Exploring an American Classic
By Tom Baker
As Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock points out, you “never badmouth synergy.” This “whole greater than the sum of its parts” thinking is exactly what makes a great burger. Sure, you can have free range beef, slaughtered an hour ago, cooked a perfect medium rare, but if the lettuce is bad, the tomatoes are green and they’ve given you half the onion, you’ve got problems. That said, we decided to investigate this ubiquitous American favorite in order to help find some of Dayton’s best burgers.
So … what are the criteria upon which this noble cause is based? First, the burger itself — if it’s a dry, burnt, hardly recognizable disc which one could use for a round of ultimate Frisbee, it’s no good. Second, the accompaniments are crucial — ripe tomatoes, crisp, fresh lettuce and fresh pickles can and will make the difference. Finally, service and ambiance complete the package. We found that most places were either unable or unwilling to cook a burger medium, likely due to the fact that you get sued for sneezing these days. Further, we found that it was the attention to those little details and to the quality and balance of the pieces that complete the whole, that make a great burger. There are a lot of places around town that serve this celebrated sandwich, but here are ten that caught my attention:
Pine Club — Dayton — $10.95. Cooked perfectly medium as requested, one of the first things we noticed was the consistency of the cheese. I’m no cheese connoisseur, but I know American cheese when I see it. Not only was this a huge disappointment due to expectations going in, we found it pretty unusual considering the history and reputation of this Dayton institution. It was clearly out of place on a menu with 40 dollar steaks. On the other hand, the onion rings (more like onion straws) were very good, and the service was the friendliest I’ve experienced here. I don’t love the dark, ‘60s supper club ambiance, and it’s damn near impossible to take a decent picture of food without flashing your neighbors like paparazzi, but it is probably the place to go in Dayton for steak and people rave about the burgers. Overall I thought the burger was only good, not great — I just can’t get over that cheese at that price …
Coco’s — Oregon District — $10.00. The second most expensive burger at ten bucks, this is a serious protein punch — the only green on the plate was the single slice of house pickle. If you’re looking for a burger topped with traditional items, you’re in the wrong place. Coco’s comes at you with Angus beef, boursin cheese, caramelized onions, and two thick strips of cherry wood-smoked bacon literally hanging off the sides of this beast, all on a potato bun. Hearty doesn’t do this burger justice — artery thickening is more like it. Offered with the choice of fries, slaw or salad (highly recommended in this case), this is a tasty burger needing some balance. Service was a bit slow, but great once we got going. Owner Karen Wick-Gagnet tells me that the combination of the creamy, sweet and salty of these ingredients is what sets this burger apart from the rest, and she’s not kidding.
Blind Bob’s — Oregon District — $7. Not only is it a great place to get a PBR and count how many guys are wearing women’s jeans, but they also have good food, live music and a nice beer selection. Little Lisa’s Burger, upgraded to waffle fries from chips (+$1), is a nice burger on a tasty toasted bun with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and red onion. I went with my standard mayo and mustard, which never disappoints — I save the ketchup for the fries — and their waffle fries are good stuff and you get plenty of them. Cooked to a perfect medium, but even at that temp just a touch on the dry side — perhaps they’re using a more lean ground beef. Overall, we enjoyed our food along with a nice pint, and although it may not seem the type of place you go for great eats, they have great pickle soup, falafel sandwiches and stuffed burgers as well. Go for a rock show, stay for a burger and a bourbon.
Citilites — Downtown Dayton — $7.95. Probably the biggest surprise of the bunch, Citilites was included per the recommendation of an uncle who has a burger every time he goes to a show at the Schuster Center. It’s a surprise because this downtown restaurant just doesn’t hit the radar when you’re thinking of where to go grab a burger. In contrast to the Coco’s burger that pushes all their chips into the middle of the table right off the bat, this burger is more about balance. All tenderloin trimmings, this burger wears green leaf lettuce, tomato and red onion atop a soft Kaiser bun. They serve the burger with skin-on fries during the day, and their house made chips at night — both are good, but I go for the fresh and well-seasoned chips. Nothing particularly fancy, and the burger could probably stand a bit more seasoning. Just a good burger in a unique atmosphere — plus, who doesn’t like eating under palm trees?
Meadowlark — Kettering — $10.95. Allow me to confess up front — I really like Meadowlark. Chef/owner Elizabeth Wiley presents a unique but unpretentious take on food and continues this trend with her burger by using Coleman beef flecked with rosemary, onion, salt, brown sugar and red wine, topped with a mayo-mustard sauce, a bit of chopped romaine and white cheddar. Ordered medium, the burger came pretty much well done, but was not dry. All of this is delivered on a lightly toasted, really tasty bun that results in a unique and well-executed package. Served with lightly dressed greens or fries depending on your mood, you should definitely try the house ketchup if you go with the additional starch. Also, the new location is a breath of fresh air, and the addition of the bar and waiting areas makes the almost inevitable wait much more tolerable. It’s always been worth it.
Christopher’s — Kettering — $7.50. A go-to for breakfast and lunch, Christopher’s offers a solid burger and friendly service. Our first impression of the burger when it arrived at the table was that it was so uniform in shape and size, almost perfect, perhaps indicating that it was manufactured and frozen versus formed by hand. Owner Chip Pritchard put that notion to rest however, when he informed us that the beef was from Creekstone Farms and raised in northern Kentucky, then bought in from Dot’s. Further, the tasty multigrain bun was baked at Belmont bakery in Kettering. Their burger features green leaf lettuce, tomato and red onion, and the brown mustard and mayo came together nicely. Served simply with chips and a pickle, this burger is a sure bet if you’re looking for a quality sandwich with some local roots.
Slyder’s — Belmont — $6.09. This bar sits in the heart of Belmont and has been recognized in the past for its burgers. Family, neighbors and others have sung its praises, so I headed over to see if it were indeed all that. The couple times I’d been, no one was unfriendly but didn’t necessarily seem thrilled I was there either. That said, once we got the burger, it had great flavor and texture, was clearly hand-made and wore cheddar, lettuce, tomato, white onion and mayo and mustard atop a toasted Kaiser. The burger proper was excellent and the best I’d tried up to that point, but the accompaniments were disappointing. Red onion would have been preferred over the pungent white, the iceberg lettuce and hardly ripe tomato were just plain bad, and the bun was standard fare. With a few tweaks of the accompaniments, we’re talking about a potentially great burger, but it’s those little things that keep something good from being great.
Sunrise Café — Yellow Springs — $7.00. This Yellow Springs spot has been recognized for its breakfast and the fact that they don’t own a microwave, but I’ve also been told to try their burgers and until now had gone without. On our first visit we decided to try the “Vick” burger. This red hot mess of random items including nuts, jam, mushrooms, peppers, and additional proteins such as corned beef and sausage, was pretty much unnecessary and not terribly enjoyable. We were instructed to tell the chef what we didn’t want on it, and got a lot more than we bargained for. The organic burger is a different story however — local organic beef cooked medium with mesclun mix, tomato, red onion and house pickles cooked medium with a wheat bun. According to Chef Brian Rainey the burgers are from beef raised locally and organically by Dale Filbrun of Morning Sun Farm, and the buns are made on location and baked fresh daily. This was a really good burger, and another example of a restaurant keeping it local and raising the bar on quality as a result.
Tank’s — Dayton — $6.59. A perennial front-runner in the burger field, Tank’s makes a great burger. Formed by hand and with beef from Dot’s Market, they have great flavor and come with your choice of cheese, green leaf lettuce, red onion and tomato on a soft Kaiser bun. The great thing about Tank’s is that over the course of the twenty years I’ve been in Dayton, it’s always consistent — and consistently good. Although the burger ordered for this piece was slightly overcooked, Tank’s takes pride in cooking their burgers to order, from rare to hockey puck done. Luckily, the medium well burger retained its moisture, and coupled with Tank’s famous hand cut fries, it’s not hard to see how Tank’s has cultivated and continues to maintain its solid reputation for a top bar and grill experience in Dayton. Service ranges from friendly and solid, to a bit sultry and ambivalent, but overall this joint belongs in your top three go-to spots in Dayton for burgers, fries and beer. Really good stuff.
Boulevard Haus — Oregon District — $8.95. Another surprise in our group, Boulevard Haus was recommended by several coworkers so I figured it was worth a try. Known for their German cuisine, Boulevard Haus also serves up a mean burger. From start to finish this was the most well-rounded experience — the friendliest overall service, and a great burger made with oregano, dry mustard, steak sauce and garlic, topped with red onion, a little chopped romaine and tomato with a cheddar blend, all served on a pretzel bun. My only issues with this burger were the heavy onion, and what Anthony Bourdain has referred to as “sandwich tectonic shift.” As I eagerly attacked the sandwich, I had to rearrange each time as the tomato, burger or onion began to fall out of the bun. Pretzel buns are great, but don’t “give” much, and you therefore find ingredients pushed out opposite the pressure of each bite. Also, I love red onion on a sandwich, but certainly don’t need an entire cross section. The burger was accompanied by shoe string fries that were tasty, but you have to move quickly as the thin fries got cold faster than most. On the table you’ll find both their spicy as well as sweet mayo-mustard — a combination of both is the best bet. According to owner Eva Brcic-Christian, “It certainly is not an average burger,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com