Fast Food Nightmare: The Search for Boston’s Quintessential Burger

BY EDMUND MOKHTARIAN

 

Few cities truly encapsulate America quite like Boston. Home of the Freedom Trail, Paul Revere, and the Boston Red Sox, Boston serves as a constant reminder of both American history and culture.

But what about American cuisine? I thought to myself, a city as American as Boston has to have a true all-American meal. And so began my hunt for the best burger and fries in town.

Bartley’s Burger Cottage

Address: 1246 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Burger Combo: Countless varieties. Mine had Bacon, Grilled Onions, and Mushrooms. About $9-$11.50.

I’ll start out with Harvard’s own staple, Bartley’s. Really, if you haven’t heard of Bartley’s yet, you’ve been sleeping for the past few months. Located near Harvard Square, it is the students’ pick for best burger in town. Not a surprise, either. As you enter Bartley’s, you’re transported to a surreal little shack and barraged by political caricatures, black-and-white photos of the Beatles, and old-school cigarette advertisements.

But once I bit into my burger, I realized Bartley’s was all show. The burger’s huge meat patty tasted underseasoned and under-flavored, despite its massive size. Because of that very size, moreover, the patty overshadowed all the other, tastier ingredients. The crisp bacon, over-salted to death, didn’t make matters better.

Still, some of the ingredients did stand out. Best of all was the cheese, so gooey that it amplified every single bite with creaminess. Moreover, the mushrooms and sweet grilled onions, piled on like a miniature mountain, helped to compensate for the meat’s flavorlessness. 

The “award-winning” onion rings didn’t do much to change my mind about Bartley’s with their nauseating oiliness, which left my palate gasping for relief. I did, however, enjoy their tempura-like, crunchy flakiness, unlike any I’ve had in onion rings before. 

Middlesex Lounge

Address: 315 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139

Burger Combo: Ciabatta, Bacon, American Cheese, Pickles, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion. $7.25.

With the myth of Bartley’s greatness busted, I roamed the rest of Cambridge, looking for another burger to take Bartley’s place. I finally arrived at Middlesex Lounge, one of the trendier restaurants and clubs in town, which serves its burger until the late hours of the night.

Yet the loud, pulsing techno and the throngs of dancing, wild youth could not help save this burger from the scrap list. The burger’s key downfall lay in the very factor that many diners have hailed as its claim to fame, the monstrous ciabatta buns. To be fair, the ciabatta proved useful to prop up the weight of the dense burger, especially given be juiciness of the meat, which could turn even the hardest bun soggy. Still, the buns not only dominated the flavor of the burger, but they made every bite feel abrasive.

Just as problematic are the other components. As with Bartley’s, the bacon is aggressively salty. Moreover, the meat was overcooked, with rough, nearly burnt edges. And the thin slice of cheese was a no-show in the flavor department.   

Finally—and this is perhaps the biggest sin of all—the burger came with a bag of potato chips, rather than fries. Need I say more?

KO Prime

Address: 90 Tremont St., Boston, MA 01208

Burger Combo: Foie Gras, Kobeyaki, Secret Sauce. $19.

After Middlesex, I knew I had to step it up a notch if I wanted to find a true quality burger in Boston. So I stepped into one of Boston’s best steakhouses, KO Prime, known for its ultra-gourmet foie gras burger. And accompanying that burger is an equally refined ambience, full of moody lighting, plush couches, colorful neon lights, and one of the coolest bars in town.    

This foie burger did a few things well, not the least of which was that it was served fresh off the grill, with a patty that literally oozed savory oil as I touched it. That same oiliness was, unfortunately, an Achilles’ heel, as the bottom bun fell apart. Even so, the patty tasted delicious, leaving just the right amount of fat slathered all over the mouth, and it never felt mushy or soggy. It could have used more seasoning, though.

I can’t say so much for the foie gras, unfortunately. While I did get a slightly bitter, subtle aftertaste, the foie gras was simply relegated to a small, grilled triangle placed neatly on top of the patty, so that the taste was all but lost under the patty’s relentless juiciness. The same goes for the “secret sauce,” a zesty lemon mayo, which had little noticeable effect on the burger. While I found it delicious when I tasted it separately, it had very little effect on the total burger.

Just as the burger, the fries come right off the grill onto your table. I enjoyed their seasoning, though I found the salt to be excessive and unevenly distributed, so that some bites left me dying of thirst. I also liked the almost golden exterior, which gave the fries a nice crunch. Unfortunately, the fries were cut thicker, giving them a very unsatisfying mushiness. The crisped exterior wasn’t enough to cover up that blandness either.

Sel de la Terre

Address: 255 State St., Boston, MA 02109

Burger Combo: Grilled New England Ground Beef, Vermont Cheddar, Pancetta and Spicy Aioli. $14.

Disappointed with my last “gourmet” experience, I decided to go for something more complex, but less gimmicky. I settled on Sel de la Terre, which attempts to infuse the traditional burger with some minor innovations. The end result felt muddled, however, as though the burger lacked a true identity or flavor profile.

At first, I found the huge burger, cooked to a beautiful red in the middle, delicious, but I soon began to notice larger and larger flaws. First was the extreme saltiness of the overly generous portion of pancetta. I like the idea of using high-quality ham over bacon, but it feels forced. Second, the garlic aioli simply did not come through—a shame, since it had the potential to elevate the burger to another level with its herby richness, which helped to bring all the disparate elements together. Worst of all, though, was the gigantic, overpowering bun, so dry that it interfered with the burger’s delicious savoriness.

At least the restaurant’s rosemary pommes frites helped compensate for the burger. Cut extra thin and crisped to a fabulous crunch, they never became soggy. Unfortunately, the rosemary tasted far too subtle to help with their slight blandness.

Radius

Address: 8 High Street, Boston, MA 02110

Burger Combo: Vermont Cheddar, Horseradish Mayo, Fried Onion Strings. $19.

By this point, I had virtually given up on Boston’s burger scene. Then I found Radius, one of the city’s best restaurants. Upon entering, I found myself drawn to the chic blend of modern and classic, including a ring of blazing red running across the domed ceiling. If nothing else, I knew this burger would have some style.

Style doesn’t begin to explain it, though. As the plate plopped down, I saw a massive burger, oozing all over with horseradish mayo, topped with a mountain of fried onions. At first, I feared the sight: I’d never liked horseradish, and I was almost certain it would ruin this beauty. Yet, as I bit in, I realized that this burger was not just the best of Boston, but also the best I’d eaten, ever—so good, in fact, that it even converted me into a fan of horseradish.  

Everything simply came together in pure harmony. The horseradish mayo was surprisingly nuanced, with a subtle peppery, spicy tanginess that I found irresistible. The onions didn’t feel cloying, instead adding just the right amount of sweetness and oil to an already complex dish. And the texture was superb. The creamy, rich sau
ce acted as the essential glue between the chunkier meat and the crunchy onions. The bottom bun had also become moist with all the juice from the meat, while the top bun retained a nice crisp.  

And, as if to add insult to injury, Radius also beat out its competitors with the best fries of the bunch. They were not ultra-thin, but they had none of the mushy potato fluffiness of other fries either, since they were crisped just right. They were also seasoned nicely with basil, giving them a refreshingly herby aftertaste. They did have too much salt, though.

The Final Verdict

In some ways, this mission could be considered an absolute failure. Among the five burgers I tried, most failed miserably. They were overseasoned, gimmicky, confused, and at times even cooked improperly.

However, Boston does have one gem, and it is, for me, the Holy Grail of burgers—the one that eluded me everywhere in my travels, from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago. Radius is the definitive burger experience.    

Edmund Mokhtarian is a food critic and blogger. At his blog, The Food Buster (www.thefoodbuster.com), he reviews restaurants, bakeries, wines, and chocolates from around the nation and the world.

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