Anyone can make a good hamburger. Get some halfway decent meat, season, apply heat, and voilà, you’ve got a tasty burger. In Philly, as in the rest of America, the Great Recession’s colliding vectors of affordable luxury and flight to comfort food have intersected over the past year, sparking a ground-beef-patty boom. We recently embarked on a cholesterol-defying mission to sample five of Philly’s newest and/or unreviewed-by-us contenders in the flame wars. Every specimen under consideration is estimable. But distinctions can still be made — between the merely good and the great, the more authentic and the less, the pleasant burger-consuming environment and the one with all the charm of a bus station.
The signs were inauspicious when we arrived at Bobby’s Burger Palace in West Philly, the latest outpost of celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s hamburger chain. A line of college students, neighbors and moviegoers, hemmed in by crowd-control stanchions, snaked out the door. By the time we finally made it up to the front to place our orders, we’d had ample opportunity to soak up all of Flay’s intellectual property touted on the wall menu, including the CrunchburgerR and the promise that Any Burger Can Be Crunchified, plus extra time to behold the merch case, stuffed with t-shirts, salsa and bottles of hot sauce, all adorned with Flay’s face.
“Angus doesn’t mean anything,” my meat-savvy friend Steve — a veteran hunter and trapper — said, looking at the menu’s boast of “certified Angus beef.” “They could feed it dog shit and call it Angus.” How a cow is fed, handled and processed, Carnivore Steve elaborated, is much more important than its breed in determining meat quality.
And then we ate our burgers — a Classic and a Crunchburger, which featured potato chips on top — and they were both damn good. The buns were old-school sesame seed; the patties, juicy, grill-flavored, and exceptionally well seasoned. They were all-American burgers that in some atavistic, archetypal way tasted the way I remember burgers tasting when I was a kid.
Of all the places we went, Wishing Well came closest to being the kind of spot where you actually want to eat a burger. It had an easygoing, unfussy atmosphere, an impressive craft beer selection, and friendly service. The Well’s one burger, the S.H.A.M.E. (an acronym for Scrapple Hamburgers Are Meaty Eating), features a beef patty topped with American cheese, a plank of house-made scrapple and a fried egg; however, it failed to transcend its gimmick. It seemed more like meatloaf wrapped in bread. While the first bite, coated in oozing yolk, was delicious, the cumulative experience of eating the whole thing was queasily excessive. Who, really, wants sausage (much less scrapple) on top of a burger?
[sidebar]A burger joint with attitude is no burger joint. But that’s what we encountered at the door of Jose Garces’s Village Whiskey, which at different times had anywhere from one to three employees barring our entry and not making us feel welcome as we waited over an hour to be seated. When we missed a call for our seats — even after saying in advance that we might miss the call — we were dropped to the bottom of the waiting list. During our second wait, when I entered the vestibule to inquire about our progress, the bouncer said to the hostess, with a tonal eye roll, “Ben’s back.” I was, but why would I ever return again after that treatment?