Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brewsta's Burgers 2015

"It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun." - Ray Kroc
When you eat 30 different burgers in search of the Holy Grill, certain things become apparent.

First, there is clearly something wrong with me. This mad annual quest, my eighth, is the definition of an unhealthy obsession.

Second, although I hit my new record for burgers sampled in a year, I did not achieve greater burger wisdom. My goal has always been to eat fewer lousy burgers. Despite my best efforts -- reading online reviews and following recommendations -- I ate too many space wasters.

I must always remind readers that this is not a list of Prague's "best" burgers. I don't think anyone can credibly claim something is the best for everyone. Rather, it is a subjective survey of the ones I ate and either liked or disliked, based on my personal taste.

So, what does that mean? I prefer beef flame-grilled or griddled with a seared crust, cooked medium, and seasoned with salt. I prefer lightly crisp bacon. Toppings are better on the top or the side. On the bottom, they get hot and soggy. Buns matter. A lot. They must hold together but not be too dense. Proportionate construction counts. The most important factor is the right quality and grind of beef, coarse, not too fine, with a fat content about 20 percent.

If the burgers got better, worse, or changed significantly the week after I was there, that's too bad. They are rated as eaten. If you have a different opinion, that's great, but remember, you didn't eat the burger I ate on the day I was there.

Almost half this list is burgers that have never been ranked before. Many well-known burgers ranked in previous years had to be dropped so that a non-lethal number could be eaten. This year, I went in new directions in more ways than one.

Here we go, from my worst to my first:

Their American Classic Burger is quite un-American. The overseasoned, salty meat was served on the strangest bun. It was more like a pita, and it fell to pieces. There were whole pickles, sliced in half, and processed cheese. It also had lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, mustard and ketchup. The bacon had little flavor and the cheese was bland. The included fries were soggy. It took one hour to reach the table, and we were the only ones in the place. On the bright side, service at this Prague 7 spot near Letna was friendly, if glacially slow. We did get a warm reception from the resident pit bull, Lotar, who obligingly helped finish the last quarter of the burger I didn't want. 175 CZK.

They say the menu is "American influenced" and, indeed, it is filled with options like mac and cheese, a club sandwich, a Cobb salad, and wings. I haven't tried those, but the Classic Globe Cheeseburger I had back in May was under the wrong influence. The thin patty had the consistency of meatloaf. Its soft texture was like beefy mashed potatoes. The bun was wide and similar to those found at Burger King. It had good, crispy bacon, plus lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a slice of processed cheese. It came with good fries. 180 CZK.

I tried the bacon cheeseburger shortly after the opening of the new Prague 1 location. The loosely-packed patty was barely warm and mostly raw. The grind was too fine. They served it on a small, sad, Tesco-style bun. The bacon was the worst -- overcooked and dried out planks. It came with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mustard. One positive point was the great, smoky cheddar. But the restaurant was also filled with terrible, smoky air. 189 CZK, plus 39 CZK for fries.

For years, this location served a top-tier burger with smoky beef and a classic American style. This year, some genius decided to improve it, but ended up ruining it. The flame-grilled flavor was gone. The patty was very dense, salty, and cooked all the way through. Some of the smoky bacon was crisp and some was cooked to tooth-aching hardness. The burger was taller than wide and not possible to bite without modification. There was a super-thick wedge of iceberg lettuce that I pulled out and discarded. Inexplicably, there was also a wad of radicchio. It had a hard chewy disk they called a Parmesan chip. There were cherry tomatoes sliced in half that had to be tossed aside. It was slathered with mayo. The cheddar was good, and I like the lightly sweet bun. When I asked for ketchup, the waitress replied, "Sweet tomato sauce?" I thought she was just confused, so I said yes. But that's exactly what it was, and they charged me an astounding 35 CZK for that nonsense. Good fries were included. I've heard the Dejvice location still does the burger right, but the one I had was mostly wrong. 278 CZK.

The BBQ Burger had all kinds of things mixed into the thick, large patty. Mainly, I tasted garlic. The grind was too fine, giving it a dense texture. Some unpleasant gristle remained. It was cooked past medium. The bun was stale and chewy, making it hard to bite. It was topped with hammy, smoky bacon, decent cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickle slices. The relatively new restaurant on Vinohradska looks nice enough, but my notes on the burger say "not terrible" and "not again." 189 CZK.

25. Le Burger
This dedicated burger spot in Smichov has its fans. Not me. The ground beef in the Bacon Burger Classic, cooked medium-well, was tough and tiring to chew. There was only a hint of pink. The grind was too fine. I found nothing remarkable about the flavor. When I picked it up, copious amounts of clear juice squirted out. Yet, the patty was oddly dry inside. It was too big to bite easily and a total mess to eat. A quarter of the bun was soaked through at the end. There was too much lettuce. There was also soft, smoky bacon, tomato, and pickle, and ketchup. The homemade "ketchup" tasted almost exactly like marinara sauce. The overall flavor was anything but classic.

24. Bohemia Bagel in Holešovice
I liked this burger a long time ago. One reason was the flame-grilled flavor. That taste was no longer present on the Bohemia Hamburger with bacon and cheddar. The great bacon was crispy, but placed in a skewed way that could cause someone to lose an eye. The red onion, tomato, and lettuce were also awkwardly placed. The patty was cooked medium, but still hard to chew. The grind was OK, but I think there was not enough fat. The bun was among the hardest and stiffest I came across. There was no mayo or ketchup at all, making the dryness more noticeable. I ordered ketchup and received some Heinz in a dish. This annoys me because I must ration the condiment between the burger and the fries. 189 CZK with fries.

23. Joy Burger
This was the first burger I tried in 2015, not long after Joy Burger opened on Celetna. I didn't enjoy this international interpretation of an American icon. The menu said the Cheddar Beef Burger came with bacon, but it was more like lardons -- little chunks of pork. Confited cloves of garlic and super spicy chipotle mayo were on top. I like spicy food, but the level of heat was startling. The patty's flavor was OK, but the meat was ground too fine, and there was some gristle. It was cooked medium. The bun was baked in an oven, causing the outer layer to flake off. I asked for extra ketchup and received a small dish that cost me 35 CZK. My notes say the burger was 179 CZK and the fries were 70 CZK. However, the online menu says the burger is 249 CZK and fries are 65 CZK.

22. Putica
The densely-packed patty of the Classic Burger was perfectly round -- too puck-like perfect. It had great flavor from the grill, and the cheese picked up the smoky goodness. Unfortunately, the grind was too fine and it was cooked well done. This made it too tough. It was tall and hard to bite. It had crisp, smoky bacon. There was lettuce, tomato, and nice, sweet pickle. However, the pickle was diced and fell out on the plate. There was a sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. The bun was the biggest fail. It was stale and like chewing on a rag. 200 CZK.

21. Burger King
Burger King is included on this list every year. This is my version of a "control." It's a known quantity and quality that most people understand. This is my message: If I like a BK burger more than the offering at a real, full-service restaurant, the owners and cooks should rethink what they are doing. It is also on the list to annoy the humorless people who take these things too seriously. I went for the Angus XT this year. It was less good than last year's entry. I did not enjoy it much. The patty was dense, overcooked, and dry. 149 CZK.

20. Fair Food Burger Bar
This burger does not win a prize for looks but tasted pretty good. It came with cheddar, soft smoky bacon, grilled tomato, and very sweet, caramelized onions. There was too much lettuce that fell out and a mayo-based dressing. The grind on the patty was good, and it was juicy. The quality of the meat was above average. The cheese was rather generic. It held together but was very messy to eat. 125 CZK.

19. Cafe Sladkovsky
The peppery beef had the right grind and salt level. Cooked a perfect medium, it gushed a lot of juice on the first bite. On top, the bacon was more like a slab of pork belly. It was overcooked and a bit like biting a tongue depressor. The sesame bun was burnt black on the inside and bottom. It was soft but strong and held together. There was tangy cheddar, sweet mayo, lettuce, and tomato. This was a very mixed bag of good and bad. Great potential, poor execution. The quality patty is really what kept it above the BK line. 170 CZK plus 35 CZK for fries.

18. Riegrovy Sady Beer Garden
Look, I'm as shocked as anyone that I liked the Riegr Burger. I'm pretty sure I wasn't too drunk but thought it paired very nicely with beers, a bench, and the evening air. The shack that sold it wasn't open all summer. While it was there, the salty meat they cooked to medium over a fire tasted like the backyard barbecues of my childhood. The grind was good and the beef was smoky, though not the highest quality. There was some gristle. The bun was cold and too dense. The bacon was hammy and practically raw, with little flavor. It was topped with awkwardly placed lettuce, onion, tomato, mustard, and ketchup. I was both frustrated and amused that the menu offered a bacon burger, a cheese burger, but not a bacon cheeseburger. 100 CZK.

17. Naše Maso
Last year, I ranked this burger at #3. This year, two things changed. They didn't cook it as well, and I was far less impressed by its unconventional construction. Yes, the meat from this often-too-crowded little butchery was great. It was also too rare, even though it was both griddled and finished in the oven. They serve it sliced in half, and it was too much like tartare in the middle. As always, it came with pickles, mustard, and onion on a little Czech roll. The bread was a bit burnt, but I don't like it in general. It's not even round. The burger was wrapped in paper, but messy to eat. This burger is definitely worth trying in an off hour when it is not crowded, but I feel no need to stand in line for it. The spell was broken. 129 CZK.

16 Nejen Bistro
I know there are those on the Prague Burgers Facebook page who like Nejen's Black Angus burger above all others. It would rank higher with me if it had been cooked medium. Mine had a cool, raw interior. It's understandable that it was hard to cook this 180-gram patty more thoroughly. It looked small, but it was quite tall. It was hard to fit this burger into my mouth without applying serious compression. Their Josper grill gave the meat and the cheese a lovely smoked quality. It had caramelized onions, mayo with bits of pickle, thinly-sliced tomatoes and, unfortunately, radicchio. In my view, red lettuce does not belong either on or under ground beef. There was no bacon, and it was not an option. The grind was great and not too tightly packed. The bun, with black sesame, was good. It was a real mess to eat, which detracted from the pleasure. They got extra points for giving me a bottle of Heinz on the table. That tradition seems to be disappearing. 195 CZK with great fries.

15. The Tavern
I ordered The Tavern's Classic Bacon Cheddar. I was stunned when it came in about five minutes. The thin patty, served medium, must cook quickly. The meat had great flavor, which was enhanced by a healthy amount of salt. The bacon was top-quality, perfectly crispy. The steamed bun was very soft but held together. There were sliced pickles, shredded lettuce, and a basic cheddar. Red onion was on the side. It's hard to eat without toppings sliding out the back. The downside of this burger was condiment overkill -- too much mayo, ketchup, and mustard, which overwhelmed the flavor. I've had this issue before, but I keep forgetting to ask for it with only ketchup. 209 CZK and add fries for 49 CZK.

14. Mad Dog Bistro
Hot dogs dominate the menu here, but they do a good burger, too. It came with cheddar, mayo, lettuce, sweet/sour pickle, and onion. There was tangy, grated cheddar. The salty beef, slightly overground, was cooked medium and tasted right. It came on a lightly-toasted bun that had a little sweetness, and was just the right size. I asked for bacon but it was forgotten. I mentioned the omission after I finished and was given a donut in compensation. 124 CZK, fries not included.

13. U Kurelů
Now this is interesting: I liked The Tavern Classic Bacon Cheddar Burger at U Kurelů more than I did at The Tavern itself. Of course, they are owned by the same people, and the burgers have essentially the same ingredients and construction. But it just goes to show that, on any given night, no two burgers are made the same way. In this case, the bacon was just a little better (and placed better on top), and the mayo, mustard, and ketchup were just a little lighter. The burger also came with shredded lettuce, nice sour pickles, and red onion. It was well-constructed and held together to the end, despite the very soft bun. The thin patty was cooked past medium. It was easy to bite this burger. 209 CZK, fries not included.

12. Mozaika Burger and Co.
Last year, I didn't like it. This year, I did. They fixed the issue I had with too fine a grind. The meat and the texture were much improved. The juicy patty was quite thin (more on that later). The Krystal Burger came with crispy, salty bacon, Swiss cheese, sour pickle, and homemade mayo. Overall, it was a little too much on the savory side. I added some of their homemade ketchup for balance. It came with what looked like a custom-made bun. It was pretty good, just a little bready on top. The bun was baked, which made it warm overall, but also dried out the exterior. It cracked a bit. There was also a unique experience worth mentioning. I asked for my burger cooked medium. The waitress came back and told me it was not possible. It had to be either medium rare or well done. I was incredulous, and she was apologetic. The chef delivered my burger, so I also asked him why. Neither gave me a very clear answer, something about the nature of the meat. In the end, I just figured the patty was so thin, it must be hard to nail it at medium. I was rather annoyed by this at the start of the meal, but I liked the burger in the end and wound up being somewhat amused. 195 CZK plus 49 CZK for fries and 25 CZK for ketchup.

11. Bejzment
I've been to this restaurant a fair number of times in the past few years. It veered wildly between good and bad, and I've heard the same from others. Last year was bad. This year was good. As always, I had ​D Bejkn Čyz Burger. The meat was the star with a medium grind, loosely packed, cooked a smoky medium. The cheese picked up the flavor of the grill. The bacon was tops, crispy and smoked, but they also lose points because there was only one piece. The soft bun was branded with the name of the restaurant but not really toasted. Ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles were provided -- a very nice touch. On the side of the plate were lettuce, tomato, onion, and one small pickle slice. Pro tip: Avoid ordering the caramelized onions for an extra 20 CZK. They were cold and tasted like congealed, old cooking oil. 149 CZK plus 45 CZK for crispy homemade fries.

10. Argument
A decent grind, delicious, grilled flavor, and well-balanced composition were the laudable qualities of the Argument Burger. The slightly less positive qualities were the hammy bacon, the messiness of this juicy creation, and the thickness, which made it hard to bite. The toasted sesame seed bun held up under the weight. The patty was topped with smoky cheddar, red onion, paper-thin tomatoes, mayo, and a spicy barbecue sauce. The fries that came with it were sad and limp. Worth mentioning: When I complained my beer was flat and not cold, I was told, "Most people order wine here." Good burger, weird attitude. 285 CZK.

9. Cafe Palanda
The Royal Bacon Cheese Burger had a thick patty with the right grind and cooked a perfect medium with a hint of grill flavor. There was lots of lightly smoked bacon, but it was a little chewy. It also had sweet, roasted onions, very sweet mayo, homemade ketchup, chili, and pickles. The big, shiny, sesame bun was also quite sweet and was too large for the patty. This big burger was hard for me to get my head (and mouth) around. There was a lot of quality in there, but the flavor gets away from classic. The main culprit in my view was the homemade ketchup, which tasted like Worcestershire sauce -- too vinegary. 209 CZK with sides, 169 CZK without.

8. BlackDog Bar and Grill
We drove out to Beroun, and I had the American Dream burger. It came with thick, smoky bacon, cheddar, red onion, tomato, homemade pickles, and mayo spiked with Sriracha. The beef had a great grind and it was cooked a perfect medium. The loosely-packed patty was tall and round, with a bit of gristle. The cheese was rather creamy and not too cheddary. The soft, sturdy, brioche bun was excellent. It picked up some flavor from the grill. I had problems in the past with BlackDog overcooking my burgers, but for the past two years, it's been great. 165 CZK.

7. Meat and Greet Burgerhouse
This place was started by alumni of Dish {Fine Burger Bistro}, and it shows. The restaurants were quite similar, and the quality was high. The MAG Burger had a thin patty with a good grind and was cooked medium. It picked up nice flavor from the grill. The burger came topped with tomato cooked to softness which I was dubious about, but it worked. There was also lots of garlic mayo, lettuce, ketchup that I didn't taste, and crunchy, salty bacon that was too hard in places from overcooking. The sesame bun held together and was slightly too large for the meat. Some bread was left over at the end. 179 CZK plus 40 CZK for crunchy but too short homemade fries. Dull homemade ketchup cost 29 CZK.

6. Dish {Fine Burger Bistro}
Dish was the winner for 2013 and 2014. Although almost consistently great, they slipped a bit this year. The Dish Burger I had came with the usual garlic aioli, pickles, lettuce, and their sweet homemade ketchup. The bacon was chewy and smoky. I've loved this burger for its balanced construction, and that was maintained. It's easy to hold and eat all the way through. It lost its top spot because on the visit I chose to rate them, the patty was rather bland, lacking salt, and it didn't have the good sear from the grill that it usually had. 195 CZK plus 45 CZK for fries (I highly recommend their sweet potato fries when they have them listed on the chalk board).

5. Mr. Hot Dog
I debated whether to include these bacon cheese sliders on the list and decided in favor because they were just so right. Why discriminate based on size? They don't serve a full-size burger, but bite for bite, these sliders stand toe to toe with the big ones. About half the size of a regular burger, the grind was great, with the beef sourced from the Amaso butchery. The bacon was crispy and chewy. There was also shredded lettuce, diced white onions, tangy mayo, and great sour pickles. The toasted little buns were perfect and held it all nicely. They get the usual bonus points for squeeze bottles of ketchup (Heinz!) and mustard on the table, plus a condiment bar with onion, relish, Sriracha, and more. If you want classic American taste, give these a try. 169 CZK for two plus 45 CZK for a big basket of McD-style fries.

4. Fish and Chips at 21 Dlouhá 
A fish and chips shop near the top? I truly love the char-grilled, perfectly ground beef in this burger. The fat content was on the low side, so it was a little on the dry side. It was cooked exactly medium. I loved the American-style relish on top. There's no bacon option, but I didn't miss it here. It did have smoky cheddar, one tomato slice, chopped onion, shredded lettuce, ketchup, mayo, and spicy mustard. That's a lot of ingredients, but there was a light touch on the condiments, except for the relish. It felt well balanced. The toasted sesame bun was a fine platform. Overall, it was a great combination of salty, sweet, soft, and crunchy, with an onion twang. It did a good job evoking backyard barbecue memories. 185 CZK plus 45 for fries.

3. Burger Bar
I trekked out to Prague 6 - Nebušice this summer, and I was glad I did. I didn't expect to have such a great burger at this somewhat isolated spot under a hotel and connected to a bowling alley. The beef had just the right grind, not too fine. It tasted flame-grilled, like it just came off the barbecue. It was topped with three slices of excellent bacon, peppery cheese, lots of ketchup, mustard, lettuce, onions, and great sour pickles. The bun was much better than I remembered from the previous year. It was softer and more brioche-like. The patty was juicy, but not dripping too much. My hands did get a bit messy. I didn't get a great picture of it, but this burger was well-composed, balanced, and tasted great. 175 CZK, fries and small salad included. Extra ketchup for fries was 20 CZK.

2. Bad Jeff's Barbeque
This American-run restaurant served up a classic American burger. There was great attention to detail, from the homemade pickles to the bespoke bun from Mannson's Bakery. The bun had just the right combination of softness and strength. The bacon was as crisp as it should be, thin and quite salty. The meat was ground perfectly in-house, a blend of cuts with an 80/20 fat content decided by the chef and owner, Jeff Cohen. The patty had that smoke flavor I dream about and the cheese picks up some of it. Lettuce, thinly-sliced tomatoes and red onions were kept away from the hot meat until the moment of closer at the table. The top of the bun also had mayo and French's mustard. 259 CZK and includes curly fries.

1. BlackDog at Smíchovská náplavka
This was, no question, the best burger I had all year, even if it is not served regularly or year-round. Yes, the offering from BlackDog's restaurant was rated earlier. But the burgers they made at their stand along the river at Naplavka were a different animal, so to speak. This was from a festival on the Smichov side. The quality ground beef, cooked to a perfect medium over an open flame, was out of this world. It had a charred, smoky crust on the patty, excellent bacon, red onion, and shredded lettuce, on a brioche bun that cradled it. The cheese melted so nicely into the patty. I think it was about 100 CZK.  Whatever it cost, it was more than worth it. Keep an eye out for them at Naplavka and other festivals when the warm weather returns. I know I will!

That's my list for 2015. Feel free to agree, disagree, and/or share your own rankings in the comments.

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