The birth of the hamburger may be shrouded in mystery, but it has had a very public upbringing. This quintessentially American dish has made its way from lunch counters and backyard barbecues to glossy spreads in culinary magazines and fancy restaurant menus.
Recently, a new wave of openings across the country developed the upscale chef's burger into a complete menu, full of house-made garnishes and international flavors at spots including Taylor's Automatic Refresher at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Iron Chef Michael Symon's B-Spot in the Cleveland area.
Pittsburgh chefs thoroughly embrace the fancy burger trend. At Bistro 19 in Mt. Lebanon, the burger comes topped with aged cheddar, bacon and roasted garlic ketchup, with house-made pickles and hand-cut French fries on the side. The burger at Kaya in the Strip District, a true behemoth of a sandwich held together with a steak knife instead of a toothpick, is loaded with pickles, bacon, avocado, tomato, Chihuahua cheese, a fried egg and a "secret" sauce, orange-colored and slightly spicy, dripping down the sides.
About six months ago, the burger bar concept took off in Pittsburgh, starting with the opening of Burgh'ers in Harmony, which was quickly followed by BRGR in East Liberty, Burgatory in the Waterworks Mall near Aspinwall and Winghart's in Market Square.
These restaurants detail the cuts and kind of meat going into their burgers and experiment with different styles of toppings and sauces. Several play fast and loose with the burger itself, offering up lamb, chicken or fish burgers, as well as vegetarian burgers that even a beefeater could crave.
And more is soon to come. A former Fuddruckers franchise in the Waterfront in Homestead is becoming the Pittsburgh Burger Co., a burger bar with a special focus on game burgers. The owners of Primanti Bros. are planning a second restaurant in Market Square that will serve gourmet burgers along with other comfort foods.
How many burgers is too many? Nobody knows, but for now, here's the not-so-skinny on some of the town's hottest (and mostly new) hamburger joints.
Zachary Winghart, a classically trained chef and certified butcher, wanted to open the kind of casual restaurant where the cooks could be themselves, while focusing on making simple food "really well." Chuck steak is ground daily and hand-formed; or choose a chicken sausage burger made from boneless, skinless chicken thighs also ground in house.
Burgers are served on Mediterra buns and matched with assertive flavors, such as the Market Square burger with bacon, mushrooms, gruyere and honey-mustard dressing ($8.50) or the Denny Double Bleu with creamy blue cheese dressing and dry blue cheese ($7.50). Alternatively, order your burger "naked" and dress it up as you like.
Atmosphere: Small, crowded and utterly lacking in pretense; like an old-fashioned lunch counter, most seats line the open kitchen; order and pay at the cash register, then take a seat and wait for your number to be called; paper-wrapped burgers tend to drip so be sure to grab some napkins.
Veg-out: Mr. Winghart's veggie patty is made like falafel, with the addition of ground Portobello mushrooms.
Make it a meal: A la carte sides include sizable piles of heavily seasoned, hand-cut French fries or potato salad.
Burger substitute: As one friend put it, "If a burger place can make pizza this good, why can't more pizza places make pizza this good?" Wood-fired pizzas with chewy crusts; try the Boomer with bacon, mushrooms, brie, caramelized onions, a handful of fresh arugula and a drizzle of truffle aioli.
Drinks and sweets: Whiskey, once the liquor license comes through.
A new addition from the fine folks behind Fuel and Fuddle, Uncle Sam's Sub Shop and Joe Mama's, the beef patties are ground and hand-formed daily from hormone-free sirloin, chuck, brisket and short rib. Other burger options include chicken, organic bison, lump crab and Sicilian sausage, and all of them come with house-made chips.
Menu options include the Farmer Brown, a beef burger with maple cured ham, farmhouse cheddar and an over-easy egg, ($9.50) and the Crab Shack, a crab burger with sriracha remoulade and coleslaw ($11). Or, assemble your own gourmet creation from bun to sauce thanks to a cleverly designed burger worksheet.
Atmosphere: One part modern diner, one part sports bar; there's a corporate edge, but it doesn't feel like a chain. Odds are you'll have to wait, so fill the first few minutes by admiring the flow-chart mural on the front wall.
Veg-out: House-made veggie burger is a mix of cremini mushrooms, lentils, cashews, cracked wheat and various seasonings.
Make it a meal: Sides are on steroids here, from onion rings caked with batter to giant plates of French fries to corn bread and mac 'n' cheese, both oozing with cheddar.
Burger alternative: This never-ending menu includes wings, dip and nachos for the bar crowd; as well as salads, sandwiches and a handful of entrees for the contrary-minded.
Drinks and sweets: A dozen rotating taps and a lengthy list of bottles will satisfy discriminating beer drinkers while house cocktails are made with fresh-squeezed juice; classic and boozy shakes are taken to new extremes like apple pancakes & bacon with caramel vodka or Milk & Cereal, vanilla ice cream laced with Froot Loops.
Chef Brian Pekarcik teamed up with Rick Stern, who also owns Willow in Ohio Township, to open not one but two restaurants; first Spoon, an elegant dining room with a contemporary American menu, then the city's first gourmet burger bar, BRGR (say it, "bee are gee are").
A custom blend of chuck, sirloin, New York strip and ribeye from Curtze Meats in Erie is ground and delivered daily, patties hand-shaped in house. Other options include salmon, turkey and Kobe beef burgers, all served on Mediterra brioche buns. You'll have to stick to the menu here, but it's no hardship. Try the Fire in the Hole with guacamole, jalapenos, pepperjack cheese and chipotle mayo ($9) or the Salmon Burger with cucumber and tomato relish, apple-smoked bacon and caper aioli ($9).
Atmosphere: The contemporary space doesn't scream burger bar, but an Americana-themed slideshow sets the scene. Burgers and fries come cradled in baskets, there are intriguing micro-brews on tap and the rooftop deck is about to open for the season.
Veg-out: House veggie burger combines falafel and lentils, topped with hot and sour cucumbers, tomato, red onion and goat's milk yogurt (can also be subbed for beef in other preparations).
Make it a meal: Thin, crisp fries are tossed with parsley and parmesan; dill pickles are fried in crisp batter, but the real stand-outs are the onion rings and the seasonal coleslaw. Sides are a la carte, but portions are ample.
Burger alternative: Minimal and unnecessary.
Drinks and sweets: A lengthy and frequently changing list of draft and bottled beers, along with a small selection of burger-friendly wines and cocktails. The categories blend with spiked milkshakes and floats (classic versions available as well) like the salty caramel shake spiked with bourbon and the adult root beer float with Root liqueur, local seltzer and vanilla bean ice cream; a la mode brownies and cookie ice cream sandwiches are sized to share.
After 10 years working at fine dining restaurants, Fiore Moletz was ready for a change. He decided to combine his love of casual food with a dedication to high-quality ingredients. Burgh'ers' gourmet burgers in Harmony are made from local, grass-fed beef and much of his produce comes from local, organic farmers; diners also can substitute a hormone-free chicken breast.
Burgers, served on traditional soft buns, are named after Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The Mexican War comes with cheddar, roasted green chiles, avocado and cilantro; the Bloomfield with caramelized onions, marinated rapini, sweet fennel seed and Swiss cheese ($9.99). Or you can build your own.
Atmosphere: An unassuming neighborhood spot tucked into a strip mall, Burgh'ers adds charm with a chalkboard menu, coke in glass bottles and its outgoing, attentive staff.
Veg-out: Substitute a grilled portobello cap for any burger.
Make it a meal: Burgers come with fresh-cut fries or a mixed green salad. Try the fries seasoned with rosemary and olive oil, the creamy mac 'n' cheese and crisp coleslaw.
Burger alternative: Sandwiches include a grilled chicken pita and a BLT; hot dogs come with their own creative toppings, or you can gussy them up as you wish.
Drinks and sweets: BYOB with a beer distributor and state store within shouting distance; milkshakes so thick you'll need to use your spoon.
It's approaching 30 years of business, but Tessaro's in Bloomfield holds its own against trendy newcomers, and continues to come up in nearly every debate about the state of burgers in the 'Burgh.
Half-pound burgers are made from chuck and steak trimmings ground on-site daily, hand-formed to order and hardwood-grilled, imparting a gentle smokiness that tastes like summer. Topping options are limited but thoughtful; add a grilled onion to the bacon bleu cheeseburger for a decadent mouthful ($9.50). Most burgers are served on traditional soft buns, except the deli burger with cole slaw, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese served on rye bread ($8.50).
Atmosphere: Brick walls and stained glass windows give the space gravitas; for the best people-watching, wait for a seat in the front room with its ample bar; for a quieter tete-a-tete, squeeze into one of the small, chambray-covered tables in the back. After you order, you can watch Tessaro's expert grill-masters at work in the back of the restaurant.
Veg-out: Vegetarians should go elsewhere, unless the idea of a vegetable kebab makes them weak in the knees.
Make it a meal: Go with the hash browns or the killer potato salad, which balances lots of mayo with chopped celery and sweet pickles.
Burger alternative: The grilled half chicken with hot and flavorful atomic sauce is ideal picnic food whether it's January or July.
Drinks and sweets: This neighborhood tavern offers a dozen or so beers on tap, a full bar and a decent wine list. For dessert? "More meat."