Thursday, December 5, 2013

Brewsta's Burgers 2013

"I would rather be having a burger and beers with my mates, but I can't do that when I know I've got to dance." Michael Flatley
'Tis the season to read about burgers. My annual burger ranking list is here.

I've decked my arteries with loads of fat and cholesterol for the last 12 months. I've eaten many old favorites, skipped some from previous years, and added some fresh meat, so to speak.

This is the sixth year of Brewsta's Burgers. Last year's list was the most read article of 2012 on The hunger for burgers in the Czech Republic grows ever larger.

As always, I repeat my standard disclaimer: This is not a list of Prague's "best" burgers. It is a subjective survey of the ones I either liked or disliked the most, based on my personal taste.

What's my taste? I prefer beef flame-grilled or with a seared crust from a steel grill, cooked medium, seasoned with salt, perhaps light pepper, and classic, American-style construction and toppings. I like my bacon lightly crisp. I'd rather not have the toppings on the bottom, where they get hot and soggy.

I did my best, whenever possible, to compare bacon cheeseburgers or to keep the comparisons as similar as possible. I do not consider price as a main factor, but it does influence my thinking to a small degree.

The 23 burgers below are a record of what I ate over the course of the year. I did cram an unhealty number of burger "tastings" into the last two months. Some I had more than once, but if the burgers got better, worse, or changed significantly the week after I was there, that's too bad.

Here we go, from my worst to my first:

23. U Tří růží
I tried the U3R Burger (210 CZK) early in the year. Not a good start. The patty was dense and rubbery, with a bacon-like taste. There was way too much mayo. Not even half way through, the bun crumbled and fell apart. The ketchup was not Heinz, likely a Czech brand. Big. The toppings included raw onion, lettuce, and soft bacon. This was the first time I have ever eaten a burger with a fork and it was only because I had no other choice.

22. True Blue
I want to see this cute little Vrsovice diner-like spot with an American menu succeed. I really do. The True Blue Bacon Cheeseburger (159 CZK) has potential. Others have told me they enjoyed it. But the chef screwed it up every time I've been there. I always ask for my burgers cooked medium. The first time, it was well done, rendering the peppery ground beef dry and crumbly. The second time, someone suggested asking for medium rare, thinking it would come medium. Wrong. It was barely seared and pretty close to tartare. They used quality cheddar, and there was also lettuce, tomato, and smoky bacon with crisp edges. The generic bun was stale. I really liked the piquant chipotle mayo. If they get their act together in the kitchen, they'll jump much higher on the list.

21. Peter's Burger Pub
A number of dedicated burger restaurants have opened in the past few years. Being who I am, I think this a great thing. I went to Peter's with high hopes that there'd be another good place to stop for a bite in Karlin. In this case, I'll keep going. I had the Simply Classic Burger (106 CZK) shortly after they opened. The ground beef was the most dense I've come across. I asked for it medium, and indeed, it was pink in the middle. But even that part of the salty, peppery patty was rubbery. How is that possible? I found it challenging to tear off a piece with my fingers. The toppings were red onion, white onion, Gouda cheese, tomato, pickle, too much tartar-like sauce, soft, Czech-style bacon (otherwise known as Anglicka slanina), and two types of lettuce. Aside from the visual impact, I don't understand why they put so much lettuce there. It's just impractical. I found the bun too chewy. The best thing I can say is that they served Heinz ketchup and the price was low. I'll give it one more chance next year.

I really hated their burger last year. The management wrote to say they had a bad night when I was there and had made changes. The Fraktal Burger (185 CZK) I had this year was better, but not by much. The bun is still too big and too chewy. The bacon wasn't burnt this time, but it was soft and folded over on itself. I had to unfold it manually so it covered the patty properly. The ground beef was tasty, with a smoky flavor from their flame grill, but there was also gristle in there. It was cooked medium, as requested. It comes with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, and garlic mayo.

19. Burger King
Every year, I include something from Burger King. This is my version of a "scientific control." It's a known quantity and quality that most people understand. But the main point of including this burger is this: if I like a BK burger more than yours, be ashamed. Be very ashamed. Although I like Burger King much better than McDonald's, this particular Steakhouse Burger was not enjoyable, with an overabundance of cloyingly sweet barbecue sauce.

18. Arriero Express
A South American steak delivery place near Náměstí Míru? This I had to see. Plus a good friend of mine just moved to southern Chile so I had try Arriero's Patagonia Burger. It's pretty porky. In fact, it's 60% beef and 40% pork. I'm not a fan of mixing, but this one was tasty and had a loose grind with good texture. The meat was cooked medium and actually had a light, spiciness to it. There was lettuce, tomato, and raw onion wilting under the hot meat. I prefer it on top or the side. The fluffy, untoasted bun was too large and quickly crumbled. Not good. It came with really nice pieces of fried potatoes.

17. La Bottega Di Finestra
The La Bottega di Finestra Burger (295 CZK) is an odd one. The burger was offered for just a couple of months early this year at my favorite Italian cafe. The flavor of the imported Marchigiana beef, cooked medium rare, was excellent. However, it was ground too finely, making the patty too dense. It came with an over-abundance of homemade mayo, capers, mixed leaf lettuce, tomatoes, pancetta that looked very much like bacon, red onion, and Asiago cheese. These top quality toppings sat on an amazing, toasted bun baked on the premises. It came with great crispy fries. There were so many terrific flavors in there. And yet... it didn't really work for me. This gourmet creation was just too far from the classic burger flavors to achieve a high ranking. I'm glad I tried it, but would stick to their usually impressive Italian fare on my next visit.

16. Domyno Burger
I don't generally like drive under the influence of burgers, but I got my car out and headed to Prague 4 to try the Domyno Burger Number 1 (139 CZK + 39 CZK for fries). The patty was salty, with a slight rubbery texture. I was wondering if there was some pork in there. The bacon was smoky and slightly crisp. The grilled red onion had very little flavor. I'm not a big fan of dark leaf lettuce on a burger. The "cheddar" was flavorless. There was too much mayo. The toasted bun was good, and the branded logo on it is a cute touch. The patty was juicy and cooked medium, as ordered. I had to order and pay for a side of ketchup.

15. Blackdog Cantina
Yes, this Beroun restaurant has a loyal following. It's very hard to get a seat in its tiny dining area. Many say it's the best. Once again, I'm gonna go against popular sentiment. Blackdog's burgers have the potential for greatness, but they have a major flaw as far as I'm concerned. Their menu specifically says all burgers are cooked medium unless otherwise requested. I always confirm that this is how I want it with my server. And every single time I visited (and I've been many times), the burger came well done. The thick, rounded patty was dried out to its core and hard to chew. If you haven't had this problem, well, I'm jealous. On the last visit, I had the 140 gram Black Dog Cheeseburger (105 CZK). But I had the same problem with their bigger patty, too. Their burger had lettuce, dull cheese, tomato, red onion, herb mayo, and ketchup on their bready brioche-style bun. Adding their soft, smoky bacon cost 20 CZK and fries were extra.

14. Krystal Mozaika Bistro
The Krystal Burger (189 CZK) dropped slightly in my esteem compared to last year. The salty ground beef was overcooked, but still juicy. But I'd definitely say it was chewier and I didn't enjoy it as much. It came with very good, semi-crisp bacon, and their homemade bun was lovely, as always. On it, there was lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and an abundance of mayo mixed with mustard seed. They served it with squeeze bottles of mustard and ketchup, which tasted like Heinz. Fries were not included, but I'm not a big fan of their thin, McDonald's-style fries anyway.

13. Jáma Restaurant
I had the Cheddar Burger (175 CZK + 40 CZK for bacon). The bun was different than last year, I'd say breadier, but sturdier. The thick patty of high-quality ground beef had a good, loose grind. It was not cooked medium as requested. Despite being well-done, it was moist and didn't dry out, but it was crumbly. I recall their cheddar being quite good in previous years, but this time, the cheese had a less pleasing buttery flavor. There was excellent crispy, smoky bacon along with lettuce and tomato. Fries were included.

12. Bohemia Bagel Holešovice
I've enjoyed the Bohemia Burger with bacon and cheddar (175 CZK) many times over the years. They can be maddeningly inconsistent, but I always appreciated the strong smoky flavor of their flame-grilled beef. The patty usually tastes like it just came off a backyard barbecue. They don't overgrind the meat either, which is a mistake many places make. It came with lettuce, tomato, and raw red onion. There was smoky, ham-like bacon, which they lose points for. The so-called cheddar was flavorless, processed stuff. There was no ketchup or mayo, so I ordered some ketchup. The sesame bun was softer and not as chewy as I remember. It was not cooked medium as requested. Cooking it all the way through left it dry inside. Fries were included.

11. Café Sladkovský
I had the Baconburger with cheese (165 CZK) at this popular Vršovice hangout. Fries were extra (35 CZK). This was another burger that falls into the home-style, hand-formed category. It came with soft but smoky bacon, lettuce and tomato. The cheddar had good flavor. The bun was over-toasted and became too rigid. The medium grind ground beef was cooked exactly to medium. I really love to see a pink middle. There was light mayo on it, but I added a touch of ketchup. The server brought me a Heinz bottle on request.

10. Brown Bag Burger
This Prague 6 place is new and I dropped by a week after it opened. I had the Gourmet Cheeseburger (135 CZK + bacon 15 CZK). Former Mood chef Jeff Cohen consulted on the menu here and it shows. The toasted, chewy bun was similar to Mood's. The lightly crunchy bacon was perfect. On top, there was red onion, lettuce, tomato, and the "cheddar" was a generic slice. It came with a relish more like chopped pickle that was less sweet than the American type. The main attraction was the obviously freshly ground beef. It was on the salty side and juicy, with a good medium grind. However, the patty, cooked medium, was fairly thin and the flavor of the beef was somewhat lost under the flavor of all the toppings. Fries were extra (35 CZK).

9. Mozaika
I had the burger at this restaurant years ago and didn't like it much. This year, the Beef Burger Mozaika (195 CZK) was much different, and I liked it much better. The simply seasoned ground beef was just right and cooked medium. They don't do bacon. It had a sweet onion-mushroom mix on top that I thought was quite tasty. There was also tomato, mustard, too much homemade mayo and too much lettuce. It was not easy to eat, but the dense, homemade onion bun held together well. Fries were not included.

8. TGI Friday's
Yes, it's a chain. But it's American and they have a firm and standardized grasp of the classic flavors and construction. The Bacon Cheeseburger had a perfectly circular patty of flame-grilled beef that was ground too finely, making it too dense for my taste. They have terrific crispy bacon. The cheese actually tasted like cheddar. It came on a classic, toasted bun that crumbled a little at the very end. There was red onion, lettuce, tomato, and pickles. I asked for medium, but there was only a small amount of detectable pinkness. It was 249 CZK when I had it, but the website now says it is 269 CZK. One side note. I have a habit of always ordering their excellent chocolate shake with my burger. And every time I do, the waitress gives me a funny look and comments on the "strange combination."

7. Hard Rock Cafe
Ditto what I said above about an American chain that understands burgers. I ordered the Classic 6 Ounce Burger (235 CZK) with added bacon (30 CZK) and added cheddar (30 CZK). You could clearly taste the smoky flame grill on the Angus beef patty. I love that charred flavor. It was cooked medium, as I had asked. There was really good, crispy, smoky bacon and the cheddar tasted like cheddar. The bun was soft but strong and there was lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles. It came with their good fries.

6. Bejzment
I'd been hearing a lot about this place over the years. I finally got to the restaurant in Smichov. The first time I had the 200 gram bacon cheeseburger (119 CZK) I was blown away. The medium-grind ground beef had a perfect char-grilled crust. It was cooked medium. The toppings -- tomato, pickle, onion, and Romaine lettuce -- were on the side where I like them. Other factors aside, it was one of the best patties of the year. What were the other factors? This was their large patty, but it didn't look too big. The waiter forgot my request for bacon, and I couldn't get his attention again so I went without. There was too much mayo. The cheese was crumbled unevenly. The ketchup in the squeeze bottle had an odd flavor and didn't not taste like Heinz. I liked the burger so much, I went back the following week. And, sadly, it was not nearly as good. I saw the owner in the kitchen the first time, but this time, I saw him out on the floor. This second burger was overcooked and dried out, knocking the overall rating lower on my list. It did have good bacon this time, though. Fries (35CZK) were extra.

5. Mood
Right after I picked this restaurant's burger as the winner last year, the American chef left. I went back and discovered the quality dropped. Pretty disappointing, and not just for me. I went back again a few months later, and it had improved. Each time I returned, it got better. I had the Mood Classic Burger with added bacon (225 CZK). It was made with juicy, peppery ground beef loosely ground and cooked medium rare. There were some chewy bits. It had great smoked cheddar, pickled onion, and quite savory, spicy chili mayo mixed with chives. The bacon had been crispy, but most recently, it was soft and hammy. The burger needed ketchup to get flavor where I wanted it. It came with fries. Here, I'll note that a number of other items on the menu are excellent. When I am not on a burger mission, I enjoy ordering their other offerings.

4. George Prime Steak
I had the GPS House Burger (375 CZK), which was only available in the bar at this new high-end American steak house in Old Town. It was made with broiled Wagyu-style beef, smoked, aged cheddar, spicy chipotle aioli, pickle, lettuce tomato, and sweet red onion jam mixed with red wine. The medium-grind beef had a nice charred-crust exterior. It was also delivered very rare. Luckily the meat was so fine, but it needed another minute or two on the grill. The homemade sesame brioche bun was slightly stale. It came with great fries. This was the most expensive burger on this year's list and should have been larger for the price.

3. Fish & Chips
The Beef Burger (215 CZK) at this place that does mostly fish really surprised me. The quality of the thick beef, with a good grind, was top notch. It was cooked medium rare and had a delicious, smoky exterior. The toasted sesame brioche bun was the best. It came with cheddar, sweet relish, tomato, chopped lettuce, and jalapeno mustard. Bacon was not an option. It wasn't large, but the enjoyment was big. Fries and cole slaw were included.

2. The Tavern
I've spent a lot of time in this beloved American-owned and operated restaurant. It's a big favorite among expats, but I've seen plenty of Czech people enjoying themselves there. I've had the Classic Bacon-Cheddar Burger (185 CZK) many times. They use very good beef and the burgers almost always came out cooked medium. The bacon was crisp. I really like their soft, lightly sweet homemade buns. To my mind, there were several factors that kept them from the top spot. The burgers had too much mayo, mustard, and ketchup. That masks some of the flavor and also makes them quite messy to eat, with the patty sliding around in the bun. The beef was ground too finely and compressed too tightly. This handy burger trouble-shooting guide, much of which I agree with, explains those issues. Fries were not included.

1. Dish {Fine Burger Bistro}
How do I know which burger is my favorite? Quite simply, it's the one that draws me back most often. By that measure, the Dish Burger (189 CZK) was the winner. It was made with 150 grams of hand-pressed, loosely ground beef, which is topped with with cheddar cheese, bacon, homemade ketchup, garlicky mayo, sweet pickles, and lettuce. Sometimes the bacon was crispy, other times it could be soft. It was not cooked on a flame, but their steel grill gave the patties a perfect, flavorful sear. They sprinkle salt on top as they grill it in their open kitchen. I really like their sweet, homemade brioche bun, which almost always holds together. They were well constructed and even nice to look at. The patty can sometimes have small bits of gristle. Some say it is too small, but it is just right for me. The owner told me he modeled his burgers after America's very popular small chain, Umami Burger. I went to an Umami Burger in Santa Monica, California two years ago, and I'd say he came pretty close. Dish's homemade fries cost extra. It was already almost impossible to get a seat in the very small restaurant and it was sometimes completely booked days ahead. Good luck.

If you don't agree with this list, make your own. Someone else may have to do it next year. I found it seriously challenging to eat this vast quantity of burgers. I'm not sure I'll survive if I keep it up.

And now is a good time to announce that for purely personal reasons, I'm stepping back from writing regular restaurant reviews. I'll still post about what I'm discovering and eating on my Czech Please Facebook and Twitter pages. But these days now, I don't have the time to give longer reviews the time and attention they deserve. It's been a great run, and when I have something I really want to say, I'll find the time to get it out there.

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