The Best Burger In America
On chasing the unknowable truth of food and experience
The best burger in America? You might’ve heard some other expert tell you where it is, but they’re wrong. I know where it is, and I'll tell you where.
But first, I want to tell you about it.
You see, the key thing is the mix. The chef? They make their own special, proprietary blend. It’s 50 percent sirloin. Now, you might think that’s pretty common, sirloin, but you have to understand: this loin is an actual knight of the British Empire. The next 30 percent is ground chuck. This isn’t just any ground chuck, though. It’s from a special breed of cow. One you haven’t heard of. No one has heard of it, actually. It’s a mystery cow that haunts a small town in Montana on only the darkest moonless nights. The last 19 percent is fat trimmed from the prime rib at the finest steakhouse in town. The chef is banned from going to this restaurant and must wear a different disguise each time they go. They’re starting to catch on, but the chef is committed.
You might say that those percentages don’t add up to 100 percent, but actually? They do. No one can explain it and at least three mathematicians have gone mad trying.
To grind that mix up? There’s no high-tech machinery here. No, it’s as old school as they come. I mean it: the chef grinds it in an old school, using the wall-mounted pencil sharpener in Mrs. Jacimovic’s 3rd-grade classroom. Is it efficient? No. Is it sanitary? Not according to the numerous health department citations. Does Mrs. J. approve of it? She does not, and the chef has to spend an afternoon in detention each time they grind a burger patty. Is it critical to the process behind the best burger in America, though? You and I both know that it is.
Now, you might find yourself sucked in by fancy Instagram burgers with all manner of luxurious toppings and garnishes and condiments, but that’s not what we’re after here. This burger’s all about the meat. No cheese. If you ask for cheese, you’re not gonna get it. Pickles? You will be asked to leave and never allowed to return. Ketchup? I’ve seen the chef push a customer down a full flight of stairs just for requesting ketchup, and you know what? That customer still said it was the best burger they’d ever had. No fancy brioche buns for this burger, either. In fact, there’s no bun at all. When you order, the chef throws the burger directly at your head. It will be very hot, and it will burn you, but it’s the only way to have it.
The atmosphere is perfect, too: this isn’t some glitzy celebrity chef’s restaurant, a 300-seat palace with Michelin stars and napkins indoor plumbing. No, this burger is served in an old service station down by the docks. The service station’s still operational, and you can get your tires rotated while you eat. You won’t find it on any maps, either, because it’s located in a mysterious village that only appears for a single night every 100 years. Do not fall in love while you are searching for the restaurant.
This sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re in search of an experience, and you want the experience that only the most confident and strident experts have pre-approved for you. That’s what I am and that’s what I’m here to do for you: I’m going to tell you what’s objectively the best. I can tell you about the absolute best burger, the best pizza, the best burrito and the best bourbon to wash it down. I will state these things with absolute certainty and they will flow forth across the internet as statements of pure, distilled truth.
Or you can accept that none of those things are actually real or knowable, because they reject the most fundamental element of appreciation, and that’s you.
This business of superlatives is a big one, and I’m as susceptible to it as anyone. I’ve waited in line for burgers and taken long subway rides for pizza and entered bottle lotteries and felt the FOMO pang any time I haven’t been able to do those things successfully. If I hear that something is The Best, that notion hooks into my brain like a tree burr onto a wool jacket and I just can’t shake it. I carry it around with me, the notion that there might be something out there that’s a better version of what I’m having right now and I’m somehow failing for not having it instead.
Of course, it’s a lot harder to chase experiences this year. The restaurant that I saw on Triple D that spurred this post, one endorsed by a breathless critic who I’ve channeled in jest? It might be closed by now and I’m too bummed out by that notion to check. Either way, it’s not here and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s as good a time as any to reconsider what actually makes something The Best.
The best burger I ever had was after I finished the New York City Marathon in 2011. It was a mediocre burger, probably, something ordered off Seamless that I couldn’t actually stomach more than a few bites of. It would have been an entirely forgettable meal had it not heralded the finish of a years-long goal and four-plus hours of toil, a meal I’d hazily dreamed about as I slogged through the last dozen miles of a race I lost nine pounds running. The first bite was better than anything I’ve could have imagined.
The best drink I’ve ever had? Well, you know I love a cocktail, and I’ve been to plenty of fancy bars and paid too much for expertly-crafted exercises in molecular mixology. Not one of them would compare to the Coca-Cola I had at a youth hostel in after a day of backpacking in 90-degree heat, one that came from the back of a fridge and was so cold there were little ice crystals in the glass bottle. This was 17 years ago and I think about this Coke every couple of months.
The best pizza in New York? People sometimes ask me this when they find out I lived in New York for a decade, and my answer is always “I don’t know”, because the best pizza for me was the slice joint that was a half-block from my apartment that served as dinner two or three nights a week.
It would not be the best to you, but something comparable in your life might be.
It’s going to be a while before things can go back to normal, if they ever go back to normal in any way that we’d recognize. If and when they do, I’ll be happy to chase culinary experiences again, happy to know that someone said this was the best and now I have had it, because it’s a fun way to spend your time. In the meantime, we’re going to have to make do with what we have, and we should appreciate that the best of anything is only as good as the experience you have with it.
Yesterday we took a family walk in the park to look at a Jack O’ Lantern display. Rain in the forecast never materialized, and it turned into a perfect fall day; warm but without the oppressive humidity of summer, foliage in full blush, leaves falling like snow in a globe around us as my children ran around and shrieked with joy at an Elsa pumpkin or a scary skeleton. I carried a 40-pound child in my arms for well over a mile, not because she couldn’t walk that far but because I know the days where she’ll want me to carry her like that are running short.
The kids were famished afterwards, so we stopped at a drive-thru on the way out. The burgers came out hot, and we ate in the car in the parking lot because it’s 2020 and you can’t eat indoors. The kids were happy and ate without complaint, no small feat itself.
I’ll be damned if, in that moment, in that car, that wasn’t the best burger in America.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)