The hamburger is an American culinary icon. You don't need me to tell you that, though. They're everywhere, from fast-food chains to pubs to upscale restaurants (but mostly fast-food joints). The Burger King Whopper Jr. has been my favorite burger since childhood—the flame-broiled smokiness, bite of raw onion, and sweet, creamy commingling of ketchup and mayonnaise get me every time—and it always will be.
"The hamburger matters precisely because it is a universally understood food," wrote the late, meat-loving food writer Josh Ozersky in his book The Hamburger: A History. "Because the burger has a kind of inevitability to it, it is a gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato. Its basic design cannot be improved upon."
But that doesn't mean that seemingly endless variations cannot or will not be foisted upon the hamburger for the rest of time. Since last summer, a spate of new burger options has emerged throughout the city, ranging from casual, wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches to creative reimaginings with unexpected flavors to reverential treatments made with high-quality beef and other ingredients.
Many Washingtonians complain about the absence of California institution In-N-Out Burger. It remains to be seen if one will ever come, but in the meantime CaliBurger, an unapologetic In-N-Out copycat in the University District, is here to help. "Ask about our secret menu!" a sign cheerfully instructs you, allowing you to order your burger "Cali style," à la In-N-Out's "Animal style," with a secret Thousand Island–esque sauce, grilled onions, mustard, and pickles. A made-to-order Cali style cheeseburger ($4.25) was satisfying but not great—the patty felt a little floppy and lacked any good char. But the Cali style fries ($3.99)—twice-fried and smothered in melted, golden American cheese, a mountain of dark diced onions, and a wide pool of pink, secret sauce—were fantastic.
On the edge of the Central District and Madison Valley, family-friendly Two Doors Down, from the same owners of the neighborhood favorite BottleNeck Lounge, serves burgers made from regionally sourced, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef. (This being Seattle, there are, of course, plenty of vegan and gluten-free options as well.) Choices range from a classic burger with "secret sauce" to a banh mi burger topped with sriracha-lime mayo and daikon radish slaw. The green chile burger ($9) is loaded with caramelized onions and a green chile cream cheese (an homage to our famous Seattle hot dogs?) on a springy brioche bun. It was oozy and delicious, though I found myself wanting just a bit more heat.
Over in Mount Baker, Heyday, another family-friendly neighborhood spot, serves burgers made from grass-fed beef and a wide variety of other proteins, including a bison burger that comes with grilled apple and a drizzle of maple syrup. (Seattle's fondness for Vietnamese food is evident here as well in the Saigon burger, made with beef, pork, and shrimp.) The menu, created by chef Melissa Nyffeler (formerly of Dinette), has such a compelling and creative exuberance to it that I found myself drawn to its non-beef options.
The smoky lamb burger ($13) had great flavor (especially the hazelnut romesco sauce), though the bacon in the patty had not been ground finely enough, which made for an oddly textured burger. I was surprised to be so captivated by the Beety Bean burger ($10), a lovely magenta veggie patty made in-house from beets, beans, mushrooms, nuts, and brown rice. While I hesitate to call it a burger, it was terrific for what it was—moist and crumbly, earthy and sweet. Topped with sharp white cheddar and creamy mashed avocado, it was almost like a savory dessert that, against all odds, worked.
The ubiquity of the burger means it's no longer relegated to quick-service and casual spots. Even Seattle's latest high-end steak houses, Capitol Hill's Bateau and Seven Beef, both of which specialize in impeccably sourced beef, feel compelled to offer a version.
At Bateau, chef and owner Renee Erickson is endeavoring to serve grass-fed beef from cows raised on the Whidbey Island farm owned by her restaurant group Sea Creatures. The beef is butchered and dry-aged at the restaurant (a window in the dining room offers a glimpse of massive sides of sinewy beef hanging on large hooks, their flavor concentrating into something deep and almost gamey). So it's no surprise that the Bateau burger ($17), dressed with sweet onion jam and garlicky aioli, tastes incredible—dark and intensely beefy.
What I wasn't expecting, though, was for the burger to be an object lesson (and master class) in the kitchen's obsessive dedication to texture. The patty, which is cooked on a scorchingly hot plancha, develops a crackly crust on each side—with the first bite, you might find yourself momentarily worried that it's been overcooked. But then your teeth and tongue meet the buttery, rare beef in its center and you realize that the burger—and the universe—is, for once, exactly as it should be. Even the airy semolina bun, baked in-house by pastry chef Clare Gordon, is a crucial component: It's made with cornmeal, which gives every bite a satisfying, gritty crunch that enhances the eating experience. Each half of the bun is also toasted in a hot pan and lacquered in fat, adding even more richness and texture. It's enough to make you forget (or not even care) that there are steaks on the menu.
At Seven Beef, owners Eric and Sophie Banh (Monsoon, Ba Bar) and chef Scott Emerick receive sides of grass-fed cows from Heritage Meats in Rochester, Washington, which they break down into familiar steaks like T-bones and rib eyes, but also lesser-known cuts like the oyster, mock tender, and zabuton. The Seven Beef burger ($16) is given a decadent treatment of deeply caramelized onions, aioli, and Gruyère cheese. I had high expectations, but was disappointed when I was served a nearly well-done burger that was overwhelmingly dry and absent any noticeable amount of aioli. Within a menu dominated by steaks that cost up to $135, the burger felt—and tasted—like an afterthought. (During the same meal, I had an excellent steak tartare accompanied by a creamy celery-root salad. I'll be back to eat more beef, but I'll pass on the burger from here on out.)
Over in Ballard at Bramling Cross, a gastropub from restaurant juggernaut Ethan Stowell, the Bramling Burger ($16) is truly great. Chef Travis Post cooks a thick, juicy patty to perfect rosy-centered medium rare. It leaks oily, beefy juices and, with every bite, becomes a delightful mess to eat. The moist potato bun, lovingly marked on the grill, absorbs much of this richness. It's dressed with shredded iceberg lettuce, crunchy house-made pickles, white American cheese that's packed with salty crystals, and, of course, an In-N-Out-esque "secret sauce."
The sauce is a dream: pink and creamy, tangy and sweet, but with just a bit of extra depth and smoke. It's a perfect amalgam of ketchup, mayo, mustard, pickles, and nostalgia. Even the fanciest burgers can't front on the best of fast food.