Philly's been touted as something of a burger town of late. So when we struck out to find some of the city's best cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches, we gleefully added a hamburger hunt to the mix. We picked the brains of our esteemed contributors and friends, culled our own archives, asked readers to share their favorites, and read through dozens of best-of lists. When all was said and done, we'd compiled a promising list of 16 supposedly phenomenal burgers to try.
Now, burger greatness can take many shapes and forms, from crispy smashed burgers and greasily delightful fast food varieties to fancy-pants cheffy burgers of all stripes. But no matter how humble or ostentatious the burger, assessing its quality starts and ends with the patty itself—we're talking juicy, fatty burgers with crackly crusts and a pronounced beefy flavor. Of course, balance is important too—we want buns that stand up to those patties without swallowing them whole. And while we have no problem with well-executed toppings (in fact, we love 'em), it's our firm belief that a great burger should be just as delightful stark naked as when it's all dressed up.
At the end of the day, what we found in Philly were some pretty incredible burger toppings. Savory roasted mushrooms, melted rivulets of sharp and funky cheeses, bright and tangy pickles, slabs of crisp bacon, and sticky-sweet caramelized onions. We tried aïolis and sauces we'd gladly dunk our burgers and fries in for the rest of our days. But with few exceptions, the burgers secreted away beneath were just okay. Sometimes, they were downright bad.
What counts as bad, you ask? Dry, mealy, unseasoned, overcooked meat. Beef that's too lean or ground too fine. Burgers that have been over-handled until they're dense and heavy. Narrow, towering patties that bafflingly occupy a mere fraction of the bun on which they're served. It's not a good sign when you can't even figure out how to wedge the whole thing into your mouth.
But sacrificed stomach real estate aside, there is one upside to a disappointing burger (or, in this case, a slew of them): it makes you really appreciate just how damn special the great ones really are. Producing a fantastic burger is a craft worth celebrating; here are Philly's best that we're applauding today.
Best Bar Burger: Fountain Porter
Our very favorite burger in Philadelphia costs...wait for it...FIVE DOLLARS. We loved everything, and we mean everything, about the no-frills cheeseburger at Fountain Porter. Like most classic bar burgers, it's on the small, thin side, which only makes it more remarkable that the cook was able to sear it off to a perfect medium-rare without losing that crucial crisp, flavorful crust. The grind is loose and marbled and the meat is incredibly juicy, seasoned with just enough salt and pepper. It's the ideal size for the sweet, pillowy potato bun. Topped with a slice of white American cheese, tomato, and some lettuce, it's no muss, no fuss, and whole lot of excellence.
Best Upscale Burger: Butcher & Singer
Gazing up at the high chandelier-hung ceilings of the converted bank that houses Butcher and Singer, we were a little nervous. Mainly because there were five of us, hoping to split a single burger at the bar—behavior that would likely leave any server, let alone one at a high-end steakhouse, a little miffed. But the staff couldn't have been more warm or welcoming. The burger itself—a sprawling $12 behemoth of ground dry-aged steak scraps blanketed in English cheddar and crisp fried onions—was rich, meltingly juicy, and just a little funky. Oh, and it comes with a veritable mountain of pretty fantastic fries. The takeaway? For those looking for an upscale steakhouse burger without breaking the bank, look no further than a Butcher and Singer burger split two ways, with a couple of drinks to top it all off.
Best Pub-Style Burger: Standard Tap
We cannot say it enough times: Standard Tap is a Philadelphia treasure. It's big, so you never have to wait long for a table. The bar feels age-appropriate whether you're 21 or 75. The music's good, the lighting's great (except for photos...sorry about that), and the food—hearty and thoughtful American fare—is everything you want it to be. It's the kind of place we'd like to spend a long afternoon or evening, in no small part thanks to the fantastic burger: a seven-ounce grilled patty that hits that beefy-juicy-smoky trifecta on the nose. The skinny fries that come alongside were nothing to scoff at, either. The one caveat? The burger comes loaded with so many toppings, it barely holds together. We were able to revel in that beautifully charred patty a whole lot more fervently once we'd scraped off the mushrooms, onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato.
Pub & Kitchen
The Pub & Kitchen burger doesn't come cheap—at $15, it's one of the more expensive we tried. But the two stacked patties of flavorful Pat LaFrieda beef definitely do the job. Pub & Kitchen's burger is topped with lettuce, onion, and pickles, but it's the layer of Cooper sharp American cheese that's the sandwich's saving grace: it adds just the right amount of mouth-coating, salty, fatty oomph the meat itself was, at least in our case, missing. This is one burger we'd be happy eating any time, but it's not so mind-blowingly special that we'd go out of our way for it. That said, if you find yourself in those quarters during brunch hours, do not miss the phenomenal Dutch baby pancake.
Oh, Rouge. So close, but not quite the full cigar. The Rittenhouse Square restaurant has received its fair share of burger accolades, but in our case the pieces just didn't quite come together. The burger—another pricey pick at $16—comes in a soft and delicious challah bun with caramelized onion, bibb lettuce, tomato, and Gruyère. Though the patty was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and the interior was flavorful enough to make our list, it lacked that fundamental char—no big surprise considering the cheese never seemed to melt before reaching our table. For a good people-watching spot that just happens to have a solid burger, Rouge is your joint. Otherwise, we'd direct you to the Standard Tap for a similar concept with better execution.