Must-Try Burgers

Julie Besonen

The American hamburger has built empires. As a people, we can't get enough of them. How else to explain why a burger is on nearly every menu in the City? Old-school renditions have a strong following at '21' Club and Peter Luger (where burgers are served only at lunch). Minetta Tavern's sensational Black Label burger has played a hand in the bistro's wild popularity. Back Forty's tasty, grass-fed beef patties are of the virtuous variety thanks to responsible sourcing. A custom blend of luscious Black Angus beef makes BLT Burger stand out, while the winning blend at Shake Shack is so lionized that the chain is spreading quicker than an overturned bottle of ketchup. Still others swear by the roadside-style Corner Bistro burger to satisfy late-night cravings. Naming the top five burgers in the City hasn't been easy. Take a look—you might find some surprises here in our roundup of our favorites.

XXXL Burger. Courtesy, Fatburger

509 Third Ave., 212-630-0319, Murray Hill, Manhattan
Fatburgers are indeed pretty fat, but the name is appropriated from retro slang for enjoying the good life, as in "fat city" or "hog heaven." Founded in California in 1952, the chain isn't coasting on nostalgia—this first New York City outpost is part of an aggressive push to expand the brand. Before long, there will be 10 locations in the City where you can get your fix of chili cheese fries and chocolate shakes made with hand-scooped ice cream. The burgers are simply delicious, each one made to order (allow some time; it's not super-fast food). Some toppings—cheese, pickles, mayo, shredded lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, jalapeños—are included in the price. Sandwich sizes range from small to XXXL; if you finish one of the latter, you win a certificate and get your photo posted on the restaurant's website for posterity. The sleek, contemporary space has a bar, a big screen showing sports and family-friendly booths the color of ketchup.

Ahi Tuna burger. Courtesy, Umami Burger

Umami Burger
432 Sixth Ave., 212-677-8626, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Timing is everything at Umami Burger. Cronut-like insanity broke out on opening day (July 29), with the wait stretching to three hours. But hit the restaurant at that sweet spot between lunch and dinner and you may get lucky in as little as 10 minutes. Six-ounce, freshly ground patties are meticulously griddled to medium-rare doneness, and from the blissed-out looks all around, the wait lives up to the hype. This California-based phenomenon has plans to expand, but for right now the attractive, 60-seat Greenwich Village branch is ground zero for the original Umami Burger, a loose but not too crumbly patty with shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted tomato and a lacy parmesan crisp in a puffy, slightly sweet, toasted bun branded with a "U." The Truffle Burger with roasted garlic aioli is magnificent, the fungus muted so it doesn't outshine the beef. In an Ahi Tuna burger, pickled ginger, wasabi flakes and avocado complement the patty. There are several other burger variations to choose from; the question, "Would you get the same one next time?" elicited the same response from all patrons asked: "I want to try them all."

Bob's Burger. Photo: Bradley Hawks

Butcher Bar
37-08 30th Ave., 718-606-8140, Astoria, Queens
Here's bait to lure you to Astoria: Bob's Burger at the Butcher Bar. The $12.99 half-pound patty is made of beef brisket that's evenly studded with bits of smoked bacon, so every bite includes a delightful crunch. Lettuce and tomato are also under the sesame-seed hood, and there's a choice of two house-made barbecue sauces of varying spice and sweetness. With so much flavor, cheese is superfluous. This is Astoria's first high-end butcher shop specializing in local, hormone-free meats, but for those who don't want to cook it up, several small tables are provided for immediate consumption. The wood-lined space is decorated with meat cleavers, black-and-white photos of butcher culture of yore and a blackboard listing the provenance of the meat for each week.

Smoky Johnson Burger. Photo: Kate Telfeyan

Fatty 'Cue
50 Carmine St., 212-929-5050, West Village, Manhattan
The Smoky Johnson presents a pickle: this monster burger from Zak Pelaccio's Fatty 'Cue is only available at brunch and after midnight from Thursday to Saturday. The thick, smoky patty is a house-ground Brandt beef blend, draped with aged Gouda and spiked with mustard aioli and bread-and-butter pickles. Brandt is an eco-friendly, family-owned ranch in California, the only beef producer in the country to have received the Master Chefs' Institute Seal of Excellence, making the burger's $12 price tag incredibly reasonable. You don't really need the house-smoked bacon (an extra $3), but, then again, isn't everything better with bacon? It's fun going after midnight, when the dark den feels clandestine and you can match your burger with a well-crafted cocktail.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Five Leaves
18 Bedford Ave., 718-383-5345, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
The Five Leaves burger is insane. A fat patty is gilded with a slice of pickled beet, a ring of grilled pineapple, harissa mayonnaise and an organic sunny-side-up egg whose yolk drips into the spongy, floured bun, adding an extra layer of lusciousness. Surprisingly, the charred, grass-fed beef flavor doesn't get lost. And beets and pineapple make the burger good for you, right? The recipe is an Australian tradition, fitting since this snug bistro was partially funded by the estate of actor Heath Ledger, an original investor who, alas, didn't live to see it open in 2008. No doubt he would have loved hanging out here, surrounded by archetypal Brooklynites—silver-tongued, disheveled—many of whom are such regulars they hug the staff upon leaving. Try to come during off-hours since it's always packed. The burger is $15, big enough to split and comes with a heap of truffle fries.

Courtesy, The Odeon

The Odeon
145 West Broadway, 212-233-0507, TriBeCa, Manhattan
The Odeon's burger is a juicy marvel, the brioche bun bundling the loosely formed meat into a controllable package. The only reason to set it down once in a while is to snatch a few thin, crisp, hot, salted fries from a paper-lined funnel. A more levelheaded diner might choose a salad accompaniment instead, but what a shame. Find another way to save on calories. The burger with fries is $16, and it's $2 extra for a slab of melted cheese (Gruyère is good), which may seem expensive, but you're getting a rich experience. This French-American Art Deco brasserie, open since 1980, was a haunt of Andy Warhol and John Belushi, and it's still firing on all cylinders.

Courtesy, P.J. Clarke's

P.J. Clarke's
915 Third Ave., 212-317-1616, Midtown East, Manhattan
Sometimes it's all about having a burger at the right place at the right time. P.J. Clarke's, a saloon with an air of bonhomie, calls out for a good old American burger along with that beer or martini. It's a straightforward, nicely charred specimen, simply served with pickle and onion on a bun, the price holding at just under $10. Polishing one off is totally satisfying even though it's not huge and doesn't come with fries. If you're able to grab a table in back during busy lunch hours, we take off our fedora to you. After-work hours are dauntingly crowded too, but if you find yourself in Midtown East late at night, craving a casual repast, go—Clarke's serves until 3am. Sitting at a red-and-white-checkered table, Sinatra playing in the background, having that burger and one more for the road, is a classic New York experience.