
Closing on its 60th year, this local institution serves freshly ground burgers, multiple patties only (except to kids), and has been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” It boasts that it is “Cheaper Than Food,” with a basic double just $2.85. It is also famous – or infamous – for the personality of its servers, ranging from joshing to rudeness, depending on your ability to handle their Soup-Nazi-like system.
But its history cannot be ignored. Panelist Dave’s first Blimpy was consumed in 6th grade over 40 years ago. His own kids have gone there “since they learned to walk.” He loves getting the $2 bills and $1 coins in change. The line out the door, from townies and students, can be impressive at lunchtime.
They do take their burgers seriously, but for many it’s the occasional sloppy, greasy indulgence, and perhaps more about the experience than the food.
Blimpy also features various fried vegetables along with their French fries, which you can get only if you are lucky enough to order them at precisely the correct moment when you are in line.
SCORE: Scoring was all over the lot, with an average of 47.5 for the burgers. The potatoes were of the meaty steak fry type, served very hot, average score 5.9.
205 East Washington Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
How does a “Carnivore Burger” grab you? The 1/2 lb. beef patty, ground from fresh sirloin, is only the beginning of the meat onslaught. It’s followed by pulled pork and bacon, topped with smoked cheddar, fried jalapeno chips, and house-made pickles, all for $9.95. It’s served high with a completely useless toothpick in the top of the toasted Avalon Bakery bun. Surprisingly, the flavors work together pretty well, though Rosemarie though the pulled pork was overpowering – calling it a pulled pork sandwich that happened to have a beef patty on it. Chris was more sanguine, calling it her favorite brew pub burger of the Odyssey.
I really liked this sandwich, and it was even better with the Tractor’s selection of barbeque sauces and their excellent craft beers. Points also for a commitment to local sourcing; the Tractor participates in “Eat Local, Eat Natural,” and the chef has his own organic farm.
Rosemarie loves the ambience and décor, noting that the “Reclaimed wooden walls make you feel like you’re in a sauna, minus the humidity and naked people.”
SCORE: Point average was 49.5 but the so-so fries only averaged 5.1.
304 Depot St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Casey’s website boasts that it was voted by Gourmet Magazine as “Michigan’s best neighborhood tavern,” and a “perennial winner of the “Best Burger in Town Award.” For $8.95, you get a 7 oz. Knight’s Market ground sirloin patty with three toppings, fries, and a pickle. Casey’s also features a fully loaded condiment/hot sauce tray on every table.
We ordered three: A pepperjack cheese with jalapeno chutney; a cheddar “classic” (lettuce/tomato/mayo/ketchup/pickle/onion); and Sky’s go-to bacon-bleu – which he declared worth the wait despite being on “Casey’s Time: the slowest kitchen in town.”
No doubt these were what Sky called “Good, classic burgers,” or “solid” from Thom and Rosemarie. The beef is good, tender and flavorful, but all were slightly overdone (we consistently ordered all burgers medium rare). Ingredients were fresh and tasty; perhaps our favorite was the yummy jalapeno chutney (which Sky said cried out for bacon as a foil). But the very ordinary onion roll from a large restaurant supply company was a disappointing vehicle for these burgers.
SCORE: The average sandwich score was 50.0; Casey’s hot steak fries averaged 7.1.
The Corner Brewery
720 Norris St.
Ypsilanti, MI 48198
The younger sibling to Arbor Brewing, the Corner was a runaway winner as “Washtenaw County’s Best Brewpub” in March’s “Beer Odyssey.” Co-owners Matt and Rene Greff are vegetarians, but their grass-fed beef is an example of their strong commitment to local sourcing. Despite its common ownership, however, there are some differences from Arbor Brewing in the source of the food. In particular, the wheat bun at the Corner detracted, being too dry and dominant for most tastes, although it was substantial enough to hold the well-cooked, flavorful burger.
SCORE: Our basic cheeseburger scored at 48.2, with fries at a resounding zero.
That’s because the Corner, incredibly, sells none.
Ann Arbor, MI, 48104
In my “Best of Ann Arbor Bars” article last fall, I wrote, “I have to give the nod [for Ann Arbor’s “Best Bar”] to Fraser’s Pub, the granddaddy sports bar of them all. A hangout for jocks and ex-jocks, business and law students, regulars young and old, of every age, color, size and shape, there’s not a person alive who would walk into Frasers and feel out of place. A recent renovation has added a worthy patio, not to mention a self-contained and high quality pizza kitchen to complement the first rate burgers, beer, and massive Long Islands.”
We ordered the signature “Fraser Burger” which is a 1/2 lb. Knight’s meat patty with American cheese; with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo. Add fries and it’s $8.79. As Dave noted, “The burgers came out really rare – very nice and consequently were very tasty.” The well seasoned beef more than compensated for the average bread and ingredients, including the iceberg lettuce topping. And there’s something about those Fraser fries, which are always hot, fresh and crispy, with a basket being a reliable table snack for those late night bar crowds.
But perhaps the biggest hit of the evening was the side order of “sliders,” with nicely hand-formed, quickly seared beef patties on soft, steamed bread.
SCORE: Frasers’ scores were consistently good to very good, averaging 49.3, and 7.1 for the fries.
117 W. Washington
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Chef Eve Aronoff’s newest venture opened just last fall, and for those accustomed to the prices of her former high-end restaurant “eve,” the $7 “Beef Frita” is an amazing deal, complete with a handful of shoestring fries. Sky called it the “best deal, hands down.”
Eve is passionately dedicated to high quality and locally sourced food. Her grass-fed beef comes from local butcher Bob Sparrow, who maintains personal relationship with local farms (and perhaps even some of the cows). She serves her Beef Frita – essentially, a hamburger inspired by Cuban and other tropical weather culinary influences – on a buttery Zingerman’s brioche bun, presented on a banana leaf, unadorned except for the chili mayo and fries right on the beef.
But. My. God! This burger blew us away. Every scoresheet but Pierre’s had 10’s on it, and Pierre was all 9’s and 8’s. Sky called it “money;” Heather said “tasting it makes it.” Thom, playfully, called it a “fun palate cleanser.” The sweet chili mayo was spicy sweet and complemented the beef beautifully. Mike noted the clean beefy flavor of the burger, and the great combination of tastes. The brioche was a perfect foil, moist inside with crispy edges.
SCORE: A near perfect 64.9 on a scale of 70; fries 8.6.
Grange Kitchen & Bar
118 W. Liberty St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
As I was sitting at Grange’s bar one evening, savoring an amazing hamburger, I asked chef/co-owner Brandon Johns where he got his beef. “For that burger,” he said, “I slaughtered it myself this morning.”
That’s the kind of attitude that gets you a “10” on the scoresheet for “sourcing of ingredients.”
We kicked off our Odyssey there with two offerings – a brunch burger with a sweet and savory bacon jam, fried egg, and garlic mayo; and a charcuterie burger with lardon (pure pork fat), pork terrine, housemade pickles, onion jam, and mustard. They are served on an Avalon Bakery brioche bun.
The brunch burger edged the pork-enhanced one. Rosemarie called it “simple, elegant burger nirvana.” The pork terrine burger was an upscale version of Blue Tractor’s Carnivore Burger. The lardo lent a juiciness to the beef, and Chris noted the pork terrine had a slightly crunchy edge with a moist interior, delicious with the onion jam.
SCORE: Final burger tally: 64.7 out of 70, just behind Frita; duck fat fries come in at 8.5.
Great Plains Burgers
1771 Plymouth Rd.
Ann Arbor MI 48105
Rosemarie got what they’re trying to do, “a very familiar, elevated version of the McDonald’s burgers I loved as a kid, but with locally sourced, grass fed beef.”
The meat is from Gordon’s in Grand Rapids, raised with no hormones or antibiotics, served on a Zingerman’s roll, with Guernsey dairy shakes. They put a twist on the basic-burger structure by offering some homemade sauces, like curry, wasabi, Guinness/onion, and Old Bay. Also available is a freshly made black bean burger, a nice alternative to the frozen soy patties other places serve vegetarians. And the price is right, $4.69 for a burger, with most toppings free.
We tried a classic American cheeseburger, a Swiss cheeseburger with mushrooms and grilled onions, and one with a too-hard fried egg and BBQ sauce.
This was Patti’s favorite “basic burger” place, but she cautioned that Great Plains should focus on the basics and “stay away from eggs and stuff like that,” suggesting “Good and plain at Great Plains” as a motto. Thom echoed the same sentiment, preferring the classic American cheeseburger, as did Sky, who liked the good beef flavor and proper doneness.
SCORE: Burger average 47.7; fries 6.4.
120 W. Washington
Ann Arbor MI 48104
Local brewpub “The Peak” is also known for its food quality, so we were looking forward to eating there. We sampled their signature “Steakhouse Burger” made with Piedmont-ese style beef – bred via Italy, in Montana! (Or was it the other way around?). This breed is noted for its tenderness and leaner, healthier properties. This burger was presented beautifully, served with a béarnaise sauce and crispy fried onions, lettuce and tomato, on an Avalon onion roll. We liked the patty; Mike noted its char-grilled taste, which Patti raved “tasted like it was right off the grill.” But on the whole, the sandwich was less than the sum of its parts. I felt it should have had more flavor for what was on it, not to mention its $10.50 price tag. The béarnaise was too thin and subtle, and the onions did not stand out. That was true of the onion roll as well, which some found too bland and a bit dry.
This burger also was an excellent example of why restaurants should not automatically garnish with lettuce and tomato. It would have been better to punch up the béarnaise and crispy onion.
SCORE: Burger average 48.7; fries 6.0.
Jolly Pumpkin Café
311 S. Main St.
Ann Arbor MI 48104
This 2009 addition to the Main Street restaurant scene complements their award-winning craft brews with an eclectic menu, including lots of vegetarian options. They sat us in the Hawaiian room, which made Patti very happy. We ordered the signature JP burger ($13), with a triple-cream cambozola cheese, crimini mushrooms, and thick-cut Berkshire bacon, served on a soft, Avalon toasted challah roll, garnished with a sweet zucchini pickle.
TMZ ranch in Chelsea, Michigan supplies the grass-fed beef, albeit in frozen patty form. It was lean, clean, and good. But what made this burger special was the cambozola, from the R. Hirt Jr. Gourmet shop in Detroit’s Eastern Market, creamy and brie-like with bleu tones.
Another highlight was the crispy fries, tossed with truffle oil, rosemary, and sea salt, served with aioli (garlic mayo).
SCORE: Burger average 53.4; fries a worthy 8.8.
2324 Dexter Ave.
Ann Arbor MI 48103
Upon visiting Knight’s, the most impressive aspect was the wait. At no other restaurant did our panel, on a spring weekday, have to deal with such throngs. But this is typical for the venerable west-side eatery, where you can always count on a satisfying meal in a family/neighborhood atmosphere, replete with old-school wood paneling and Naugahyde.
Half pound, freshly ground Knight’s Market specialty burgers, served with fries, were no more than $6.95. We got a classic with American cheese, a Knight Burger with bleu cheese and mushrooms, and a Swiss cheese offering with mushrooms and onions. The patties are served on a workaday Pepperidge Farm bun, nothing fancy, centered on a plate with a frilly toothpick.
The beef is the star here; cooked to perfection, with a slight char outside, great pink color inside, and just the right amount of fat for juicy mouthfeel. Not all the ingredients were fresh; what seemed to be canned mushrooms were the biggest sin.
SCORE: Burger average 41.1; ordinary fries 5.6.
122 W. Liberty
Ann Arbor MI 48104
This classic townie bar serves a classic bar burger, with Knight’s beef, no less. We got an American cheese traditional, and a bleu cheese version ($7.75 with hot, fresh steak fries).
Patti called the beef “juicy yumminess – Knight’s can’t go wrong,” adding, “This was a good old fashioned burger – no need for artisanal cheese and bread baked by organic elves – just good, honest-to-goodness greasy beef!” Others were more balanced. Chris called it a “typical pub burger,” and Rosemarie the deliciously incongruent “good for an average burger.”
The sandwich was diminished a bit by out-of-season tomato and lettuce and a forgetful slice of American cheese-like product. The bleu cheese burger was better. Old Town was our last destination of the first Odyssey night. Patti commented on leaving, “I can actually feel my ass getting bigger, Nick” – as if I had something to do with it.
SCORE: Burger average 46.6; fries 6.8.
Bar & Grill
800 S. State St.
Ann Arbor MI 48104
This campus eatery’s outdoor sign features the salacious illustration of a wild blonde woman riding a hamburger, bronco-style. Everything else is more sedate. Ordering is done counter-style, with a few seats by the window, a Spartan eating area down the steps, and a outdoor corner area on Hill Street, with a flat screen TV mounted on the outside brick wall.
A 1/3 lb. cheeseburger is only $5.00, beef is from Knight’s, and we were pleased to see a whole grain bun. Quickie’s unique touch is its “secret sauce,” which another local paper once called “mayonnaise-based,” prompting a letter of protest from Quickie’s owners. Whatever is in it, it’s a pink, Big-Mac type condiment that lends a touch of sweetness to the sandwich.
It’s easy to eat, but otherwise as I noted “remarkable in its unremarkableness.” The meat was overdone, the bread cold, and there were sparse ingredients of the usual iceberg-mushy tomato variety.
SCORE: Burger average 34.6; fries 5.3.
56 E. Cross St.
Ypsilanti MI 48198
Depot Town’s Sidetrack may be the most famous hamburger venue in Washtenaw County. In 2005, it was named one of the 20 best hamburgers in the U.S. by GQ Magazine; Oprah also named it as one of her “Best of the Best.” The Sidetrack also has something that no place in Ann Arbor not named the Fleetwood has: a kitchen that stays open late (2am).
But the beef is what put them on the map. They are somewhat secretive about it, saying on the menu that it’s a “proprietary blend from Hiller’s Market.” It was the worst bread (by far) that we encountered in Odyssey – a mealy, mushy mess that turned into soggy crumbles below the beef.
And what of that beef? Mine was a perfectly cooked medium rare, tender and juicy.The ingredients were fairly worthy. The cheese was good and melted well. Vegetables came from Frog Holler and the co-op across the street. The bun, from a southeast Michigan bakery, dragged down Sidetrack’s scores.
SCORE: Burger average 45.1; fresh, skin on fries 7.4.
2501 Jackson Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Hearkening back to Rosemarie’s scale, for sourcing of ingredients, that you get a “10” if you personally knew the cow, the Roadhouse gets an 11. Chef Alex Young created his own ranch in Dexter just so they can raise their own grass-fed beef under their own exacting specifications. Zingerman’s makes their own cheeses and breads, and they also grow much of their own produce. In short: they walk the walk.
Zingerman’s also blows away the competition when it comes to service. Our server Sharon was running around, fetching us napkins, toothpicks (to hold our ¼ share burger wedges together, and when it came time, she introduced us to Jenny the Butcher, English teacher by day and butcher by night. In her bloody apron, Jenny cheerfully discussed her craft, how she breaks down the beef quarters that come into her kitchen, and ultimately grinds the beef that was on our plates.
Zingerman’s is an anomaly in grilling their burgers; theoretically this makes for a slightly dryer patty, but the flavor was superb. We got a 2-year old cheddar burger, one with Zingerman’s goat cheese with Arkansas peppered bacon, and a third with Maytag Bleu Cheese. All were excellent, and Mike was especially grateful for the leaf lettuce and red onion garnish with NO tomato.
SCORE: A burger average of 64.3 and a respectable French fry score of 8.5 for their skin-on, fresh cut, twice fried Idahos.
On our seventy point scale, the runaway top three were as follows:
1. Frita Batidos – 64.9
2. Grange – 64.7
3. Zingerman’s Roadhouse – 64.3
No other burger scored above a 53.4.
Best fries went to Jolly Pumpkin (8.8).
We truly did not find a bad burger in the bunch. Even those that scored at the bottom of our scoresheets were decent hamburgers. From there, they went up to very good, excellent, and at the top of the list, sublime. So much of the burger experience depends on the ambience, service, and of course, the company you keep. And on that note, to my own friends who joined me on the Burger Odyssey – thank you. We had a lot of fun, bigger asses notwithstanding.