Burger Wars

Written by Elin Jeffords Category: Food Reviews Issue: January 2012
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Blu has a handful of signature burgers as well as a Build Your Own Burger, and I did just that, choosing the Black Angus beef burger ($11) on a white bun with American cheese. From the toppings section (up to five), I went for lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. (Specialty toppings such as bacon, sautéed mushrooms and the like are $1 extra.) There is also a choice of up to five condiments. Mustard is my burger go-to, but I also asked for chipotle mayo.  

The friendly, efficient server offered her advice on sides, and the burger was promptly brought to the table. The eye-appealing, glossy-domed bun (courtesy of Breadcrafters) had just the right heft and full yeasty flavor, and cradled a cheese-draped patty that was rather finely ground and well-compacted, but nevertheless juicy and robustly beefy. All the toppings were top-notch, and the whole thing came together to make an ultra-satisfying burger.

The freezer case of gelato on the way out is a crafty bit of marketing. Even those lacking a sweet tooth might surrender to temptation and exit with a blood-orange gelato cone. 

Stellar Side: Our server suggested sweet potato fries. They’re dry, small and nothing special, but that chipotle mayo made a powerful spicy, smoky statement. It’s the best I’ve tasted anywhere.

Info: Three Valley locations, bluburger.com

Grade: A

 

phm0112 bw2 lgThe Chuckbox

Talk about location, location – situated directly across the street from ASU, this modest establishment must be a gold mine. Originally a hot dog stand, then briefly a Chinese restaurant, The Chuckbox has been feeding students, professors and burger-loving citizens for forty years.

To say it’s nothing fancy would be an overstatement. The shack-like structure shows plenty of wear, but the place is immaculately clean, with a beautifully groomed condiment bar, and good-humored employees who get the job done with near-magical efficiency. The menu is admirably tight (burgers, hot dogs and a few chicken options), and “The Big One” is the way to go ($4.29, cash only).  After you choose your bun and cheese, the patty’s slapped on the grill and ready to eat minutes later.

I dismantled my burger to add crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes and onions, which are chunked instead of sliced in rings. The 1/3-pound patty barely fits the big, puffy, Aunt Hattie’s brand bun. I requested medium rare beef, and considering the large circumference and resulting thinness of the patty, it came very close. Infused with the distinct taste of char-grilling, it achieves the burger ideal: extremely juicy meat, the perfect mesh of toppings, and softly draping cheese. Factoring in the odd bit of gristle, this was the best example of burger-bang-for-your-buck.

Stellar Side: The zucchini/mushroom combo was pretty good, fried in clean oil to the perfect level of crispness outside and softness within, and goes well with the ranch dip from the condiment bar.

Info: 202 E. University Dr., Tempe, 480-968-4712, thechuckbox.com

Grade: A

 

phm0112 bw3 lgDelux

Few fans would argue that Delux is the Valley’s gold standard for burgers. The slim space is always packed and noisy, but no matter how busy, the service is attentive and refreshingly non-attitudinal. Next door, its takeaway wing, D2Go, tends to those emergency burger breaks.

The meticulously prepared Classic Standard ($9.90) is everything a burger should be. The bun – made for Delux by MJ Bread – has a high, glossy dome, and is firm yet pliable, with a rich, bready flavor that bravely stands up to the beef.  The 10-ounce Niman Ranch patty is done exactly to order (medium-rare is suggested) and draped with cheese. This is top-quality meat, medium grind and juicy, with nary a nibble of gristle. It possesses that elusive umami quality, mouth-filling and satisfying, that reminds us why we are carnivores. And proportions are perfect: just the right amount of shredded lettuce, ripe sliced tomatoes and red onion, with crisp pickle rounds neatly arranged on the side.

There’s even a colorful mini fruit salad on the plate, which might serve as dessert for some, though others will save room for a fresh-baked cookie or red velvet tower.

Stellar Side: Delux’s fries are every bit as good as the burger – slim, crispy, spangled with salt and natural-tasting. Order them mixed with sweet potato fries for an intriguing flavor contrast, and dunk them in the tangy chipotle aioli dip, which makes a zingy burger-topper as well.

Info: 3146 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-522-2288, deluxburger.com

Grade: A +

 

phm0112 bw4 lgGreasewood Flats

A trip to Greasewood evokes nostalgia for days gone by, when a  meandering drive through pristine desert culminated with a burger and beer. Now, for the most part, high-end housing and sleek commercial buildings have supplanted the javelinas and roadrunners. But Greasewood still looks the same.

Once a stagecoach stop en route from Fort McDowell to Phoenix, Greasewood reeks of, um, authenticity. The ramshackle bunkhouse that houses the bar and kitchen is tattooed with graffiti and seemingly held together only by the staples anchoring thousands of dollar bills and business cards to the walls and ceiling. Seating is outdoors, in a picnic table area strewn with rusty farm equipment.

We bellied up to the “order” window and asked for the half-pound cheeseburger ($7.75) done medium rare. The patty and two halves of the bun were haphazardly assembled and askew, sitting atop a bed of sogging ruffled potato chips. The cheese was vulcanized to the decidedly well-done patty, which was not only dry and gristly but had that metallic taste that comes from being refrigerated too long. Holsum Bakery supplies the soft, spongy onion bun. So much for misty, watercolor memories.

Stellar Side: The cook informed us that everybody adores the chili. Everybody, presumably, who likes Midwestern-style – mild as milk, thick with canned tomatoes and kidney beans, utilizing burger grind meat and topped with cheese and chopped onion. Not me.

Info:  27375 N. Alma School Pkwy., Scottsdale, 480-585-9430, greasewoodflat.net

Grade: D

 

phm0112 bw10 lgThe Grind

Located in a Camelback Corridor strip mall and done in moody shades of black and gray, The Grind makes for a sexy cocktail lounge, but it’s not a great place for convivial dining – the interior is dark as a cave, and the blaring music often makes conversation difficult. Though it may be a side effect of the lunch rush, water glasses often go unfilled, and getting condiments can be an issue.  

The Grind BLT ($10) is quite a sight: Starkly deposited on a vaguely medieval-looking pewter platter, it towers almost six inches high. The first time I saw one, I thought of Wild Kingdom footage of a python unhinging its jaw to swallow its prey whole. Lacking that capacity, normal folks must resort to knife and fork. For me, that isn’t what the burger experience is all about.

The shtick here is fast, ultra-high-heat cooking that “seals the juices in.” It does form a pleasantly crunchy crust, but the meat – though hormone-free and of good quality – isn’t particularly juicy, probably because it has a low percentage of fat. Since the 10-ounce patty is compact and high-domed, it doesn’t reach to the edge of the bun, which means that some bites of the excellent MJ Bread bun are meat-free. The burger comes pre-assembled, not terribly neatly, with tomato, lettuce (tough outer leaves that were speckled brown) and grilled bacon slices that manage to be either raw and flabby or burned.     

Stellar Side: The mixed fries are perfectly done. Slender, toothsome and sprinkled with herbs, they deserve a custom dip rather than plain old ketchup.

Info: 3961 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-954-7463, thegrindaz.com

Grade: C

 

phm0112 bw5 lgJoe's Farm Grill

Kudos to Joe Johnson, who came up with a genuinely appealing venue and backstory for his burger restaurant: It’s located in his family’s former home on a small farm. Naturally, the place has gotten a makeover since the old days – the outside resembles a classic ’50s burger joint, and the inside consists of two capacious dining areas. Surrounded by a grassy weald with picnic tables shaded by salt cedar trees, it makes for an idyllic lunch spot. Johnson hasn’t forgotten his farming roots, either – 12 acres are still being cultivated, and some of the yield is used in the kitchen.

The menu offers a variety of salads and pizza, ribs, sandwiches, two specialty burgers and one standard burger. The lattermost is a 6-ouncer that includes choice of cheese (American for me), optional grilled onions and a side of fries ($7.99). Tucked tidily into a foil-lined plastic basket, the top of the burger was cocked back so we could admire the gently melted cheese and deep golden onions. A leaf of lettuce, slices of tomato and three sweet pickle slices were included on the side. (A neatly policed counter outside holds relish and utensils.)

Made by Strictly from Scratch bakery, the bun is soft but fairly substantial and has a bit of a doughy mouth-feel. No faulting the patty, which looks hand-formed and is loosely textured, moist and meaty. It was a bit closer to medium than medium-rare, but it all came together in a delicious, satisfying whole. The grilled onions added depth and sweetness to the crunch of the raw veggies.

Stellar Side: Our friendly counter person highly recommended the sweet potato fries with pineapple/serrano chile relish ($2 extra). A light coating of batter gives them nice crispness, but the stiff, overly-sweet relish doesn’t cling the way it should. Next time, I would try the panko-dill breaded zucchini or baked potato fries with sour cream, chives and bacon.

Info: 301 N. Gilbert Rd., Gilbert, 480-503-3805,  joesfarmgrill.com

Grade: B+

 

phm0112 bw6 lgLenny's Burgers

Lenny’s has been around since 1984, when it was more or less a shack with a few picnic tables outside – a place everyone loved for its deliciously sloppy patties hanging precariously over the edges of the bun. Times changed, and so did Lenny’s. The three extant locations sport a retro-diner look, and the operation runs like a Swiss train. Nonetheless, it’s not fancy; this is closer to a fast-food burger than an upscale one, but it still has plenty of merit.

Lenny’s rocks at lunch. The counter crew is pleasant and takes efficiency to a new level. Place your order, and in no time, a plastic basket with a neatly swaddled burger is delivered to the table.

The basic single burger with cheese costs a bargain $2.99. It’s built on a sesame seed-speckled Holsum Bakery bun with the proper slightly sweet, yeasty flavor and just enough heft to hold the whole thing together. The 4-ounce patty is medium grind, gristle-free, fairly juicy, and fits perfectly on the bun. A generous amount of thinly sliced red onion, ripe tomato, pickle chips and chopped lettuce is neatly arranged on top, along with a rather watery drizzle of a mayo/ranch dressing hybrid. It actually tasted pretty good, and one of the employees told me unless otherwise specified, all the burgers are served with the mayo concoction. You can also order Thousand Island dressing, barbecue sauce or mustard and ketchup.

Stellar Side: The cheese fries are truly a guilty pleasure. The thick-cut potatoes are golden and soft, rather than crisp, and ladled with hot nacho cheese. With a squirt of tangy ketchup, it’s like a trip back to the elementary school cafeteria or the state fair.

Info: Three Valley locations, lennysburger.com

Grade: B

 

phm0112 bw8 lgThe Original Hamburger Works

When The Original Hamburger Works opened in 1968, it was considered cutting-edge, with its newfangled open kitchen, funky eclectic decor and DIY condiment bar. Decades later, the Works is still chugging along – albeit in a somewhat dingy and cluttered state. There are five sizes of standard burgers available, ranging from 3 ounces to one pound. We ordered the 1/3 pounder ($4.09), along with that ’70s staple – fried zucchini and mushrooms.

Choosing a booth sporting a remedial wad of duct tape, we waited ten minutes before going to the pick-up window to get our order, which the kitchen flubbed. After getting the right order, we proceeded to the condiment bar, which was unappetizingly strewn with detritus, and picked out the usual onion-pickle-lettuce-tomato toppings, plus sliced jalapeños.

The burger was eye-pleasing, with the patty peeking seductively out around the edges of the sweet, spongy bun. After piling on the veggies, I picked it up to take a bite, and my fingers sank into the soaked bottom, which promptly disintegrated. Needless to say, the patty was juicy, as well as rich-tasting and cooked perfectly to order. If you don’t mind the sloppy condiment bar, haphazard delivery system and the fact you have to eat it with a fork, it’s a good burger.

Stellar Side: It’s not the zucchini and mushrooms. Heavily breaded and clearly hailing from a frozen, industrial-size bag,  they were over-cooked in over-used oil. No wonder the once-popular staple has fallen into disfavor.

Info: 2801 N. 15th Ave., Phoenix, 602-263-8693, originalhamburgerworks.com

Grade: B-

 

phm0112 bw9 lgZinburger

This Sam Fox eatery is cheeky and playful. You gotta smile (or wince) at the notion of chowing down on your burger under a huge mural of cows placidly ruminating in a grassy field. That’s pretty much it for décor, but there’s plenty of seating, including a clever inside/outside counter, comfy booths and two outdoor dining areas.

Being of the “you can’t be all things to all people” school of thought, I like the tight, focused menu. Having tried all three of the specialty burgers, I decided to zero in on the “Plain and Simple Burger.” In truth, it’s anything but. You can conceal a lot of flaws under piles of exotic add-ons, but there’s no hiding when it’s just lettuce and tomato (onions on request). With a $9 base-fee for the burger, the $1.25 surcharge for a slice of American cheese felt chintzy, but I was living large, so I went for it.

Consistent with Fox restaurant standards, the server was pleasant and competent and presented the picture-perfect plate proudly. The nicely rounded, sturdy bun – made by Tucson’s Bakehouse Bread Company – was a tad dry, but that was ameliorated by the super-juicy, gristle-free 7-ounce patty with a pronounced grass-fed flavor that was done perfectly to order. Carefully melted cheese, ripe tomato, crisp onion and lettuce were meticulously arranged on top. It was literally finger-licking good.

Stellar Side: Oh, those zucchini fries! Cut in generous matchsticks, they retain integrity of texture under a thin, tightly clinging coat of batter and generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese. The ranch dip is nothing special, but the fries sure are.

Info: 2502 E. Camelback Rd. (Biltmore Fashion Park), Phoenix, 602-424-9500, foxrc.com

Grade: A

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