What we learned spending months searching for metro Detroit’s best burgers

Notes of a hamburger man

Dec 2, 2017 at 4:00 am

For about a year, we ran a column in Metro Times called "Burger Quest." We had thought it would be fun to look at a different burger in each installment and judge it on its merits. Maybe we bit off more than Yours Truly could chew: It turned out that having a burger with clockwork regularity challenged the intestinal fortitude in unforeseen ways.

We began to approach the plate with a bit of apprehension, asking if we could really eat another hamburger. Or wondering if readers may have warmly accepted a column called "Salad Quest" instead.

But we experienced it all: the electric anticipation of placing an order, the awe-inspiring first bites, the steely discipline required to finish lesser burgers, and the dizzying torpor as our system strained to digest each belly bomb.

But over many months of being MT's resident burger burgher, more than a few insights were gained, and we even realized some rookie errors we were guilty of. It turns out you can learn a thing or two by eating a hamburger sandwich week after week. What follows is an earnest effort to distill this hard-won burger wisdom into one article.

An abundance of burgers: In metro Detroit, burgers are ubiquitous. Even along the high end of the dining scene, from restaurants with white tablecloths and Tuscan leather to farm-to-table joints with plank seating, almost all menus will offer at least one burger. Perhaps it's a sop to diners bewildered by more refined offerings. Oddly, sometimes it's the main event on a much larger menu of food produced by an expert kitchen: Redcoat Tavern's kitchen, for instance, can turn out much grander things than burgers, yet that's what almost everybody seems to order there. But just because they're everywhere doesn't mean that they're everyday. Many stand out as wonders.

Rarer is better: Burgerphiles have a disdainful name for a well-done patty: a hockey puck. There's a reason for this scorn: The very best burger patties will lose much of their flavorful fat when cooked to a crisp. Despite the mania about germs that has mandatory warnings emblazoned on menus, if you have tended toward the "done" end of the spectrum, you might try something more rare and see if it suits you better, especially if your burger is made of freshly ground beef.

A big, bumpy, squirting good time: We began to appreciate it when a patty was a big, ugly thing, that flame-broiled masterpiece still bearing the divot from the talented cook's thumb, with the kinds of bulges and seams that practically scream "hand-formed." The fat in a good hand-patted burger cranks up the richness, and can sometimes impart a buttery taste. Usually, the best bite will be in the middle, where the juicy, seedy heart of the tomato slice spills onto the tongue and mixes with the buttery beef and rich mayo to create an extraordinary sensation. All in all, the best of these we tried was a half-pound, two-hander, four-napkin burger at Three Nicks Scoreboard in Allen Park.

Frozen out: No doubt a chorus of voices will disagree, but our burger spree left us convinced that frozen patties simply aren't as good as hand-patted. Maybe we just prefer hand-formed burgers. Or maybe our bias is due to the hands-on attitude of a cook who insists on using freshly ground meat. Whatever the cause, the difference between a lovingly created patty and a machine-stamped disk seems inescapable.

Stacked against stacking:One thing machine-formed patties are good at, though, is providing an architecturally sound platform for add-ons. They can be double-stacked without leaning, and we've seen our co-diners eat them topped with everything from bacon and Swiss to sautéed spinach, fried egg, and blue cheese.

We always tried to be burger purists, sticking with lettuce, tomato, and pickles. Frankly, when we see an intimidating list of add-ons, it gives us the sneaking feeling that the patty must be merely provisional.

Romaine event: While there's much to say in favor of the satisfying crunch of iceberg lettuce, its increasing replacement with romaine is a welcome adaptation. Sometimes that hunk of iceberg shifts in mid-bite, ready to shoot across the table, lubricated by the mustard or ketchup. Get an odd chop and the condiments seep right through to your bun. But the ruffled end of a romaine leaf provides an adequate vegetative flavor, as well as serving as a sort of moisture barrier between the bun and the condiments and burger.

Nice buns: One teeny cavil kept cropping up at burger joints: Buns were sometimes ... too generous. We always love it when the patty is a bit bigger than the bun, because it's always disappointing when your first bite is a mouthful of a poofy, sesame-laden gravy-soaker. We developed a grateful feeling for the right-sized bun treated well, given a toasting or even a smear of butter and a few moments on the flat-top for added richness.

Gimmicks work: While there's no substitute for quality, a little craftiness goes a long way. How else to explain the way burger joints that offer something a bit out of the ordinary survive and prosper in a fast-changing dining scene? Detroit's Marcus Burger does it by serving rectangular patties in hot dog buns. Mallie's Sports Grill and Bar offers quite a dare with its 10-pound "Monster Burger." Sometimes an oddity is just the thing to keep people coming in the door.

The Middle Eastern advantage: It seems that when your burger is prepared by somebody with heritage in or around the Fertile Crescent, something magical happens. Take, for instance, the heavenly burgers served at Motor City Sports Bar in Hamtramck. These Balkans know how to tweak beef, given their skill with cevapi, a Balkan staple made of grilled minced beef, or a pljeskavica, which is like a Southeastern European beef patty. Then there are the Lebanese origins of the classic Famous Burger, finely ground and enriched with spices, with so many juices spilling out of it that it's hard to believe it was ever ground chuck. Or make a pilgrimage to Dearborn's M&M Cafe for chef Maurice Ltief's "Maurice Burger," a quarter-pound ground beef patty that's mixed with chopped parsley, green peppers, tomatoes, and onions. It's almost as if the loving touches put on tabbouleh or falafel have been infused into a patty. It has an unusual complexity, with a softness like that of the moistest meatloaf.

Onions aid in longevity: What do 88-year-old Motz's on Fort Street in Detroit, 65-year-old Hunter House in Birmingham, and 60-year-old Greene's Hamburgers in Farmington all have in common? They just won't die. And it's probably because of one thing: onions. Nothing activates the salivary glands of a slider freak quite like the smell of sizzling onions. At Motz's they steam the buns right on top of the aromatic root vegetable as it caramelizes. After a meal at Hunter House, your order, your breath, even your hair will carry the fragrance. A blind man could find Greene's from a half-mile away.