Craig LaBan's Favorite Burgers

Posted: May 24, 2007

Here are Craig LaBan's favorite burgers in the Philadelphia region, in no particular order:

Good Dog Bar and Restaurant

The Cheese-Stuffed Wonder

The burger that inspired the song "Cheeseburger, I Hold," Good Dog's signature sandwich triumphs where so many before have tried and failed - stuffing a burger with blue cheese. The meat itself is deliciously seasoned, perfectly cooked, and wisely topped only with a mop of sauteed onions. But bite into the heart, and behold. A river of molten bleu. A powerhouse of tangy savor. Too rich to be an everyday burger. But can you hear the music playing? Order it no more than medium-rare, or risk losing the cheese.

$9, at 224 S. 15th St., 215-985-9600.

Barclay Prime

Sliders de Luxe

Kobe burgers are a dangerous thing - the meat is so rich that bigger patties typically become mush. That's why I find Barclay's precious 2 oz. sliders - petite, yet still plump - to be Kobe's finest form. Built on the house-baked brioche buns to be the ultimate artisan burger, these darlings offer a miniature symphony in every bite - crispy rich roll, tangy Gruyere, sweet onions, and a pad of profoundly buttery meat. Each pair is gone before you want them to be, but these sliders also linger hauntingly in my imagination long after the meal is over.

$16, at 237 S. 18th St., 215-732-7560.

Rouge

The Show-Off

Talented chef Matthew Zagorski really does know how to cook a $30 piece of fish. But Rouge will probably forever be known as the ritziest burger joint in America, cranking out as many as 150 at a busy lunch. The enormous 13-ounce patties, topped with Gruyere, hydroponic Boston bibb, and butter-toasted brioche buns, are tailor-made for turning heads at a cafe that's all about being seen. It turns out the two-inch high patties – ground sirloin, rib eye and filet tips seared to a perfect crust in cast-iron pans by cook Francisco Geronimo - are a drop-dead delicious spokesmodel for the thick burger school. Yes, it's $15, but there should be some left over for your hungry pug, too.

$15, at 205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622.

Brown's Restaurant

The Beach Grill Dream

The bacon mushroom cheeseburger at this venerable boardwalk doughnut shop and grill is my simplistic ideal in classic burger perfection, framed by paper plate. It could be the pure freshness and deft handling of the modest hand-formed sirloin patties, ground every day at Boyar's Market nearby. Or it could be the sea air and salty surf that stoke an insatiable burger appetite. I'm normally not a well-done kind of guy, but I typically need two of these before a Shore day can go on.

$4.25, at 110 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-391-0677.

Snow White

Old-School Griddle

You don't expect burger greatness when you walk into humble Snow White, but as chef Vincent McKnight says, "There ain't no secret to these burgers, 'cause the secret is me." It helps that McKnight gets his meat ground fresh at the little market around the corner, and that the staff hand-forms every 5 oz. patty. But in the genre of classic well-done luncheonette burgers, there's no replacement for 18 years' worth of experience, and McKnight has the touch (the careful pokes and gentle squeeze, the finishing shake of peppery salt) to make each one right. As a bonus, bacon also gets cooked to order and folded fresh and pliant from the griddle over the sandwich. By the time it reaches your mouth, it's already crisp. At $4 apiece, go crazy.

$4, at 1901 Chestnut St., 215-569-0909.

Blackfish

The Big Burb Burger

There are more sophisticated, more haute things to order at this superb new suburban BYO. But there's a reason everyone in the room stared enviously when four plates bearing burgers landed at our table at Blackfish. These burgers were so handsome, they were magnetic. The 9 oz. patties of ground Angus top sirloin (goosed with extra filet and strip) crackled with a well-seasoned crust, thanks to a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt and chef Chip Roman's searing-hot cast-iron pans. The toppings, of course, lean gourmet, from the sautéed king oyster mushrooms to the oozy Lancaster brie to the excellent toasted brioche buns from Georges Perrier's bakery. Oh, là-là - it was good.

$9, 119 Fayette St., Conshohocken, 610-397-0888.

Charlie's Hamburgers

The Shack Patty

They still call it the "new place" though this modest white Delco shack has been grilling up bitty burgers in Folsom for 20 years. A previous 50-year run at its first location in Springfield is responsible for Charlie's tall reputation. But the folks behind this "new" counter still know how to do it right - grinding the meat on location and carefully flattening those tiny scoops of loosely packed burger on a well-seasoned griddle, where the meat takes on an intensely savory, caramelized-edge crisp. Beware overly complicated combinations, as the toppings (yes, even mustard and ketchup) easily overwhelm the delicate meat. I covet the double cheeseburger with nothing but raw onions and a last-minute shake of peppery salt - plus a toasty white bun swabbed ever so slyly in the gorgeous shine of grease pooling on the grill. You'll need more than one.

$3.28, 336 Kedron Ave., Folsom, 610-461-4228.

Matyson

Burger Still Life

The burger at this innovative BYOB is so carefully hand-crafted - from the house-baked brioche bun to the carefully half-charred onion round, a slice of sharp Lancaster cheddar, slow-roasted tomatoes (to cheat the seasons) and the plume of soft bibb lettuce - that it looks like a work of art. The bun is a little too delicate, in fact, and the house-ground meat is a notch too fine for ultimate perfection. But the flavors, oh the flavors, were meant to be eaten, not watched.

$10, at 37 S. 19th St., 215-564-2925.

London Grill

The Aristocrat

This Fairmount institution was updating pub food long before anyone knew what a gastro-pub was, and the London's signature burger - posed an English muffin, but of course - remains one of the city's best. Made from a half-pound of good Lancaster organic beef, I like mine topped with retro herbed boursin cheese and caramelized onions. It's still the menu's most reliable bet.

$9.50, at 2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545.

Honey's Sit'n'Eat

The Tzaftig Melt

Hip Northern Liberties is one of our best burger 'hoods, from Standard Tap to N. 3rd. But Honey's gives the burger its unique Jewish deli twist by updating the patty melt. The 8 oz. black angus rounds are very good, and memorably juicy. But they're even better sandwiched with caramelized onions between two extra-thick slices of Hudson Bakery's seeded rye that have been griddled to a buttery deli crisp.

$9.50, at 800 N. 4th St., 215-925-1150.

Trinity Pub

The Batter Burger

It's not as if a good burger needs to be deep-fried. But Irish-born chef Martin Doyle insists this is an authentic late-night staple on Dublin's fish-and-chip row, so I'm eating it. I didn't want the bun. The crispy beer batter was all the bread a burger needs. A sassy curried dip on the side gives it the ultimate U.K. twist.

$10, at The Pier Shops at Caesars, 1 Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City, 609-345-6900.

Honorable mentions

Grace Tavern, 2229 Gray's Ferry Ave., 215-893-9580

Royal Tavern, 937 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-389-6694

Vintage, 129 S. 13th St., 215-922-3095

Tangier Restaurant, 1801 S. 18th St., 215-732-5006

Chaucer's Tabard Inn, 1946 Lombard St., 215-985-9663.

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