January 21, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

Burger patrol 

The science of local patties, fries, and yum factors

Maybe Don's Original says all that needs saying. Don's, you might know, is "where quality predominates" and where "there will be no compromise with quality." These are both pretty funny. "Predominate" means, roughly, "prevail," but that implies a struggle. With what, I wonder, does quality struggle at Don's? And does it (the foe) ever get into my burger? Moreover, what about the choice of preposition in the second slogan; don't they mean, "there will be no compromise on quality?"

        The hamburger is, let's face it, a dubious food these days. If you haven't read Fast Food Nation, you have a friend who has, and you've been lectured. Now, with mad-cow madness running rampant, you have to be a bit daring to keep going out for that most American of meals, a cheeseburger and fries (malted with that?). Daring or dumb, really.

        So, City Newspaper assembled the most daring and dumb to tackle --- drum roll, please --- The Burger Patrol. Burgerologist, singer, and macho-techno-nerd Stan Merrell was the first to get the call, with his unquestioned credentials. Next, we turned to Saxon Recording czar Dave Anderson, progenitor of "The Saxon Sound," and a man with odd little things to say about almost any food that rational people avoid.

        Jennifer Turney, a.k.a. "Geek Girl," Queen of Programmers, showed that even those who weigh less than a hundred pounds can partake of the oleaginous life. The multi-talented Polly Barker rounded out the team, dissing almost all the burgers we tried with curt wit and charm.

        From February until September of 2003, we went to at least 33 local eateries. At each place, we tried the most standard cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and shakes (for a while, at least). We also tried one or two specialty burgers, if available, and paid special attention to proprietary hot sauces (the fabled "Rochester sauces"). After a while, we started assessing Garbage-plate-like offerings as well. We took notes on napkins, backs of menus, pages of training manuals, and even receipts. Four months later, I sit trying to make sense of it.

        This isn't something we recommend you try. Over the course of the last year, I was diagnosed with mild gall bladder dysfunction, and my weight and blood pressure increased. Coincidence? Uh-uh. It was fun, though.

The history of the hamburger is fairly apocryphal. The name probably comes from attempts to recreate a "Hamburg-style steak," which was ground beef, actually served raw back in Germany. Here in the States, there are many claims to being the first to develop the sandwich-style, cooked hamburger. Perhaps it was "Hamburger Charlie" Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, who, we're told, served the first hamburger at the Outgamie Country Fair in 1885.

        Perhaps not. Sailors brought the idea of a ground-beef-patty-and-fried-egg sandwich back from a Hamburger (that's a resident of Hamburg) named Otto Kuasw in the 1890s. Another claim has a Western New York connection. The Menches family of Ohio says it invented the hamburger at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, New York, when heat and humidity forced them to stop butchering pigs. There are more. In all probability, the hamburger was a good idea waiting to happen, and a bunch of folks stumbled upon it around the same time.

        White Castle opened in 1921, and ushered in the era of the fast-food chain. McDonald's wasn't actually a hamburger restaurant until the mid-'50s, and by that time, Rochester had already had Bill Gray's original restaurant for almost two decades. Today, Americans eat an average of 3 hamburgers per week, and here in Rochester, who knows, maybe more.

We identified two broad types of local burger. You have the relatively inexpensive fried or grilled product, served by the places that want to lure the McDonald's crowd. This is what you get at Bill Gray's, Schaller's, Tom Wahl's, LDR Char Pit, and their ilk. In many cases, this type isn't so much about the cooked, ground meat as it is about the overall gestalt of the thing, its sloppy yum factor, if you will.

        On the other hand, there are the burgers you get at pubs and "nice" restaurants, where the menus proclaim things like "one-half pound of genuine Colorado beef," or "100% Angus beef." These often come on a higher grade of roll, or with fancy toppings like Maytag bleu cheese, smoked gouda, or applewood-smoked bacon. They cost more, and the kids probably won't like them. This broad category would include places like Lindburger's, LoLa, Charley Brown's, and even the Grill at Strathallan.

        Not all burgers fall neatly into a category. Dickie's serves a burger that leans both ways, and is also in the middle on price. The Coal Tower has a menu section for each type. But it's a useful distinction.

What do we look for in a burger? Well, there is, of course, the thing-in-itself, the Kantian hamburger-an-sich. Is it good meat? How big is it? Is it juicy? Does it have flavor in and of itself or imparted by grilling? If we specified medium-rare, did it come medium-rare? There are many ways to look at this, and the members of the team were not of a single mind.

        There was no disagreement on the burger at Charley Brown's in Penfield (1675 Penfield Road, 385-9202). There, the half-pound Charley Burgers are made of excellent ground beef, juicy and flavorful, cooked perfectly to specs. It almost made me cry. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que also got high marks from most of the team (99 Court Street, 325-7090). Stan went so far as to say, "Wow! Even better than their pulled pork, ribs, and other vittles."

        Also near the top were the burgers at LoLa (630 Monroe Avenue, 271-0320), Jeremiah's (1104 Monroe Avenue, 461-1313), and, not surprisingly, the Grill at Strathallan. Lindburger's --- actually part of a Florida-based chain --- is a favorite of a few people we talked to, but didn't go over well with the team (2157 Penfield Road, 388-9420). The burgers were almost spherical, making them most difficult to eat and texturally odd.

        We very much enjoyed the burger itself at a couple of bars, Dickie's (791 Meigs Street, 442-5646) and the Atlantic Tavern (60 Atlantic Avenue, 271-2412). There was a moment of silence observed when the Empire Brewing Company closed, because that burger just rocked.

        None of the straight-up burger joints make the list purely on the quality of the patty. But we were pleasantly surprised by Mark's Texas Hots (487 Monroe Avenue, 473-1563), which had an excellent, large, fried burger with flavor. (Don't scoff at frying; it's the method James Beard preferred and can better preserve flavor and juices.) You can get great char pit taste at the Char Broil House (1395 Island Cottage) and LDR Char Pit (4753 Lake Avenue, 865-0112). Generally, we thought the burgers at Bill Gray's and Tom Wahl's were a cut above those at Schaller's and Don's Original, all of these better than Vic & Irv's.

A burger isn't just about a piece of ground, formed, cooked meat. There's also the bun and the toppings, and closely related, the overall mojo. You see a lot of DiPaolo rolls and a few by Martusciello's, a nice step up from the flimsy, cakey, fast-food type. A good tomato is hard to find, but grilled toppings abound, and of course we have the famous Rochester sauce: the spicy, ground-meat-based stuff you get when you ask for hot sauce in most area burger pads. Cheeses vary, and so does bacon.

        In many Rochester burgeries, "everything" will get you a fairly sharp taste, very unlike the sweetness of a Big Mac or a Whopper. Onions, mustard, and hot sauce are the rule here, making your mouth sit up and take notice. But you can customize your burger endlessly in most places.

        For sheer variety, it's hard to beat Lindburgers, with 50 varieties (if you can figure out how to eat a seven-inch, meat-orb monstrosity). Contrariwise, Stan roundly criticizes LoLa for having nothing but a bacon-bleu burger, even if it does have fabulous bacon, truly caramelized onions, and real bleu cheese (this was one of my favorites). At Zebb's (1890 Clinton Avenue, 271-1440), you can get just about anything you want à la carte, with all cold toppings free on the toppings bar and all hot stuff (sautéed onions or shrooms, bacon) having an extra charge associated.

        The Hollywood Burger at Tom Wahl's was a great example of a burger with some mojo. With just cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo, it was pronounced, "a sloggy mess" (we tried the Wahl's in Bushnell's Basin, 586-4920). Bill Gray's goes in the same category (we went to the new flagship at 4870 Culver Road, 266-7820).

        Toppings were high-quality and cheese was abundant at Jeremiah's, making for a most enjoyable experience. That goes double for Charley Brown's, where the sautéed mushrooms were easily the best we tried. Jason Soule, chef at the Grill at Strathallan, didn't let us down here, giving us top-quality tomato, lettuce, and bacon. But there was a certain slop deficit at the Grill (Jason, you can come up with something, I trust), which leads us to sauces.

        The McDonald's-style "special sauce" isn't a big hit in Rochester, apparently. Charlie Reidel's has a mayo-based sauce on its Charlie Burger (not at all to be confused with the Charley Burger at Charley Brown's), but that's an exception (we went to the Charlie's at 1843 Empire Boulevard, 671-4320). Our preference is that brown, oozy, spicy, meaty stuff we call "hot sauce." And those vary.

        At one extreme, you've got a little meat and cayenne floating in oil. It's like that at Irondequoit Hotts (635 Titus Avenue, 266-3670). Stan approves of sauces he describes as "Greeky" (meaning made by a Greek, apparently). Hitchcock's had a thick, smooth sauce that was both hot and high on cumin (881 Merchants Avenue, 482-4965). We liked that. LDR got high marks for heat and flavor, but theirs was also oily. Of the burger joints, Don's Original had our favorite hot sauce (we went to the Brighton location, 2545 Monroe Avenue, 244-2080).

        A few places are a bit outside the normal range with this stuff. Some, like the Char Broil House, serve a sweet sauce that tastes almost like chili. Jeremiah's is almost a wing sauce with meat, an interesting idea that didn't impress the judges.

        Hot sauce is especially important if you're going to have a Garbage-Plate-like phenomenon. For the unwashed, a quick recap: one or two hams or hots on top of mac salad, fries or homefries, and sometimes beans, doused with hot sauce. It was "invented" at Nick Tahou, where it's still pretty good (320 West Main Street, 464-9173). None of the "nice" restaurants serve a plate, and that's a shame. A juicy, Angus burger would kick butt in this context. Somebody should do it.

        In the meantime, one of our favorites is the Mark's Sloppy Plate, with a decent burger, very cold mac salad, good fries, a hot if not distinctive hot sauce, and the options of grilled onions and mustard (both a must in my book). But the Atlantic Family Restaurant's Sloppy Plate is king (888 Ridge Road, 671-2149). The burger almost reaches above its station, the fries are so crisp, and the hot sauce is rich, aromatic, and truly hot.

Sides are another factor. The fried potato sits next to the burger regally, looking right, tasting right, and perfect for sopping up whatever falls off the burger. Many places serve other potato products, and we made a point of trying onion rings everywhere. Some places give you choices outside of fried roots.

        "French fries" is a broad term. There are straight and crinkle cut, skin-on, criss-cross, steak fries, and variations beyond the imagination. We were looking for crispness on the outside, with real potato flavor and texture inside. Stan is a notable exception, with an odd predilection for limp fries. Furthermore, Stan eschews fries that are cooked with a coating (à la Burger King), often a shortcut to a crisp product. So, while most of the Patrol gave good marks to a place like Flaherty's (1200 Bay Road, 671-0816), where the fries were nice and crisp, Stan pronounced them "coated" with disdain.

        Tom Wahl's has an excellent fry, perfectly cooked in our estimation. Bill Gray's crinkle-cut fries also passed muster. Vic & Irv's (4880 Culver Road, 323-9290), if I understand my frying science, needs to get the oil a little hotter to produce the requisite interior steam to keep the oil out. Many of the diners did well, including Mark's and the Atlantic Family Restaurant. And the "nice" restaurants did very well, with terrific steak fries at LoLa, the Grill at Strathallan, and the much-lamented Empire Brewing Company.

        Among the unusual spud offerings, Charlie Brown's palm-fried potatoes, which might be fried slices of baked potato, stood out. They have fabulous flavor and texture, and come with mayo for dipping, which works beautifully. Richmond's Cajun fries --- spiced, fresh potato chips --- were delicious and came in an unbelievably large portion (21 Richmond Avenue, 454-4612). The Coal Tower serves regular, curly, or criss-cross fries, all cooked very well (9 Schoen Place, 381-7866). We didn't like Jeremiah's steak fries, which were limp, but their curly Cajun fries were great.

        Zebb's gets a special mention because their menu tells you to send the fries back if they aren't crisp. They often aren't. As the menu says, let's all send them back when they aren't, and maybe the kitchen will get the message. When Zebb's does get it right, it's a nice basket of fresh-cut, curly fries.

        In onion rings, we looked for a crisp coating that wasn't too bready, and a substantial piece of onion that held its identity. Many places served an acceptable, if uninspiring, frozen product (Tom Wahl's, for example). Vic & Irv's had surprisingly good, fresh-cut rings. The bars --- where they have beer for the batter --- made some great rings. Hitchcock's rings had thick slices of onion, and Richmond's had excellent rings, albeit in a skimpy portion. Jeremiah's got our vote for having the best, perfectly cooked, with flavorful batter and sweet onions, in a generous portion. The Highland Park Diner also makes terrific rings (960 South Clinton Avenue, 461-5040).

        Charlie Reidel's earned our ire for "squooshy" rings, and Flaherty's were also particularly unsatisfying. You know the rings are bad when you get one order for a group, and don't finish it. Zebb's again gets a special mention for worst ring value. The restaurant's very good rings cost almost a dollar apiece. Yikes.

        Fries and rings are standard, but we appreciated the places that gave us other choices. At Unkl Moe's (493 West Avenue, 464-8240), for example, you can put candied yams, collards, fried okra, or any number of things next to that burger. Same for the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where I always get garlic-ginger green beans. It's also got sweet corn bread, barbecued baked beans, and real mashed potatoes. Burger joints should follow the lead of barbecue places and offer more choices.

        At the beginning, we tried shakes everywhere that had them. But we just couldn't keep that up. We all liked them at Bill Gray's, and gave points to Schaller's for having malt. Vic & Irv's was thin, and my notes don't go much farther. Also on the drink front, Tom Wahl's gets a special achievement award for having its own root beer. It's not spectacular, like the root beer at the Empire Brewing Company was, but it's a cut above Barq's and Mug.

We had a guest patroller who couldn't see why anyone would go to the Charlie Reidel's of the world, preferring pub and "nice" restaurant burgers. Well, one reason would be money, although the difference isn't always what you might think. Also, keep in mind that some of our research was done almost a year ago, so prices might well have changed (particularly with the recent increases in the price of beef).

        At most of the burger joints, the burgers are relatively inexpensive, but sides --- and sometimes toppings --- are à la carte. A Hollywood Burger and large fries at Tom Wahl's, for example, will run you $4.64 (not including tax). At Bill Gray's, that'll be $5; at Charlie Reidel's, it's $4.79; and at Schaller's, it's $4.65. All those prices include cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and hot sauce. Lots of places look cheap until you do some math. But basically, all those places and the others you'd expect --- Don's Original, LDR Char Pit, Char Broil House, Mark's Texas Hots, Irondequoit Hots, Nick Tahou's --- fall roughly between $4.50 and $5.50.

        You'd think that the "nice" restaurants would be more expensive, and they are, generally speaking, but not by much. In some cases, the inclusion of fries makes them even cheaper. The bars do particularly well on value. Hitchcock's and Jeremiah's both come in at $5.50 for a relatively large cheeseburger and fries (though we liked Jeremiah's much better). The Atlantic Tavern is even better at $5.25, and that's just a great burger, big, meaty, juicy, sloppy, and toppings included. LoLa's burger with fries is also a great value. It's $6, but that's with bacon, and was one of the best we had.

        The diners had the very best deals. At Jay's (2612 West Henrietta Road, 424-3710), $5.25 gets you the cheeseburger, fries, and coleslaw. The Nutcracker is also a good value at $4.65 for a cheeseburger and fries (2159 Empire Boulevard, 671-4353). But perhaps the best deal in town is at the Atlantic Family Restaurant, where that same package is a phenomenal $3.75. This for a burger we considered one of the best in its class.

        Most expensive? Well, Flaherty's struck us as a poor value, with a mediocre burger and fries costing $6.75. But the most expensive places were Charley Brown's and the Grill at Strathallan, both of which charge about $8 for a cheeseburger and fries. In both cases, you get what you pay for, though: Theirs are a couple of the best-quality burgers in town. They're also big, and the sides and service are exceptional.

Environment and service are crucial. The Burger Patrol very much enjoyed the Atlantic Tavern, which had serious drinking going on at noon on a Wednesday and a sign reading "No motorcycles on the sidewalk." It was, let's say, colorful. But I'd never take my kids there. I actually have taken my kids to Dickie's, where the service is like your old buddies having you over, but the drink-while-you-wait pacing just isn't great for a family.

        Stan says his favorite has to be the best place to go with his family. He and I --- the two patrollers with young children --- heartily endorse Tom Wahl's for families. It's fun, clean, and quick. My kids love the fun little boxes the food comes in. Bill Gray's is carefully designed to be family-friendly, and it is. It's clean, large, and bright; you get served quickly; there are kids' meals; and they've always got coupons. But while it is a local business, it doesn't much feel like it. The new one at Sea Breeze seems more like a thruway stop.

        Many of our burger pads have a palpable aura of history. Don Barbato opened the original Don & Bob's (which is now Don's Original) in the '50s. The Schaller family has run its restaurants just as long, and Tom Wahl's is also that old. Bill Gray's goes all the way back to 1938. The fast-franchising Wahl's and Gray's have lost that sense of place for the most part, but Don's Original, LDR, the Char Broil House, and Schaller's three locations all still have it in spades. Of those, our favorite was LDR Char Pit, where old photos of and clippings about the Charlotte area send you to another time. The Palumbo family has run LDR continuously since 1945.

        The diners are also nice for families. The remodeled Jay's is big, bright, and comfy. Highland Park Diner handles families exceptionally well, although you often have to wait, which is awful with kids. The Atlantic, the Nutcracker, the Coal Tower, and Zebb's all are generally good for families, too.

        The bars, of course, are much better places to eat with the smoking ban in effect (for most people). Jeremiah's is a nice place to go with a group, relatively spacious and with all that great wood. The service was fast and friendly at MacGregor's. We were very happy at Hitchcock's when they traded our first, surly waitress for a second who was a peach, and we appreciated the Lotto tix on the table. Dickie's has history, space, a pool table, and one of the world's greatest jukeboxes.

So, what's the best place in town for burgers? Ah, the old answer: it depends what you're looking for. We all loved everything about the Empire Brewing Company, from the burger, to the sides, to the feel, service, and our perception of the value. But it's gone.

        Both Jennifer and Stan felt that the Dinosaur offered one of the best overall experiences, though the volume of the place turns me off, and the wait can be long. Charley Brown's had what most of us thought was the best burger --- and those great palm fries --- but it's pricey as a burger destination.

        On the less expensive side, we all liked the Atlantic Family Restaurant. It has the best burger deal in town, good quality, great hot sauce, the best plate in town, and is family-friendly. What more could you want? We also enjoyed Mark's, which was Polly's favorite overall. Tom Wahl's scores high for all the reasons discussed earlier, and so does Bill Gray's, lack of personality notwithstanding. LDR Char Pit is undoubtedly cool, and who can resist that wild, cracked tile floor at the Char Broil House?

        In the category of places you might overlook, the true local burger aficionado has to get to Dickie's, where a half-pound of freshly ground beef sits on a nice roll with all the toppings you can think of for $4.50 ($3.50 on Wednesday nights). As I wrote a few years back, it's a glorious, gluttonous mess. The Atlantic Tavern is another place with a slammin' bar burger, large and juicy, with fries and all toppings for $5.25.

        The gist is that when you want a hamburger in Rochester, you sure as shootin' have some options. From funky burger pads with piles of history, to slick semi-chains, to fine restaurants with burgers fit for a county executive, we've got it. Our hot sauce is our defining ingredient, and the Garbage Plate is our signature tangential food, much-maligned by snobs, but frankly delicious. Have you had your three burgers this week?

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