The premise is simple: grilled beef cradled in soft bread, snuggled against fresh produce, and slathered in special sauce. So why are some people able to elevate the art of burger-making to Michelangelo-ian levels? We may never have a scientific answer for this (at least not before 23AndMe adds that to its DNA service), but we do have a decidedly unscientific idea for where to find our still-great nation’s best burgers. Is it just a coincidence that those places—New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago—happen to be the cities where What Should We Do helps thousands of people plan their free time? Not exactly. Nonetheless, three of our writers from our three cities make pretty compelling cases for how and why their hometown makes the best burgers around. Why don’t you grab some napkins and see if you agree? Hip, hip!
Despite the fact that Chicago is a Michelin-starred city and host to the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, it still tends to get lumped in with that old Midwestern meat-and-potatoes stereotype. Sure, it’s annoying, but our beefy reputation has at least helped establish it as a burger mecca.
This is a city where both classic and contemporary burgers shine in the national spotlight. From Saturday Night Live fame for the timeworn Billy Goat Tavern (“Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger”) to hours-long waits at West Loop hot spots, Chicago’s burgers are as renowned as its celebrity chefs. The ultimate example is Au Cheval, in the aforementioned West Loop nabe. For the past few years, the buzziest burger in the country has dominated “Best Burger in America” lists. The listicle-topping restaurant is so consistently praised it’s basically the New England Patriots of burgers. All that rampant success boils down to a surprisingly simple formula: Embrace the gluttony. The regular burger here features two thin patties adorned with Cheddar, pickles, and Dijonnaise (thick slices of bacon and eggs are optional add-ons) on buttery buns from a local bakery. The “double” actually consists of three patties.
Au Cheval’s burger spawned a fast-casual spin-off restaurant and burgeoning mini chain, Small Cheval, and inspired local chefs and restaurants to beef up their burger game. A few years after Au Cheval’s debut, the Loyalist opened with a similar approach. Focusing on Americana and indulgence, the burger harks back to fast-food nostalgia with its sesame seed bun, between which lies a patty comprised of ground short rib, chuck, and bacon. Pickles, American cheese, onions, and an onion-infused mayonnaise round it out. Bon Appétit ranks it one of the three best burgers in America.
Chicago’s burger boom isn’t confined to the West Loop nor a single style of restaurant. From the metal-blaring Kuma’s Corner, which still entails two-hour waits for jawbreakingly thick burgers, to chef-driven, fast-casual efforts like Edzo’s Burger Bar, Mini Mott, and Butcher & the Burger, high-quality burgers are part of the city’s culinary DNA, and they’re single-handedly turning that meat-and-potatoes stereotype into something to be proud of. —Matt Kirouac
Yes, in Los Angeles our juice cleanses are sacred, and we go absolutely wild for an amazing roasted carrot dish or a sprinkle of foraged nasturtiums on a vegan cassoulet. But believe it or not, ours is also a very meat-atarian city. It is a burger city (sup, In-N-Out?!). In fact, it is the burger city.
Bold claim? Hear me out. If you’ve enjoyed a non–fast-food, even semicreative burger in the past 20 years, you have L.A. to thank. More specifically, you have chef Sang Yoon to thank. When Yoon took over the craft beer haven Father’s Office in 2000, tacked on a kitchen, and started slinging defiantly oblong, dry-aged beef burgers with toppings inspired by the flavor palate of French onion soup, the world didn’t know what hit it. Craft or gourmet burgers weren’t a thing. Gastropub might as well have been a medical condition. Burgers up until then were greasy discs, not elevated eats conjured up by culinary mavericks. Father’s Office ignited that whole craze.
The best thing is, the joint’s Office Burger®—how many burgers outside of fast food can boast a registered trademark?—remains top-notch among the burger elites today. That’s because the meat, flavorful and plentiful, is the star of the show. The bun and toppings have been perfected to the point where substitutions are controversially forbidden…especially including ketchup. While this burger is a big one, everything on it is perfectly harmonized and proportioned, so there’s no overwhelming avalanche of ingredients in terms of flavor or mess. That’s a pro rule that too many burger creators still forget in their overeager attempts to put their own stamp on L.A.’s formidable dish.
Yoon broke the boundaries of what a burger could be two decades ago, and L.A. has stayed at the forefront of that crusade ever since. Some of our burgers are similarly refined masterpieces and some have blasted off into the outer reaches of beef-inspired chaos. Almost all of them are memorable, soul curing, and worth the drive across town in rush-hour traffic. Thanks to Father’s Office, great, innovative burgers can be found everywhere. But when it comes to the best? It can only be L.A. The rest of the world is just playing ketchup. —Ben Cohen
New York City
New York is dripping with culinary riches. We’re already spoiled with the perfect pizza slices, bodega sandwiches, under-the-radar noodle shops, 24-7 takeout joints, and beautiful boiled bagels, not to mention a constellation of Michelin stars. To ignore the wide world of burgers represented in our city, though, would be a grave disservice to your stomach.
But which one lies at the epicenter of our meaty universe? That would be Minetta Tavern’s Black Label, celebrating a decade of burger dominance this year. (Has it only been 10 years since it was born?) Its richness doesn’t come from radical toppings but instead the high-quality ingredients chef Keith McNally highlights. As the burger gods decreed, the half-pounder is only served medium rare, which allows the dry-aged Pat LaFrieda prime rib cut to shine straight through. Butter is also intricately layered through each burger bite, from the sesame brioche bun to the snappy caramelized onions piled underneath to the clarified butter drizzled on the patty during the grilling process. Its simplistic approach to decadence is nearly unheard of in a town that thrives on shock value and aesthetics, but the New York dining scene is a much better place with the Black Label burger in it.
New York is, arguably, the most global city in the States, so you also have to pay respects to the diversity of burgers that fly above and beyond the range of the American classic. Jeepney’s Filipino-style Chori overflows with both robust flavor—thank the longganisa patty for that—and toppings (banana ketchup and pickled papaya). Whitman’s Juicy Lucy throws the Minnesotan mouthful on its head with ground short rib loaded with pimento. Oxomoco’s wood-fired Hamburguesa Pambozo is a messy Mexican wonder, dripping with medium-rare juices, oozing with queso asado and salsa macha, and stabbed with a butcher knife to hold it all together. And Chicago, we’ve got news for you: We’re getting our own Au Cheval sometime this year!
If all of this doesn’t have you salivating, we’re the proud birthplace of the ShackBurger. It’s hard not to go weak in the knees when confronted with the ShackSauce’s mysterious power. —Jess Bender