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Comparing burgers to burgers

I compare several local hamburgers in different price points and ingredients, and come up with some top recommendations in the various levels.
The Knockout Burger at Rocky's

The Knockout Burger at Rocky's /Chris Freeman

Brewery Vivant Burger

Brewery Vivant Burger /Chris Freeman

The Blackened Bleu Burger from O'Tooles

The Blackened Bleu Burger from O'Tooles /Chris Freeman

I have been thinking a lot about hamburgers lately. Everybody in town likes to think that they make the best burger in town, and they are more than happy to tell you about it.

The problem for this is that the standards are so varied.

When I think of a hamburger that I am making at home, I am planning on beef from chuck that is 80% lean, 20% fat with some cheap, pasty tasting hamburger buns I pick up a the local chain supermarket. Pretty standard stuff, but not in the restaurant world.

First the meat. Is it a preformed patty purchased at a large local food distributor, or is it a fresh patty made on the spot by hand? Is it ¼ pound, ½ pound or yes…a full pound. It might be a burger with 80/20 ground chuck, or it might be ground sirloin, Kobe beef or maybe even Wagyu beef. It may not even be just those things, it might a combination of those things. It might be a step beyond that where the beef, or cuts of beef, are combined with foie gras, pork belly or bacon and I don't mean just on top of the burger.

Are they using local beef? That matters to a lot of people. I had one area restaurant tell me that they used local meat because they got it from the local Walmart. Should I count that as local? That really blew my mind.

Then comes the bun. A little simpler, I think. Was it purchased from the major food supply distributor in town, or from a local bakery? Did you make it "in house"? Is it a specialty bun? Is it a pretzel bun perhaps, or jalepeño cheddar? Will it be toasted?

Look, I don't want to make getting a great burger the kind of thing that I have to put too much thought into. The burger has always been the food of the common man, but some people want to make this into an "Elite Sandwich" which I am hard pressed to even call a hamburger anymore.

So for the sake of comparison, you know "apples to apples," what is a hamburger?

I think that it is plain old 80/20 ground chuck burger that is properly seasoned and made by hand. I want to see some fresh toppings on it, and I really don't want to pay more than $6-$8 for it. That $8 watermark also seems to be the point where some people start considering "Frankensteining" their burgers and adding their own creative take on them. When I do pay more than $8 for it, I feel like it is no longer the common man's food and that we are treading into the area of snobbery. By the time that I hit the $12-$16 range, maybe I could get something else that is a little more "special." Something fancy-shmancy, like escargot, because at that price the "common man" won't be buying a lot of those burgers.

So, after eating burgers at upwards of 80 places, I should probably name names. Whose burgers and whose snobbery did I like? I suspect that I will cause a lot of disagreement, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Filling Station: They have a clone to the Mr Fabulous from the days of Mr. Fables, and the business itself is very reminiscent or Mr. Fables and their cafeteria style restaurant. If you want to relive the Mr. Fables and their very close "knock off" of the Mr. Fabulous, this is your place.

Shelley's Kitchen on Burton: This is what is historically referred to as a greasy spoon restaurant, and they are wonderful in their simplicity. It is amazing to watch one waitress work 16 tables effectively. It is truly poetry in motion. They make a very simple, but tasty burger that I was able to get with jalepeños and a fried egg for $5. All hamburgers are better with a fried egg.

Choo Choo Grill: The are located in a quaint, train stop style building near the corner of Plainfield and Leonard, they have several options in the $6 range that are good sized for that price. They get their meat locally in Hudsonville (already made into patties). Choo Choo also offers a 1 pound burger called "The Legend" for a mere $8.69. That beast has lettuce, olives, mayonaisse, tomato, three pieces of cheese and, of course, a pound of food challenge.

Rocky's: I have been there multiple times now and have been very impressed each time. They get their meat from Byron Center Meats, and I feel the quality is good. They have several $8 options (presently), and some "more elite burgers" that have bacon mixed in for a slight upcharge. They will cook it to order, but you have to ask. Otherwise, your burger will be cooked the way that the chef decides to. 

O'tooles: Probably the best option in this price range. For $9 or so, you get a huge Sobie meat burger on a local bun. They add a lot of fries on the side as well, and there are several burgers with a variety of toppings to choose from. This is a typical dark, bar setting that on Sundays between noon and 9 p.m. offers most of these fantastic burgers for only $4.25!

Stella's: Also in a dark bar setting but with the added benefit of a full video arcade, Stella's offers large "stuffed burgers." GQ magazine liked it so much that they claimed it to be one of the best burgers in America. Did I think it was the best burger in America? No, but I still like it a lot. Their offering is a good-sized handmade burger that I get stuffed with bleu cheese and they do use locally made buns. At $10, this is the most that I would want to pay for this burger. On Thursdays after 6 p.m. they run a $5 special on these, and the bar is always packed.


This is the price range where burgers start to become something other than just burgers. There is nothing wrong with that, I just find it hard to catagorize them with the others.
Reserve: For $13 you can get their cheeseburger which is 90% ground beef and 10% pork belly. This was, without a doubt, the most flavorful meat that I had, but also the smallest patty. I had my burger with gruyere cheese, which is something that you won't find at most places, but the rest of the topping were typical fare. The servers at Reserve also informed me that the bun is made "in house." This is probably one of the most upscale restaurants in town, so if you are looking for a great tasting burger in a higher end environment, come on down.

Brewery Vivant: For $12 you can get an 8 ounce burger that is made with ground beef and bacon. If you are looking for a boutique burger that is extremely tasty, this is it. To be honest, the toppings on this sandwich are not terribly memorable to me, but the flavor of the burger itself is unforgetable.

The Winchester: For $40 you can get "The Dom." This is not in my burger budget, so I did not try it. The menu describes the burger as a flat top cooked, house ground, all natural beef seared Hudson Valley foie gras, Wisconsin white cheddar cheese with dijonnaise, on a Nantucket Bakery brioche bun served with a side of hand cut french fries with mornay sauce. That's a mouthful to be sure. The Winchester has a good track record with burgers, so the likelihood that this elite burger is a winner weighs in their favor.


So, that is the local burger world as I see it. Somebody did ask me, "if money was not an object, what burger would you get?"  Well, that is a bit of a trick question. I would get "the Dom" at the Winchester because the curiousity is killing me.

If I had to choose a burger that I had already eaten, out of the over 80 restaurants I have visited, the winner would be either Rocky's or Brewery Vivant.

Hopefully some of these suggestions will be helpful, and even in agreement with your own personal taste. If there is an out-of-the-way burger that you think I've missed, I'd love to hear about it. 

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Thank you, Kyle and Bob.  :)