Taste: Reviews: Behold the Burgodiversity!

Our writer sacrifices his arteries at the altar of Philly’s burgeoning burger scene

The burgers were big, eight ounces each, and draped in trendy marketing blather (“grass-fed,” “heritage breeds”). The patties are formed using an impressively thoughtful process: three cuts of beef, ground elaborately, enriched with some Kobe fat, rolled into a torchon, refrigerated, and cut in such a way that when you bite into the burger, you’re biting against its grain. The $9.50 Village Burger, served on a sesame seed bun from Garces Trading Company and topped with Thousand Island dressing, was a moist, lip-smacking umami delivery vehicle, and a good value. The $26 Whiskey King version was so over-heaped with toppings (“maple bourbon-glazed cipollini,” blue cheese, applewood bacon, and a hefty lobe of foie gras) that it couldn’t hold together. In this instance, more was less.

When I first heard about 500 Degrees, a new burger joint by the owners of Rittenhouse Square’s Rouge, I was puzzled. The idea of spinning off a burger shop from a restaurant famous for its burger seemed like a natural — why not capitalize on the Rouge brand and call the new place Rouge Burger? Then I went there and instantly understood. Rouge is distinguished by, among other things, its location, its atmosphere and its scene. 500 Degrees faces a parking garage, is bathed in glaring light, and was virtually empty on my visit. More importantly, though the burger uses the same blend of meat, it had little else in common with its inspiration. The smaller, 5.5-ounce size was welcome, given the steroidal 12-plus-ounce proportions of the mother burger, as was the lower price. But here, though the Wild Flour Bakery challah bun was proportionately smaller, it somehow utterly dominated the burger. Worse, the patty was barely warm — and it was disconcerting to see the stack of pre-cooked burgers waiting to be reheated on the griddle as orders were placed. The meat itself was decently seasoned, but the Thousand-Island-dressing-style “special house sauce” on the 500 Burger was bland, and the cheddar cheese, barely noticeable.

Our last stop was Ladder 15, a weird amalgam of sports bar and gastropub, with a fusion’s-greatest-hits bar-food menu overseen by offal-slinging chef David Ansill, and downright wifty service. We followed the instructions on the “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign, waiting two feet in front of a woman seated at the hostess station who stared at us so blankly that we assumed she was a customer. Then she started chatting with someone who appeared to be her boyfriend. Finally, we asked her who was in charge of seating people, and … it was she. She apologized, and led us to a table, but what was that all about? The Classic Burger, though slightly overcooked, used eight ounces of dry-aged prime beef, had a nice char, was well seasoned with sea salt and pepper, and sat on a brioche bun from Metropolitan Bakery. Here, because the patty was larger and more tensile, it wasn’t dominated by the bread.

The $18 Burger 15, though it accomplishes the restaurant’s goal of putting itself on the burger map, is absurd. Beyond the burger itself, which was topped with braised short rib, wine-stewed mushrooms and grilled onions, there was a separate pot of truffle mayonnaise for the house-cut french fries, a towering marrow bone, and a small vase filled with truffle demi-glace. It was all good, but it was also preposterously rich and overreaching, a sense-obliterating jumble of fats and flavors. And like Village Whiskey’s gilding-the-lily Whiskey King, it could barely hold together under all those ingredients. L&I would have shut this burger down for lacking structural integrity.

All five places add to Philly’s burgodiversity, which now rivals any other city’s, and I’d rather have excessive options, if only to be able to feel virtuous about rejecting them. But the burgers I’m most likely to eat again are the Flay (corporate atmo be damned!) and the Village Burger at Village Whiskey — if only they’d 86 that door ’tude.