Food fashions and fads come and go, but one thing never changes: We are a hamburger-loving people.
Food fashions and fads come and go, but one thing never changes: We are a hamburger-loving people.
Yup, I inevitably run into a lot of burgers in my line of, umm, "work." News flash: They're as prevalent and in demand as ever.
In fact, most of the best patty sandwiches I sampled over the last year were served in the best new restaurants to premiere in Columbus in 2016. A few standouts I enjoyed came from menus of eateries not necessarily known for their burgers, but should be.
This got me thinking. Sure, the Thurman Burger will always be a Columbus icon, and of course the Northstar Burger is the best veggie burger anywhere, ever. And naturally we all have our favorite go-tos.
But given all the new bun-bound masses of round deliciousness out there - whether traditional or decidedly not - it's time to give some love and attention to a younger class of burgers that deserve their place on the buttery toasted honor roll, too.
So here's the beef - and a few not-beef, but equally delicious burgers worth seeking out.
Angry Baker (King Avenue location)
Bacon and Kimchi Burger with soup or salad, $12.50
A behemoth of a medium-rare burger from a restaurant with a vegan-friendly reputation? Welcome to the new Angry Baker. When the University District space formerly occupied by Till Dynamic Fare became available last year, Angry Baker snatched it up. Apparently the hip, scratch-cooking establishment had outgrown its single Olde Towne East location. Like the OTE spot, Angry Baker "the sequel" is outfitted with whimsical art and reclaimed wooden fixtures; unlike the close-quartered original, it's a roomy restaurant. Other Angry Baker King Avenue edition upgrades include all-day hours, alcohol service and an expanded, more ambitious menu that includes this enormous flavor-bomb. As expected, the house-baked brioche bun is outstanding. But that superior roll adds to and doesn't overshadow the rest of the sandwich - a slab of seared ground beef treated to crisp bacon plus a yin-and-yang combination that might sound odd but absolutely works: melted cheddar cheese playing off thick-cut kimchi. The sandwich comes with a can't-lose side option of usually vegan and usually delicious soup du jour or a large salad with a perky, herb-kissed, house-made dressing.
Tociburger with fries, $14
"Homecooked made modern" is Bonifacio's tagline. It's an apt one, given this new Grandview eatery's stylish approach to Filipino food. Occupying a bright and cheery space that belies the building's fast food origins, lively and popular Bonifacio is equally adept at teasing out classic flavors as it is at dressing up dishes with pretty platings. The "toci" in this elaborate burger's title refers to tocino - a Filipino cured pork preparation - and translates to the strikingly adorned patty sporting a marinade that puts a sweet spin on its savory flavorings. The bountiful burger also has a buttery and puffy toasted bun plus garnishes of (deep breath) a gingery mayo-free slaw, pickled onions, pickled papaya, a sweet-chili-citrus aioli, tomatoes and cucumbers. Oh yeah, and they put an egg on it, too. Served with crispy beer-battered fries, it's an inspired creation and a glorious mess to rip into - with or (perilously) without a knife and fork.
Argentine Humble Brag
The Humble Burger, $13
Unassuming and overachieving Rooks Tavern doesn't wear its sophistication on its Western-style checked sleeve. But this barbecue specialist is doing things few other restaurants in town are doing. Take, for instance, cooking with a rare Argentine-style grill that Rooks uses to fantastic effect. It's a contraption that implements a pulley system to raise and lower a grate over the intense flames generated by hardwoods such as the kind you get from cherry trees. This gives the expertly char-grilled Humble Burger - it's only humble in terms of presentation - some of its great cookout flavor. That deeply beefy flavor is also due to the perfectly seasoned, premium meat from grass-fed Piedmontese cattle that Rooks sources and freshly grinds in house. Placed on a grill-seared roll with house pickles, lettuce, tomato and onion, the meat speaks for itself on this burger - and it says a lot.
Rock and Roll
Tavern Burger, $14
Rockmill Tavern is the most talked-about Columbus restaurant to debut last year - and one of the best. It's what can happen when a talented local brewer (Matthew Barbee, whose Belgian-inspired, Lancaster-based Rockmill Brewery has been going gangbusters since its 2010 inception) and a talented local chef (Andrew Smith, formerly of The Rossi and Salt & Pine) get together in a handsomely renovated old Brewery District building to create something as familiar as it is fresh, as accessible as it is edgy. You could apply those same descriptions to Rockmill's tastes-like-a-steak Tavern Burger. Sourcing is a major attribute - it's housed in a crackly yet perfectly chewy ciabatta roll baked by the local king of ciabatta, Matt Swint of Matija Breads, and the pasture-raised, dry-aged beef comes from vaunted and sustainability-focused RL Valley Ranch near Athens. That great meat on that spectacular roll arrives smokily grill-seared, uncommonly juicy and garnished with flattering pals such as bold pickled onions, sharp Tillamook cheddar cheese, dijonnaise, house-made pickles and Chef Smith's salty, smoky, sweet bacon jam.
Big - and Bad - Boy
Hadley's Bar + Kitchen
Hadley Cheeseburger with fries, $12
Serving since late August in the bustling Fourth Street corridor area, home to establishments such as Dirty Franks and Little Palace, often-packed Hadley's occupies a darkly illuminated, window-lined space where its name is written in lights. The upbeat, busy room also contains a large curved bar, TVs beaming sports and a funny feature that informs this place's namesake cheeseburger: a "Bizarro World" statue of the Frisch's Big Boy clad in blue overalls and naughty tattoos. Just as Hadley's has reconfigured the Big Boy into this Big Bad Boy, the Hadley Cheeseburger is a refashioned and classed-up version of a fast food-style super burger. It's two all-beef patties (griddle-crusted), special sauce (mustard-echoing dijonnaise), lettuce (chiffonade), cheese (lotsa thoroughly melted American), pickles (house-brined) and no onions on a buttery toasted brioche bun. The irresistible, nine-napkin extravaganza is accompanied by serious shoestring fries.
Flat and Sassy
Flatiron Bar and Diner
Flatiron Burger with fries, $14
Inhabiting an invitingly quirky space inside a wedge-shaped building more than a century old, Flatiron is one of the coolest places near Nationwide Arena - so don't be surprised to see a Columbus Blue Jacket or two pop in for lunch. A marble bar, checkerboard floor and soundtrack as likely to play Charles Mingus as the Meat Puppets contribute to an ambience that, like Flatiron's Southern-leaning cuisine, is fun but brainy, classically informed yet contemporary. Hidden in plain sight among the great Cajun fried oysters and craveable house-smoked barbecue is the killer Flatiron Burger. It's a double cheeseburger whose gastronomic aesthetic might be called "diner-meets-culinary-school." Two burgers are smashed and crisped on a griddle, but cooked so there's still some red meat showing. These are packed into a toasted soft brioche roll with a double-helping of melted American cheese, onion, tomato, zippy ancho chile mayo and richness-countering house pickles. It's partnered with a massive pile of crisp hand-cut fries.
In the Tex-Mex Chorizone
12 West Burger with sweet potato fries, $13
Earth tones and an alt-country-leaning soundtrack contribute a soothing effect inside this sleek, stylish, inexpensive and often-bustling, nouveau-Tex-Mex restaurant-bar gracing Downtown Delaware. Other attributes include mirrors, a cow-skull sculpture and an arty rendering of the streets outside. Table-seating is limited to just about a half-dozen booths, so diners might choose to belly up to the prominent bar. Following the lead of this eatery's tagline, I could call this explosively flavored fusion burger "Southwest meets Midwest," or maybe "Tex-Mex with a twist," but I'll just settle on terrific. A thick and juicy patty of ground beef blended with zesty chorizo is lowered onto a toasted, buttery roll and embellished with a blanket of broiler-browned white cheddar cheese, roasted-poblano mayo, avocado and tomato. On the side of this huge and huge-flavored beast are some of the best sweet potato fries around - long crispy planks impressively free of grease.
Harvest Pizzeria Clintonville
Turkey Burger with fries, $13
Nowadays, Columbusites expect more from pizzerias than utilitarian seating, corporate beers and cookie-cutter pies - and I believe that's largely due to the much-deserved success of artisanal-everything Harvest. Venture out beyond the pizza section of Harvest's menu (at the Clintonville and Dublin locations only) and you'll realize this vanguard operation that helped alter the local pizza-eating culture has raised the bar on the turkey burger, too. This is no "Plan B" sandwich that someone looking for a healthier burger has to settle for - it's a spicy, big and lusty munch that seems more like a splurge. Housed on a glossy, perfectly toasted, sesame-seeded bun is a thick and juicy turkey patty bursting with flavor that's greatly aided by Laurel Valley Cloverton cheese, a rich-yet-tangy "corn elote aioli," lettuce, diced red onion and fiery poblano rajas - peeled and roasted chile strips. On the side are crunchy and completely addicting smashed and fried fingerling potatoes that outclass most of the fries around town.
Veggie Burger, $7.25
You wouldn't expect a gargantuan and good burger-specialist/bar perched in prime Buckeye country to fly under the radar of most local burger aficionados, but that seems to be the case with Chop Shop. Perhaps it's because this year-and-a-half-old operation too often gets lumped together with all those campus bummers designed for maximum occupancy and minimal quality. Well, open and airy Chop Shop - which features sparkling white tiles, walls of windows, multiple dining areas, reclaimed barn wood, strategically placed TVs and old-timey photographs - eclipses its lowest-common-denominator neighbors. And its quinoa-based veggie burger on a whole wheat bun eclipses most of its mushy-and-weird competitors. Unlike so many other veggie burgers, it's got a crispy, craggy and golden-brown exterior. Bite in, and you're rewarded with the flavor of blistered parmesan cheese complemented by mushrooms and hints of wine. Keep chewing and other ingredients - caramelized onions, carrots, lentils and a Thousand Island-style sauce - appealingly become apparent.
What's in a Name ... and in a Bargain-Priced, Faraway-Created Burger
Jiu Thai Asian Cafe: Delicious Pork Sandwich, $3
Chinese Beef Noodle Soup: Rougamo, $6
Tandoori Grill: Bun Kabab, $5
Hamburgers - meals on a bun that are named for a German city and are perfect for anyone hungry on the run - turn up all over the world, often flavored by their respective cultures. Several such international burgers are served in a few local and low-key, inexpensive eateries that cater to expatriate clienteles. For instance, there's a pork sandwich sometimes called a "Chinese Burger" (as it is at Ying's Chinese Restaurant, which, take note, has recently changed management and recipes) that originated in Northern China about two thousand years ago. Likely influenced by Middle Eastern cuisines, it is often cited as the world's first burger. There's some culinary anthropology to unpack in those sentences, but suffice it to say that if you order this burger at Jiu Thai Asian Cafe on the Northwest side (where it's dubbed "delicious pork sandwich"), you'll get juicy chopped pork fragrant with five-spice, garnished with lettuce and tucked into a nifty bun that's kind of like a pita bread pocket, kind of like an English muffin. Living up to its description, it really is delicious (note: Jiu Thai is a Northern Chinese-specialist, not a Thai eatery) and it's stupid cheap.
Sometimes you'll see the same item at other restaurants likewise armed with real-deal Chinese menu sections, but sold under its Chinese name of rougamo (aka roujiamo), as it is at a tiny, good-cooking, 2016-minted "hole-in-the-wall" on the OSU campus that would benefit from a more descriptive (or perhaps less descriptive?) restaurant title: Chinese Beef Noodle Soup.
At Tandoori Grill - another restaurant whose mundane name doesn't convey how authentic and excellent its food is - the house burger is served on a nondescript hamburger bun, but the burger in it is a fiery amalgam of ground beef, beans and Pakistani spices. The sandwich, called a bun kabab, is a Pakistan-derived hybrid of an American hamburger and the gonzo-garnished subcontinent street food known as chaat. Tandoori Grill makes a wild and wildly craveable version of it topped with chilled chutneys and the restaurant's distinct house raita.