For the past few years, CTBites’ annual Top Ten Burgers has crowned the best premium hamburgers in Southwest Connecticut. Featuring the usual suspects, the rankings didn't vary much each summer. (In fact, our 2018 roundup would have welcomed only one new candidate, the robust Tavern Burger just introduced at GreyBarns.) By focusing on those elite burgers, had our list become elitist?
This year we decided to widen the lens to include both Fairfield and New Haven Counties and shift the focus to the casual, every-day burgers that we usually crave: a really succulent beef patty adorned with our favorite fixings at a reasonable price. Convenience ups the appeal.
Ironically, two candidates from last year’s gilded list qualified by value and ambience as casual, neighborhood hamburgers. Four of the entries are indigenous to the state, including one that is steamed not fired. Surprisingly, half of the patties are not even served in conventional, soft buns.
We paid close attention to bread/beef ratios. A limp bun immediately disqualified any contender.
Most prices hover around 10 dollars, one as cheap as 5.25, but none more costly than 15.
Herewith, the best of our local, “grab-able” burgers.
1. MATCH BURGER LOBSTER, Westport
I asked Matt Storch whether the burger he makes at his new fast casual stand in Saugatuck is the same as the one he serves at Match, his upscale SONO eatery. “Only difference,” Storch replied, “is that it’s closer to its source.” (Fleisher’s Butchery lives next door).
This Carnivore Copy is also cheaper and offered not just on Thursday nights, but every lunch and dinner -- in a far more relaxed setting. Otherwise, the two Match Burgers are identical, each a crusty 7 oz. patty dipped in butter to envelope the disk in flames as it is grilled, which creates a robust char while maintaining a pink interior. In place of cheese, the patty is coated with a béchamel sauce. Good Bread and Bakery supplies the onion sesame brioche bun, its top dipped in a pretzel wash. With its assertive flavor and textures, the roll perfectly frames the savory burger and its buttery, creamy fixings.
The Match Burger came in as the runner-up in last year’s upscale rankings. Less expensive and more convenient, the duplicate neighborhood version is our number one choice when we want to grab a burger and go.
580 Riverside Ave. Matchburgerlobster.com
2. HAPA FOOD TRUCK, Stamford
Though a low priced counter burger served from a truck, Chris Gonzales’ iconoclastic Hapa Burger earned a spot on our top ten elite list last year. The sandwich perfectly reflects Chris’ sensibility, half American, half Pacific Rim. That’s what the word ”Hapa” means. A mashup of East and West.
Gonzales starts with 5.5 oz of LaFrieda blend, topped with Vermont cheese, and some crunchy lettuce. But that's it for the Western influence. Instead of a traditional white bun, the patty is placed in a purple roll, a sweet pillow colored and flavored with Ube, a Philippine yam that Chris’s family often used to make desserts. The festive bun is truly eye candy and almost as sweet. The aioli sauce gets its kick from Gochujang, a peppery Korean paste, which is countered by sweet fried onions caramelized from an Italian recipe. For more flavor depth, Chris adds a salty pork belly slab, an essential found in every Philippine kitchen.
These result is mouthwatering, brilliantly globalizing the classic American hamburger. A flavor bomb.
Check website for locations www.hapafoodtruck.com
3. CHERRY STREET EAST, New Canaan
One reason I cherish the Cherry Street burger is that it comes to the table resting on an English muffin. That’s how my mother used to serve her hamburger. But sentimentality is not why I am partial to an English muffin burger. The sandwich sized bun is light but dense, doughy yet substantial enough to hold up Cherry Street’s half pound hand-formed patty. No limp bun here; the muffin’s crooks and crannies easily contain the running juices. (Burger guru Pat LaFrieda swears by English muffins for his burgers, warming them in his home oven to keep the bread soft inside.)
Flame grilled, the patty is cross hatched with sear marks, a feast for the eyes and the palate. The caramelized strips enhance the burger’s distinctive crust. A number of toppings are available to build the burger, but we stick with grilled onions so as not to overwhelm the nuanced, smoky flavor of the flame cooked meat.
This old school burger is best devoured at the bar with a frosty beer and a baseball game unraveling on the tv monitor.
45 East Avenue www.Cherrysteast.com
4. BLACK DUCK CAFÉ, Westport
Forget the gruff bartenders, the sluggish seating and service. Black Duck’s menu of 20 stuffed hamburgers is worth the wait. Also disregard the nautical motif of this former Barge. You have entered carnivore central.
The 6 ounce 80/20 Angus beef choices are cooked to perfect order, each of the different builds well crafted. Though I liked the signature Black Duck burger smothered in peppers, onions, and mushrooms, I am partial to the Doctor Proctor burger, its heart melting with bleu cheese. In my mind, Beef and Blue is a marriage consummated in Hamburger Heaven.
Though not as taste forward as other buns, the plain white roll handled the hamburger with aplomb, staying out of the way of the myriad flavors bursting from toppings, stuffings, and savory beef. The bun to meat ratio registered at a perfect 1:1.
For hearty eaters, Black Duck offers a Gulliver ¾ pound upgrade.
605 Riverside Ave. www.Blackduckwestport.com
5. PRIME 16, New Haven. Orange. Pelham
“Hip” is not an adjective that usually modifies “hamburger.” But Prime 16’s array of 16 different meat burgers is deliberately cutting edge cool. That’s not surprising, given its location just off the Yale Campus. Choices range from a Siracha Bacon Burger to Bourbon Bison to Wild Mushroom and Garlic.
At first blush, it seemed Prime 16 might be trying a bit too hard.
That’s why our party chose the simplest, least “hip” burger on the list: the Tap House, a nice charred half pound of prime grade beef, crowned with Vermont aged white cheddar cheese, butter leaf lettuce, sliced tomato, and a tap house sauce, all served within an eggy, stalwart Brioche bun, baked locally. They had us at first bite. The beef, toppings, tomato, cheese and bread were perfectly balanced in flavors and textures: savory, creamy, sweet, acidic, soft, juicy and crunchy. But for all that complexity, the meaty taste and texture of the beef held sway.
With full flavored burgers, crisp fries, and 20 rotating craft beers, Prime 16 might gain notoriety as the “Dear, Hip Temple Bar we love so well.”
172 Temple Street. 203-782-1616 Prime16.com
6. BURGERS, SHAKES AND FRIES, Byram and Darien
We have been a fan of Kory Wollin’s precisely formulated counter burgers since he first opened his stand in Byram over 10 years ago. A tiny space tucked in a corner of the village, BSF was one of our region’s first fast casual joints, featuring a limited menu and low prices. (He has since opened a more expansive eatery in Darien.)
What distinguishes Kory’s burger is the toast that embraces the meat and toppings. He spreads a warm butter and mayo cream over the bread, reaching every corner to avoid any burning, and then toasts it on the griddle. Aromatic, buttery, golden brown, and nicely crisp, the toast becomes a canvas for the prime grade burger, sourced from Master Purveyors in the Bronx.
I always order the Single 1/3 pound patty rather than the Double. The bread to meat ratio works better, though the toast still stands up to two paddies of beef (10-11 ounces). I order my burger medium rare, and in all the years I’ve been frequenting BSF the meat has without exception arrived grilled to perfection, juicy and pink. That’s because Kory is a crowd pleaser, maintaing rigorous control of product quality. Over the years, Wollins has assembled a warm, efficient service team, but I can’t help regard BSF as ultimately a one man show.
302 Delevan Ave, Byram. 800 Post Road, Darien www.burgersshakesnfries.com
7. TIERNAN’S, Stamford
Though not usually regarded as part of the downtown restaurant scene, this raucous Irish Pub actually puts out some surprisingly delicious dive bar fare. The hidden gem on the menu is the Tiernan Burger, a juicy half pound patty placed between two slices of golden and crunchy Italian garlic toast. Burger and bread comingle with sweet sautéed onions, a generous slab of mozzarella, and a pungent steak sauce aoli.
The burger also comes with one other topping: an enormous steak knife, plunged upright in the center of the sandwich. Stylish, sure, but for this burger lover, very practical. I always cut my burgers in half, not just to check the doneness, but also to bite into the heart of the burger, rather than the edge, where the ratio of meat, bread and toppings is usually off. Because this was squared toast, I cut across it diagonally, leaving two triangular burgers.
My first bite into the hypotenuse was packed with flavor, the pink grind juicy, the fried onions amping the umami, the aioli adding to the garlicy bread, and the creamy mozzarella softening the crunch. The toast was coated in garlic, its soft open crumb and chewy crust in delicious proportion.
187 Main Street www.tiernansbar.com
8. SHAKE SHACK, Westport New Haven West Hartford
The key to the Shack Burger’s deliciousness is partly its custom 80/20 blend. But it’s also the extensive crust. Here’s the insane way they create it… reportedly.
The grillers pluck cold 4 ounce pucks directly from refrigeration and smash them on a hot grill (the juices don’t run because the cold fat hasn’t rendered yet). This wham-bam flattens the meat into a half inch patty, exposing as much surface as possible to direct heat and increasing the proportion of external sear to interior meat
The crusty patty is slapped into buttered and grilled Martins’ supermarket potato bun, then topped off with tomatoes, lettuce and a not so “secret sauce” (mustard, ketchup, mayo, pickle brine, and cayenne).
Though Shack makes a great burger, our lower ranking reflects its troublesome inconsistencies. We tried a Shack Burger in Miami that was not as succulent as in New York. And over the past year or so the Shack Burgers in Westport have varied in taste.
9. DEW DROP INN, Derby
No coincidence that the home of Connecticut’s top wings also crafts some of the best bar burgers in the state. After all, the sauces and toppings that adorn DDI’s burgers have been inspired by the 110 (and counting) wild flavorings that help make their crackly wings so fanciful and scrumptious.
Initially I thought of trying a simple cheese burger for this review. However, I couldn’t resist another, far more seductive splurge – a freshly ground beef burger slathered with a garlicky Parmesan butter sauce, and crowned with a generous mound of bacon bits. Butter, Bacon, Garlic, Parmesan, and Beef. You just can’t turn that down.
The half-pound burger was perfectly grilled, boasting an ample crust and juicy pink interior, the bacon adding a smoky crunch, and the smooth parmesan butter contributing nutty and fruity notes to the prevailing garlic rich sauce. My suspicion was correct: delicious, inventive, and playful – like the wings.
My only quibble was the brioche bun. It was not entirely toasted, whisked off the grill way too early, and thus didn’t totally stand up to the oversized Burger and its ample toppings.
25 North Avenue www.facebook.com/Dewdropinnct
TIED FOR 10th
10. LOUIS LUNCH, New Haven & TED’S RESTAURANT, Meriden.
Burgermeisters claim that no Best Connecticut burger roundup would be complete without including these two iconic joints.
Louis Lunch because it claims to have invented the American Hamburger back in 1895.
Ted’s because it serves the sui generis Connecticut Steamed Burger.
So, yes we are including them, but not without critique.
At Louis’, the hamburger, lightly brushed in a cheese spread, is served between two slices of Pepperidge Farm toasted white bread. Tomato and onion are optional. Any other condiment forbidden. Presumably, owner Louis Lassen wanted the taste and texture of his high grade beef, which is cut and ground each morning, to dominate, unsullied by catchup, mayo, or mustard. Indeed, the patties our party bit into were truly top notch, nicely crusted, tender, and juicy. But the sandwich itself is steeped more in tradition than flavors. The cheap plain toast and gossamer-thin cheese whiz detract more than any condiment. Another reason for our low ranking – a faint effluvium had somehow invaded the cramped space.
As for Ted’s Steamed Hamburger, I must confess this reviewer just doesn’t get it. Because of the steaming prep, the meat comes well done and uncrusted. The burger may be juicy, but without any Maillard reaction, the taste is bland to my palate. That said, Ted’s enjoys national adulation, and legions of fans flock -- even pilgrimage -- to central Connecticut to satisfy their steam burger jones. Ted’s, like Louis Lunch, is too legendary and popular to ignore.
UNRANKED. FIVE GUYS. 25 LOCATIONS STATE-WIDE.
Here’s why the ubiquitous Five Guys did not make the list. To avoid any litigation, they grill all their burgers well done. None are served with any hint of pink. Fifty Shades of Gray may be ok for a novel, but not a burger. And then there are those the gross stains on the burger bag, attesting to the greasy fare contained inside.