These are truly ‘Have it Your Way’ days for America’s favorite sandwich
“Mmm. This is a tasty burger!”
–Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), Pulp Fiction (1994)
In his essay “Up, Simba,” about the 2000 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, David Foster Wallace wrote about the strangeness of being served a hamburger topped with jalapeños, whose heat he could not handle.
Read today, the passage seems odd. What’s unusual about jalapeños on a burger? But not that long ago, hamburgers were simple meals, made of beef and topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, probably pickles, and maybe bacon. Pick a cardinal cheese—American, swiss, cheddar—and call it a tasty day. Yet without our really noticing, burgers have become a restless chef’s playground.
Many factors contribute to the trend of burger diversification. The Internet’s bottomless pit of information is one cause. So is the rise of Tex-Mex and pan-Asian cuisines, which has fueled the culinary curiosity of American diners, 90 percent of whom reported eating out at least once a month in 2013. And plentiful food shows on cable TV can turn local trends into national trends, sometimes overnight.
An increased focus on fresh ingredients has chefs cooking seasonally, which has introduced or reintroduced ingredients that had been left behind by the industrial food chain. At the same time, computers have made that food chain more manageable even as it has become vastly more complex. A restaurateur who wants to serve a lamb burger can tick a box on a computer screen and have it delivered tomorrow—probably sourced from Australia or New Zealand.
The rise of the “fast casual” burger chain has also been a factor. First came Five Guys Burgers and Fries, then Bobby’s Burger Palace. In the past year alone, Wayback Burgers, 30 Burgers and Smashburger have all opened along the U.S. 1 corridor, each pushing the others to introduce zanier and zippier fare. And more are on the way.
It was the name of Bound Brook-based 30 Burgers, which opened on Nassau Street this year, that had us asking some new questions. What is a burger in 2014? Where is this trend headed? Does any hungry person really need 30 options when it comes to a burger?
If you are hungry for 30 different burgers, couldn’t you get them at any of 30 different restaurants? We figured you could. So over the past two months, our staff, writers and sales executives alike, looked high and low in search of two and half dozen burgers served in area restaurants that we think will satisfy your craving for meat (even fake meat) on a bun.
These are not rankings, and we are not food critics. There are these 30 and at least 70 more that you can order and enjoy throughout the county and surrounding area. Every American town is a burger paradise, but never moreso than today, and never in as many ways as today. We gave points for novelty as well as quality.
Prices and available burgers were accurate as of mid-October. Your top burger joint not on the list? Don’t hesitate to send an email to email@example.com with your favorite. If we get enough entries, we’ll run a reader’s choice list in next month’s issue.
And now for our alphabetical rundown, restaurant listed first, followed by the burger we tried.
Bobby’s Burger Palace — Crunchburger
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Bobby’s Burger Palace tries to win the fast-casual game by outclassing its competition. Hip and sleek, BBP has made its name with an unpretentious concept: adding potato chips to the top of its burgers. Any burger can be “crunchified,” but the Crunchburger ($7)—choice of a beef, chicken or turkey patty on a seeded bun with chips and a double serving of American cheese—is built around the idea.
It’s the most spartan burger on the menu, but don’t douse it in any of BBP’s five specialty sauces. Well-seasoned with BBP Burger Rub, the Crunchburger has enough flavor on its own. Fries large enough for two are $3.50. Lunch and dinner. 3535 U.S. Route 1, Suite 177, West Windsor. bobbysburgerpalace.com. –Rob Anthes
Brick Farm Market — All-American Burger
The Brick Farm Market in Hopewell Borough is a one-stop market with produce, bakery, coffee and juice bar, and eat-in on the ground floor, and a cheese and butcher shop on the second-floor landing. All housed within the old Malek Chevrolet auto-body repair building, the Brick Farm Market is the retail portion of Jon and Robin McConaughy’s vertical model that sources livestock and produce from Double Brook Farm. The All-American Burger ($12) is quality and simplicity: textured grass-fed beef topped in with American cheese, thousand island dressing, lettuce and tomato. The equally simple side salad of lettuce and sweet red onions almost stole the show. Homemade kettle chips sprinkled with cheese crumbs were a slightly glistening delight. For a literal farm-to-table place, they wisely let fresh local ingredients shine. Lunch and dinner. 65 E. Broad St., Hopewell. brickfarmmarket.com –Vincent Xu
Brothers Moon — JW Burger
A transformative anchor for Hopewell’s downtown area since opening in 2001, The Brothers Moon is a true neighborhood restaurant headed by Chef Will Mooney. Upon entering one is greeted by a packed pastry counter: cakes, tarts, pies, and cookies. Yes, pumpkin flavor is available. Visiting on a lazy Sunday, with a lively wedding shower unraveling gifts in the adjacent room, the brunch options looked just as enticing as the JW burger ($13). Served open faced on a springy pretzel bun with a side of creamy potato salad, the JW burger featured a soft, juicy angus beef patty draped in chewy, melted mozzarella, with potent caramelized onions tucked under the cheese. The leafy mesclun salad mix was no match for the herb mayo. All together the JW burger is a hearty, and slightly oily, adventure of many textures. Lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. 7 W. Broad St., Hopewell. brothersmoon.com –V.X.
Café 72 — BBQ Burger
Café 72 offers a selection of several “steak burgers” on their menu, including the BBQ Burger ($10) served with a fresh deli pickle wedge and steak fries. Onion rings or sweet potato tater tots can be substituted for $1.50 extra. Juicy and messy but not greasy, the sandwich is served on a large soft roll and topped with caramelized onions and choice of cheese and smothered in barbecue sauce. Size was just right for lunch, and there were ample fries. 72 West Upper Ferry Road, Ewing. Cafe72.net. –Bill Sanservino
Centro Grille — Soho Burger
Centro Grille, the anchor business in Robbinsville Town Center, is a bar and restaurant featuring a contemporary design, with high ceilings and a casual, semi-upscale atmosphere. The lone burger on the restaurant’s menu is the Soho Burger ($10), a nicely grilled, large beef burger topped with smoked applewood cheddar, caramelized onion and chipotle mayo on a toasted brioche bun. Sides include well-done, hand-cut fries, potato salad or steamed vegetables. Lunch and dinner. 2360 Route 33, Robbinsville. centrogrille.com. –B. S.
Chambers Walk — Turkey Burger
At lunchtime, chef and owner Mario Mangone offers guests his take on the turkey burger ($10): a grilled 6 oz. patty served on a Kaiser bun with homemade cranberry apple chutney and herb mayonnaise. The entrée is served with pickle chips and side salad. Mangone said turkey burgers differ from beef burgers because they must always be cooked the same way, unlike a beef burger which is cooked to preference. Chambers Walk does offer a Bistro Burger ($15) on its dinner menu: a grilled 8 oz. ground beef burger, cooked to order and doneness, served on Kaiser roll with a side choice of hand-cut fries or organic green salad. Cheddar, gruyere or blue cheese $2. Lunch daily 11:30-2:30. Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday 6-9 p.m. 2667 Main St., Lawrenceville. chamberswalk.com. –Lexie Yearly
The Cheesecake Factory — Macaroni and Cheese Burger
The L.A.-based chain restaurant fairly new to Quaker Bridge Mall is known for its sweet desserts, extensive menu and generous portions. The Macaroni and Cheese Burger ($12.50), one of 11 burgers on the menu, is an Angus beef patty topped with a fried macaroni and cheese ball and doused with cheddar cheese sauce. The taste of the tender patty withstands what might seem like an overwhelming amount of cheese, and the flavors blend well. Pickles, onion, tomato and shredded lettuce come on the side, but don’t feel obligated to layer them on. Choice of fries or salad; sweet potato fries an extra $1. Lunch and dinner. 161 Quakerbridge Mall, Lawrenceville. thecheesecakefactory.com. –L.Y.
Chuck’s Spring Street Café — Smother Cheese Burger
Chuck’s 23-seat, circa-1989 interior is decidedly lo-fi, but provides a welcome respite from the fancy 21st century that surrounds it on all sides. Stopping by during nonpeak hours, one might glimpse heaping baskets of uncooked chicken, hanging over the Fryolator, waiting to be dunked. Everyone knows Chuck’s buffalo wings, but they are not the only thing on the menu. The Smother Cheese Burger ($5.25), topped with lightly sauteed mushrooms and onions, is a sizable if straightforward hunk of beef that picks up some extra flavor from the well seasoned flat-top. A basket of robust and spicy curly fries ($2.95) rounds out a filling meal. Lunch and dinner. 16 Spring St., Princeton. chucksspringstreetcafe.com. –Joe Emanski
CrisPanino — Fontina and Roasted Red Burger
CrisPanino’s fontina and roasted red pepper burger ($7.49) is as simple as it comes, with just four ingredients: fire-roasted red pepper, simple patty, mayonnaise and fontina cheese. The burger hits the table wrapped in foil, which may make you feel like you’re at the ball park. But from the time the burger is wrapped to the moment it reaches your table, trapped heat warms the bun all the way through, melts the cheese, and keeps the pepper snug and warm. Sometimes, keeping things simple is your best bet. crispanino.com. –Michael Lovett
Five Guys Burgers & Fries — Little Cheeseburger
Five Guys invented, then dominated the “fast casual burger” phenomenon, and now dozens of emulators are playing catch up. As megachain fast food got blander and cardboardier, Five Guys stepped in with the most succulently greasy mass-produced burgers and fries anyone had ever imagined (until competitors upped the ante; see SmashBurger entry in this list). Turns out the way to our hearts was through our clogged arteries. But watch your wallet: Five Guys lulls customers into complacency with free peanuts and a no-frills decor, then whacks them with a la carte prices that add up —$9.58 plus tax for a (double) cheeseburger and little fries, no drink. Lunch and dinner; Hamilton, Ewing and Hillsborough. fiveguys.com. –J.E.
Hoagie Haven — Big Cat
What’s in a Big Cat ($12), you might ask? Well, this is Hoagie Haven, so it’s four burger patties, four fried eggs, crispy bacon, ketchup and hot sauce on a Italian Peoples Bakery torpedo roll. I couldn’t help but think that a sandwich of this magnitude would take quite some time to prepare. Three minutes later, I was holding a colossal bag that felt like 5 lbs. of heart attack waiting to happen. You can take bite after bite without feeling like you know how the beef, eggs or bacon taste individually. Different flavors come across at different times. Even splitting it with a co-worker, I felt like I had eaten for days. The salted and peppered side of fries ($2.25) didn’t help. I skipped dinner that night, which I never do. Lunch and dinner. 242 Nassau St., Princeton. hoagiehaven.com. –Thomas Fritts
HOB Tavern — Veggie Burger
The HOB Tavern, whose name stands for the Heart of Bordentown, is a cozy restaurant and bar, a block off busier Farnsworth Avenue. It has a standard selection of burgers on its menu, including the restaurant’s original recipe veggie burger ($7.95), which comes highly recommended by HOB staff. The burger is served as a set of two smaller patties instead of one large one; at first glance, it might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, but the burger fits the definition of comfort food. The flavor all comes from the patties, which deliver bold black bean taste from the start and close with a blend of spicy flavors. Served with a choice of side, including regular or sweet potato fries. Lunch and dinner. 146 2nd St., Bordentown. hobtavern.com. –L. Y.
KC Prime Steakhouse — Goat Cheese Burger
Replacing American Cheese on a cheeseburger can be like casting Sir Alec Guinness as Curly in a Three Stooges movie. It may seem classier or be more expensive, but many are also happy with the the humdrum version. At KC Prime they have plucked goat cheese out of its native Greek salad habitat and put it atop a burger ($11) with surprisingly good results. The burger comes nicely charred on a grilled soft bun, with a cumulus cloud of soft, mild, tangy feta on top—cheese and sauce at once. Sweet red peppers and red onions ably accent the burger, which comes with a side of fries. Lunch (other burgers offered at dinner). 4160 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrence. kcprimeprestaurant.com. –Diccon Hyatt
Larry’s Euro Bar — Brutal Burger
What was once Larry’s Corner Tavern is now Larry’s Euro Bar, but the Brutal Burger ($8.50) remains on the menu in this pub in the heart of northern Trenton’s Eastern European enclave. The perfectly round Brutal beef patty comes on a fresh toasted bun with green peppers, mayo, cheese, onions, mushrooms, piled high with crispy bacon and just enough cheese that was properly melted and proportioned evenly to the rest of the sandwich. Homemade cole slaw and golden fries served with hot sauce on the side. 965 New York Avenue, Trenton. facebook.com/LarrysEuroBar. –T. F.
Main Street Bistro — Moroccan Lamb Sliders
After a quarter of a century in the Princeton Shopping Center, the Main Street Euro-American Bistro is an area mainstay, complete with a hunter green and wood interior peppered with vintage-style car posters and black and white prints. The October menu boasted seasonal European-inspired treats from wienerschnitzel to ribollita, but I went for the Moroccan lamb sliders ($8). Twin patties between thin pita halves sit on either side of a cucumber slice that tops a generous dollop of tzatziki sauce, a welcome complement to the mini burgers. The warm, smoky lamb contrasts nicely with the cool, tangy tzatziki, and the cucumber and tomato add a chilly crunch. Try with creamy whipped potatoes on the side ($5) Lunch and dinner. 301 N. Harrison St., Princeton. mainstreetprinceton.com. –Samantha Sciarrotta
Marsha Brown — Chilled Tuna Tartare Burger
In the late 2000s, Marsha Brown opened her self-titled restaurant in a transformed 125-year-old Methodist Church in New Hope. Although a sign in front of the New Orleans-style Creole kitchen and steak house professes to have the “Best Burgers Ever,” it’s the Chilled Tuna Tartare Burger ($15) that attracted my interest. The sandwich consists of small chunks of tuna mixed in a remoulade sauce, served on a toasted roll with lettuce and tomato. By default, the dish is accompanied by a side of seasoned chips (Creole fries are $2 more). The sandwich is a zesty alternative to a beef burger, or for those looking for something lighter. Lunch. 15 S. Main St., New Hope, Pennsylvania. marshabrownrestaurant.com. –B. S.
North End Bistro — The North End
The North End Bistro, featuring modern American comfort food, offers one hamburger on its menu. The North End ($15) is a half-pound of LaFrieda beef served on a buttered croissant bun, accompanied by a regular or sweet potato fries. Toppings can be added for $1 or $2. Head chef Isauro Santizo says that it’s the mixture of chuck, brisket and short rib that creates a distinctive flavor. LaFrieda isn’t like Angus or Wagyu beef, which are named after the breed of cattle that yield the meat, but after the company that sells the product, Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, located in North Bergen. “They’re famous for their meat products and for the quality of their meat,” Santizo said. “That’s why we use them.” Lunch and dinner. 345 Nassau St., Princeton. northendprinceton.com. –B. S.
Oliver, a Bistro — Umami Burger
The Umami burger is one of several available at Oliver, a Bistro, on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown City during the restaurant’s “Burger Nights.” Chef-owner Matt McElmoyl has been serving original dishes at Oliver since he and his wife, Danielle, transformed the restaurant into a cozy, fine-dining bistro in 2006. The Umami burger ($11) is a juicy, 8-oz. Angus beef burger with Boursin and blue cheese, bacon, truffle oil, white balsamic and port wine reduction. The tender patty and crumbled toppings are served on a white roll with a choice of roasted potato wedges, house salad or Caesar salad on the side. The menu encourages guests to order burgers “some pink” or “no pink,” but they won’t fault you if you say “medium rare.” Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday. 218 Farnsworth Ave., Bordentown. oliverabistro.com. –L.Y.
Rat’s Restaurant — Burger au Fromage
The humble burger may not always fit in with fine dining, but it’s found a home at Rat’s. What’s more, it’s popular with the Rat’s crowd—executive chef Scott Swiderski said his kitchen uses about 120 pounds of hamburger meat in a typical week. The Burger au Fromage features Rat’s custom blend of Pat LaFrieda beef, applewood bacon, gruyere, provolone, tomato, red onion and Louie sauce—a mix of mayo, chili sauce, brandy, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice that Swiderski said adds a “pop” ketchup or mustard can’t match. It’s all served on a fresh brioche bun from New York City’s Featherstone Foods. The kitchen at Rat’s takes care to season the beef well and ensure the burger has a nice char. “There’s no secret to cooking a great burger,” Swiderski said. “You need all those elements. Oh, and good French fries.” Lunch and dinner. 16 Fairgrounds Rd., Hamilton. ratsrestaurant.com. –R.A.
Rocky Hill Inn — Buffalo Burger
Situated in a historic colonial building in a blink-and-you-miss-it downtown, the Rocky Hill Inn has garnered many awards. Chef Evan Blomgren’s gastropub has craft beers aplenty on tap, and he’s trying to stay faithful to his restaurant’s pastoral surroundings by making everything from scratch. The burger menu is large and exotic, offering four proteins besides beef. The buffalo burger ($15) is topped with wild boar bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and gastropub sauce. The pink bacon was chewy, the lettuce crunchy, and the cold sauce evoked sweet tomatoes. Lunch and dinner. 137 Washington St., Rocky Hill. rockyhilltavern.com –V.X.
Rossi’s Bar and Grill — Rossiburger
Rossi’s was one of Chambersburg’s best known and longest lasting restaurants, but the joint known for its humongous burgers joined the Trenton exodus this summer, settling into the former home of Charlie Brown’s in Hamilton. Besides the location, not much has changed. The Rossiburger ($7.99 a la carte; fries $2.99) remains huge and beefy, bulging out of a fresh kaiser roll beside substantial, golden brown steak fries. Reminds this taster of the homecooked burgers I ate growing up. Lunch and dinner. 2110 Whitehorse-Mercerville Road, Hamilton. rossisbarandgrill.com. –T. F.
Salt Creek Grille — Stuffed “Blues” Burger
Salt Creek Grille, in Forrestal Village, has one of the most attractive interiors of any area restaurant, but the building begins its beguiling from the moment you step into the wood-smoky winds that swirl around it. The Stuffed Blues Burger ($15) is a loosely packed, nicely charred burger served on a soft King’s Hawaiian roll and topped with fried onions, arugula and tomato as well as a blue cheese sauce. Be ready to slurp at your knuckles or catch an oily onion with your off hand as ingredients spill out. It’s not until you reach the center, where gorgonzola lies waiting, that flavors meet in savory harmony. Very garlicky shoestring fries accentuate the burger, but don’t plan to kiss anyone afterward. Lunch and dinner. 1 Rockingham Row, Plainsboro. saltcreekgrille.com/princeton. –J.E.
SmashBurger — Truffle Mushroom Swiss
SmashBurger (because its burgers are smashed flat on the griddle) is another fast casual burger franchise. It’s based in Denver, but stepping into the cool, high-ceilinged, chain-restaurant decor feels like arriving in Anytown, U.S.A. SmashBurger has 11 burgers on the menu, including the Truffle Mushroom Swiss ($7.39), which promises much umami but delivers—you must have guessed it by now—something pretty ordinary. For a side oily enough to give Five Guys’ spuds a heart attack, try the rosemary-flavored SmashFries ($2.29). Lunch and dinner. 3321 U.S. 1 South, Lawrence. smashburger.com. –J.E.
Stewart’s Drive-In — California Cheeseburger
Why, of all the traditional fast food burger joints, is Stewart’s the only one we visited for this feature? Let’s say it was nostalgia: Burger King and McDonald’s have gone so far as to knock buildings down and start over in an attempt to fit into the 21st-century retail foodscape, but Stewart’s—at a time when only 15 of their drive-ins are left in the world—remains resolutely retro. In the dining room, plastic swiveling chairs still attach to veneered pressed-wood tables via iron bars, and the drive-in carport looks like it did in 1984. As for the California cheeseburger ($4.80), mayo is out, special sauce is in, and that is disappointing, but the large fries ($2.99) are crispy and substantial. Lunch and dinner. Hamilton and Lawrence. stewartsallamerican.com –J.E.
30 Burgers — Trenton Burger
Princeton’s 30 Burgers doesn’t have 30 burgers on its menu, but the casual Nassau Street eatery has enough options to satisfy nearly every craving. Among the menu items is the Trenton Burger ($7), a patty of fresh ground beef topped with ketchup, American cheese and three thin slices of flavorful pork roll on a lightly toasted deli bun. No veggies here. The plain fries ($1.75) aren’t straight spud, either, with a light dusting of seasoning that gives a bit of zing. There isn’t much room inside to dine-in, but you’ll have a few minutes to enjoy the burger-themed quotations on the wall while the kitchen prepares your meal. Everything is made-to-order, and the burgers are juicy, so be sure to grab napkins. Lunch and dinner. 124 Nassau St., Princeton. 30burgers.com. –R.A.
Triumph Brewing Company — Triumph Burger
Located in the heart of Princeton, Triumph is known for its bustling atmosphere and assortment of house craft brews on tap. For those who want to have a burger along with their beer, the Triumph Burger ($13), made of grass fed beef from Pineland Farms, is the lone option on the menu. Served with a pickle and a choice of fries or house salad. Bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion are free toppings; a fried egg or cheddar cheese are $1 each, as are grilled onions, mushrooms, avocado or jalapenos. Lunch and dinner. 138 Nassau St., Princeton. triumphbrewing.com –B.S.
Uno Pizzeria and Grill — Guac-alicious Burger
The one-time Pizzeria Uno chain has changed its name a few times over the years, taking the word “pizzeria” out, then putting it back in again. Pizza (both Chicago-style deep-dish and traditional crust) remains the heart of the menu, but a person who is not in the mood for mozzarella and tomato sauce could do worse than to try one of their seven burgers, which include a BBQ burger, a veggie burger and the Guac-alicious Burger ($10.99), topped with chunky guacamole and aged cheddar. Fries on the side come crispy with a glaze of oil. Lunch and dinner. 225 Sloan Ave., Hamilton. unos.com. –J.E.
Wayback Burgers — Cheeeesy Burger
Wayback Burgers’ signature sandwich may be the Triple Triple, a gargantuan creation with nine beef patties and nine slices of American cheese. But for those with smaller appetites, Wayback has the Cheeeesy Burger—an E for each of the four slices of American cheese on the sandwich. The Cheeeesy Burger ($5.89) also comes with two patties—as does most of Wayback’s burger menu—and a buttered and grilled bun served like a grilled cheese sandwich, with the buttered flat side facing out. A side of standard fries can be ordered separately for $1.99, and comes with your burger in a tray lined with newspaper. The ambience matches the menu—casual and no frills. Lunch and dinner; 64 Princeton-Hightstown Road, West Windsor. waybackburgers.com. –R.A.
Witherspoon Grill — The Witherspoon Burger
I went to Witherspoon Grill with meat on my mind and hunger pangs in my stomach. I was not disappointed when the 10-oz. Witherspoon burger ($16) was placed in front of me. A handsome lunch: the colors of the lettuce, tomato, pickle and exceptional bun were Instagram worthy, no filter needed. I assembled the Angus beef burger, unhinged my jaw and took a bite. The brioche bun had a mild delightful sweetness, the chargrilled patty so juicy I had to put it down and get a few more napkins. Two-hour onions ($2) paired with a layer of melted Swiss for a match made in burger heaven. Comes with generous thin-cut fries lightly salted and crisp and a pickle the length of the plate. Lunch. 57 Witherspoon St., Princeton. witherspoon.jmggroupprinceton.com. – Stacey Micallef
Yankee Doodle Tap Room — The Princetonian
The Nassau Inn’s dark, cozy, pubby restaurant is the right place to enjoy the mild smoky flavors of The Princetonian. Executive chef Michael LaCorte took time to formulate the burger that beat all comers at Burger Mania 2013, a competition among restaurants held in Mercer County Park. The Princetonian is a beefy patty of brisket, short rib, chuck, chorizo and chipotle, topped with smoked mozzarella and port wine onion marmalade. Served with crispy battered fries. Lunch and dinner; $14. 10 Palmer Square E., Princeton. nassauinn.com. –J.E.