Hamburgers are basic. Beef simplified and practically digested. No bone. No outer strips or inner marbling of fat. Nothing but ground meat from rim to center.
Which is possibly why there’s a need to cover them with cheese; slather them with ketchup, mustard and mayo; pile them high with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and possibly bacon and mushrooms.
I fix a pretty good burger at home, but there are times, usually when dining from a bar stool, that it just seems like the right thing to order. The question is: Where?
I wasn’t necessarily looking for the most exquisitely prepared burger, though I wouldn’t discount finesse. Nor the most fancifully garnished. Just the one that makes you say, “Now, that’s a good burger.” The burger of burgers. The ur-burger, that’s what I was after.
My first stop was a popular Irish bar, where I ordered a cheeseburger to go with a pint of lager. It was big. It was filling. It was not memorable. There must be better, I thought. So I sallied forth.
Pascal’s On Ponce, a fine French restaurant in Coral Gables, offers a burger stuffed with short-rib meat for lunch. (If that seems decadent, consider their foie gras-filled burger, an occasional special.)
Much as I love short ribs, this was one strange burger. A radical departure from my red-centered, medium-rare standard, it was pleasantly overdone (falling off the bone, except the bone was gone, of course) in the non-burger middle. It was tasty, if a bit disorienting, like so much “deconstructed” new cuisine that doesn’t taste like what you expect.
Pursuing more fine lunching, I went to Atrio at the Conrad Hotel on Brickell for a Kobe burger. Pampered Japanese cattle supposedly yield the finest beef in the world, and this burger lived up to the hype. It was unbelievably juicy and flavorful, though the vulgarian in me wondered if there wasn’t something sinful about turning massaged steers into ground beef on a bun.
Still on the up-market side, I drove to Smith & Wollensky on the Beach and had a burger at the bar. Yes, it was good, but somewhere in the transition from prime steak to burger, the steak-house magic had faded.
Was I aiming too high? After all, burgers are the staple of golden arches and fast-food kings. What made a burger worth wolfing down? Maybe it wasn’t the product but the setting.
When my kids were little, my favorite burger joint was the Fuddruckers chain. They could run wild in the huge open spaces while dad sipped a badly needed drink at the bar. In that relaxed state, I loved their burgers.
With no munchkins in tow, I went looking for the Fuddruckers outlet in Kendall, only to find that the owner had just dropped the franchise (its’s now Amos Sports Grill) but kept the format. Luckily, he kept the burgers as well.
I asked for the smallest, a hefty 1/3-pounder. Very nice; in fact, better than most. The proud staffers said the secret was the freshness of the meat, which they insisted was never frozen. These were chain burgers, or rather renegade burgers, at their best.
Oneburger in Coral Gables looks like a chain, albeit a trendy one, but isn’t. The decor is minimalist-moderne, the menu — 16 hamburgers plus a variety of non-beef and vegetarian patties — is printed on the wall, and you order at a counter.
I ordered the barbecue burger, touched up with sauce and topped with applewood-smoked bacon. Excellent. So was the frita cubana, a surprising find. The American-size burger wasn’t traditional (fritas are tiny), but the rich seasoning was the real item, as were the shoestring fries inside the bun.
WHERE TO GO:
* Amos Sports Grill (formerly Fuddruckers), 7800 SW 104th St., Miami; 305-274-1228. Burgers $4.42-$7.55, lunch and dinner daily.
* Atrio, Conrad Hotel, 25th floor, 1395 Brickell Ave., Miami; 305-503-6500. Kobebeef burger $18, weekday lunch only.
* Oneburger, 367 Alhambra Circle, Coral Gables; 305-529-5555. Burgers $4.95-$10.95, lunch and dinner daily.
* Pascal’s On Ponce, 2611 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-444-2024. Burger stuffed with short-rib meat $15.95, weekday lunch only.
* Smith & Wollensky, 1 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-2800. Wollensky burger $11.75, lunch and dinner daily.