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Food - The Ultimate Atlanta Burger Smackdown

12 burgers. 4 judges. 1 winner.

Thursday September 11, 2014 04:00 am EDT

Ask a dozen Atlantans what the best cheeseburger in town is, and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. Sure, there are places that have lodged themselves into the meaty depths of our burger-craving brains — Ann’s Snack Bar, Holeman & Finch, the Vortex — but there are also legions of fans for burgers from grungy standbys such as George’s and the Earl, as well as upscale restaurants such as One Eared Stag and the General Muir. Crowning a winner is a task no one burger lover could conquer. For Creative Loafing’s Ultimate Atlanta Burger Smackdown, we employed a foursome of food writers to systematically survey 12 different contenders.


Over the course of a week and a half, CL Food Editor Stephanie Dazey, Dining Critic Jennifer Zyman, and contributing writer Brad Kaplan teamed up with burger expert Todd Brock. For the last four years, Brock has been covering the Atlanta burger beat for the James Beard Award-winning food website Serious Eats. Our team narrowed the burger smackdown list to 11 of the city’s most raved-about burgers before setting off to score each one, including George’s, Highland Tap, the Vortex, the Earl, Muss & Turner’s, Ann’s Snack Bar, One Eared Stag, Bocado, Miller Union, Holeman & Finch, and the General Muir. We then let readers vote for the 12th contender among a short list of finalists. The Pinewood ran away with the win.

All four writers rated each cheeseburger on a 50-point scale in six areas. The patty: Was the meat seasoned well and flavorful? Was it a pleasing texture? Was it cooked to the proper temperature? The toppings: Were they fresh and did they add to or detract from the burger’s flavor profile? (If the base-model burger at a restaurant did not come with cheese, we opted to add a slice of American, for consistency.) The bun: Was it a textural complement, hefty enough to uphold a juicy beef patty and all the fixins? We also considered the visual appeal of each burger’s presentation, price, and the overall dining experience at each establishment. Once we tallied all of these scores, we took the average of the total number of points awarded to each burger to produce both an overall winner and subsequent burger rankings.

There will be grumbling. Even with a dozen contenders — double the number of candidates in past food-focused smackdowns — the list can’t contain everyone’s favorite, and we consciously eliminated local burger chains such as Flip, Grindhouse, and Farm Burger. Some of us were rooting for an upset, but the two burgers that came out on top turned out to be competition favorites. There was, however, some controversy. The top two burgers are separated by a fraction of a point. And two in-town heavyweights tied for third. Let the smackdown begin.

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THE VETERAN

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  1. 11. George’s Restaurant and Bar


VITALS: Original Beef Burger (8-ounce)

A charcoal-grilled, 100-percent ground chuck burger, on a lightly grilled wheat bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, plus a pickle spear, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise on the side.

AVAILABILITY: lunch and dinner

SIDE: A la carte

PRICE: $6, add cheese for $1

SCORE: 20.75

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Todd Brock: Umm ... yeah. So there’s a burger in a plastic basket. With a plastic fork and knife. Kind of a buzz kill. Having this burger set down in front of me actually made me feel sad. I’m glad it’s dark in here.

Stephanie Dazey: It looks like a normal, run-of-the-mill bar burger with the requisite lettuce, onion, and tomato, but on an inexplicable, unremarkable wheat bun.

Brad Kaplan: I like the sheer size of the 8-Ounce burger. It’s daunting. ... The aroma that hits me before I take a bite is nice. Eau de beef. But as soon as I take a bite, I can’t say why or how, but it is off. And in desperate need of a severely large squirt of ketchup to save it.

TB: The patty itself looks nice and even sports a touch of char and a little bit of color inside. But there’s no seasoning that I can detect. I can feel it rolling around in my mouth, but there’s nothing the least bit identifiable about the flavor.

Jennifer Zyman: This burger made me mad. I get angry when food is this bad. It was inedible, and I couldn’t believe people still put this up as a top burger in this town. I would definitely classify this under “avoid.”

BK: Well, I threw out most of my burger — I actually had them pack it up to go so I wouldn’t embarrass them by sending it back. But the price is low. And the beer is cheap. And it’s dark enough in there that you might not notice how bad the beef is.

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THE BAIT AND SWITCH

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  1. 10. Highland Tap


VITALS: Highland Tap Steak Burger

A hickory wood-grilled patty made with ground Angus beef and house steak trimmings, challah bun, leaf lettuce, tomato and crinkle pickles, sides of tomato jam and Vidalia onion mustard.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with hand-cut onion rings or fries

PRICE: $11

SCORE: 29.25

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BK: OK, it looks pretty good, with the lettuce and tomato, etc. on the side ready to build your own. Good portion of 50/50 fries and rings, which you gotta like.

TB: Points off for a lettuce leaf that was way too big and a tomato slice that was way too thick. Does one need tomato and tomato jam? A truly great burger is about simplicity, and that requires attention to the details. Just hacking up the nearest veggies and randomly tossing them on top can sometimes skew the delicate proportions of what a burger should be.

BK: This is supposed to be a challah bun? I’m not getting that. It’s toasty, and bready, but actually falls apart a bit too easily.

SD: The meat tastes bland, and the toppings don’t add much in the flavor department. I get no char, wood, or smoke, or any of the other complex flavors that come with a well-executed burger patty.

JZ: This is one of the few places that feels old and cool in Atlanta. Even though they have renovated the restaurant, it’s masculine, dark, and musky. I also love the servers, who you can tell have been working here a long time.

BK: This should be a classic burger, but I really miss the smoke and char that this deserves. And they need to stick with old-school ketchup and mustard, not the frou frou yuppie stuff. This is Highland Tap, for chrissake.

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THE PLAIN JANE

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  1. 9. The Vortex


VITALS: The Plain Ol’ Original Vortex Burger

A half-pound, 100-percent sirloin patty, grilled over an open flame, topped with lettuce, tomato, sweet red onion, and crinkle dill pickle slices.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with choice of side

PRICE: $8.25, add American cheese $.95

SCORE: 31

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JZ: I see an enormous traditional restaurant burger. The yellowish bun is buttered and topped with a sliced pickle, pristine curly lettuce, a thick slice of red onion, tomato, and a thick patty covered in melted American cheese. It is very appetizing. I want to eat this burger now. It’s definitely old-school in presentation and I am OK with that.

TB: Those thick Vortex half-pound patties get me every time, despite being a leaner cut than I generally favor. I’ve been coming to the Vortex for almost 20 years, and this was the first time I ever recall being asked for my doneness preference. I’d swear that one of the famed “rules” from the snarky menu was that all burgers would be cooked medium well.

SD: Bread and butter pickles are cool, but these flat, crinkle-cut slices of dill pickles add the perfect amount of tang and crunch distributed evenly throughout each bite.

BK: I asked for medium rare. My burger came out well done. Dry. Shrunken. I sent it back, which I rarely, rarely do. The next one did indeed come out spot on, and so much better than the first. But still, for a relatively thick burger, there’s not much juiciness. The flavor is nice and classic.

TB: People seem to either love or loathe the Vortex. Some think it’s all a bit much — the tattoos, the piercings, the giant skull, the whole L5P vibe that can come across as too in-your-face-scary or too manufactured-touristy, depending on your point of view.

BK: I get it. It’s a solid, good burger. Definitely not worth going out of the way for.

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THE BEST BAR BURGER

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  1. 8. The Earl


VITALS: Earl Burger

A char-grilled, 100-percent Black Angus beef patty with romaine lettuce, Roma tomatoes, red onion

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with hand-cut fries

PRICE: $8

SCORE: 35

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SD: It’s a big, deceptively average-looking cheeseburger on a sesame seed bun.

TB: If you’re surprised by the Earl’s inclusion in this smackdown, one bite of the beef will turn you right the fuck around and kick you square in the ass. The patty is excellent and juicy to the extreme. It burst open on impact and sent a warm trickle running down my arm. To be fair, it could use an extra shake of salt and pepper, but mine was cooked expertly.

BK: Nice grilled flavor, a bit overdone to medium, a touch dry. ... The tots are actually the highlight, nice and crunchy but still light.

JZ: I love being here tucked in a high-backed wood booth. The servers are attentive but give you enough distance to drink whiskey and have raucous conversations. I hadn’t eaten this burger in a long time, and I actually put it on par with the Vortex. Eating both burgers reminded how much I miss big juicy restaurant burger patties. I wish people would bring those back as a trend. I would love to see all the fancy Atlanta chefs take that one, as so many feel like Shake Shack and Holeman imitations these days.

TB: I have to keep reminding myself that this is a dark-and-smoky-as-shit bar that’s known for the loud live music in the back room. Looked at through that lens, this burger is phenomenal ... a far cry better than typical “bar grub.” This is what George’s wants to taste like. I wonder how many of the VaHi diehards have ventured down to the EAV to see what they’re missing. The Earl’s killer burger is perhaps the biggest surprise of the smackdown.

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THE OUT-OF-TOWNER

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  1. 7. Muss & Turners


VITALS: The Burger

A grass-fed beef burger grilled on a Big Green Egg and served on a French bun with white cheddar, poblano pepper, red onion, and cilantro aioli.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: A la carte

PRICE: $11.93

SCORE: 36.5

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TB: It’s a sexy-ass burger. It’s already dripping with burger juice before I even touch it. The white cheese and poblano pepper sticking out offer some visual interest, something a little different and slightly more elegant than the standard yellow American-and-LTO combo.

JZ: The burger is certainly appetizing but looks very lonely on the plate.

BK: This is a thick burger. A juicy burger. A meaty meat burger — especially for grass-fed beef, which can often end up dry. They asked how I wanted it, and they delivered a perfect medium rare, with a good peppery char on the exterior.

SD: I love the poblano. Such a simple addition that adds a pop of smoke and spice to a burger that’s already flavorful from its Big Green Egg treatment. Too bad the bun wasn’t sturdy enough to stand up to this explosively juicy burger.

JZ: Given what I’ve heard about this burger, I was expecting it to be much better. It was fine, but I didn’t understand the hype. I would order the Reuben over this any day.

TB: Muss & Turners’ OTP location is an insurmountable hindrance to some, a saving grace to others. As one of the rare upscale options in this office-park-heavy part of town, the lunch rush can be overwhelming and result in out-the-door lines. But this burger is the real deal. ... While you could argue that price shouldn’t matter in a best-taste test, your wallet always weighs in as part of your overall dining experience. I am unabashedly a big fan of Muss & Turner’s burger. But at $12, it should come with fries.

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THE HOT MESS

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  1. 6. Ann’s Snack Bar


VITALS: The Ghetto Burger

Two ground chuck patties dusted with house seasoned salt, grilled on a flat-top with onions, and topped with American cheese, mustard, ketchup, onions, chili, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and bacon.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with fries

PRICE: $8.50

SCORE: 38.5

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TB: The Ghetto Burger comes wrapped up in an absurdly large bundle of foil. Based on size alone, though, it is damn impressive. Unwrap that beast and it’s a massive, steaming, sloppy pile of pure, gluttonous anticipation. Huge gawker factor: The lady at the next table went totally Linda Blair and swiveled her head all the way around for a better look. “Oh, good heavens,” she said. I am positive my heart rate quickened. Interestingly, the Ghetto Burger comes already sliced in half for you ... as if that will somehow make it easier or tidier to manage.

JZ: The beef is super conventional tasting. Watching Ms. Ann squeeze it from that tube of beef and slop it on the grill killed any desire to eat the thing. I guess I am a burger snob now.

BK: I know the quality is not what you’d call artisanal, but there is some kind of magic here in the mayo and the ketchup and the chili and the cheese and the sweet onions and the crisp iceberg lettuce and the thick slice of tomato. It just works.

SD: This was my fifth burger of the day, and despite being borderline burger-wasted, I couldn’t stop eating it. It’s messy as hell and the service is slow, but Miss Ann’s is absolutely destination-worthy.

TB: It’s like dinner theater at your sassy grandma’s house. With all your cousins. And their cousins. Great interaction with other customers waiting their turn. Much of the overall experience hinges on whether or not Miss Ann is in a good/playful mood that day. ... It occurs to me that Ann’s is — bear with me here — a lot like Holeman & Finch, although the places themselves couldn’t be more different. A burger here requires planning. And patience. There are hoops to jump through and rules to follow.

BK: Plastic plate, plastic fork and knife — it’s that kinda place. The rules, the fear of doing something wrong, the joy of something so anachronistic and out of place in today’s glossy burger chain world. ... I love it.

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THE NONCONFORMIST

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  1. 5. One Eared Stag


VITALS: Meatstick

A double-patty burger made with 75 percent chuck and 25 percent ground bacon grilled on the flat-top and topped with thinly sliced onions and housemade pickles.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with fries

PRICE: $12

SCORE: 39

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TB: The Meatstick is always one sexy cover-model of a burger. Maybe the prettiest we’ve seen. The steak-knife-through-the-whole-thing shtick is a tired cliché, but it’s truly a good-looking burger even without the prop.

BK: That knife! You gotta love the knife. It’s a cheap trick, but it sets the mood.

TB: Gorgeous melt on the American cheese. Shades of a cellophane-wrapped youth. Sometimes simpler is better with the cheese. I kind of wish I liked pickles. Everyone’s very proud of their housemade variety, and they just end up sitting off to the side for me.

BK: Best bun of the competition. Perfectly pillowy and buttery and still toasty. And the patty, oh so crunchy. You get that there’s bacon mixed in there, but what’s more impressive is that the overall impression is more steak-y than any other burger in town. Well-charred steak. With a pat of butter thrown on top.

SD: I know bacon is supposed to be ground into the patty, but I don’t taste it as much as I smell it and feel it. Each bite coats your mouth with a little layer of grease.

JZ: Love the shaved onions because they give the burger a nice bite and help cut the inherent fattiness of the grind and other ingredients. I always have issues with the service here. It simply takes too long and feels disorganized, but they are awesome with kids.

TB: Objectively speaking, One Eared Stag is putting out a top-10 burger for sure. Cracking the top 5 or making a legitimate run at the No. 1 spot is a whole ‘nother thing, though. It’s like the difference between being good enough to go pro in your sport and being so outstanding you make the Hall of Fame.

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THE DECATUR DANDY

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  1. 4. The Pinewood


VITALS: Pinewood Cheeseburger

A double-patty Angus beef burger on a challah bun with housemade remoulade, tomatoes, red onion, local spring mix lettuce, Applewood bacon, and American cheese.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch, dinner, and brunch

SIDE: no side

PRICE: $5-$14

SCORE: 40.25

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BK: Well, dang, the readers spoke and their voices were heard. This is a great burger, among the juiciest I’ve had. There’s not much char texture or flavor, but this burger brings the beefy and manages to overcome the lack of sear.

JZ: While most double stacks are relatively short, this burger stands tall. It is packed with clean beefy flavor punched up with bacon-y goodness and creamy melted cheese. The bun is on par with the best in town and holds up well when you smoosh the burger together to fit it in your mouth. It’s definitely a favorite.

TB: This burger is gorgeous. Lots of sexy color-stacking from the toppings, and an overly generous side of seasoned shoestring fries. It was almost slow motion when the bartender walked that burger over to me.

SD: They asked me for a temp on a double stack? I ordered medium rare and it came out to the table medium raw. I had to send it back.

BK: Deploying the “standing knife” trick a la One Eared Stag, though with a wimpier knife. The cutesy upside-down top hat filled with Sir Kensington ketchup is at least unique.

TB: Both patties are blanketed with melty American, offering a lot of creaminess overall. Mixed greens are a nice touch and improve upon the standard lettuce with a shot of color, texture, a nice hint of bitterness, even if your initial thought is that some of it doesn’t belong on a burger as much as it does a salad. The remoulade hiding under the bottom patty announces its presence with authority once you bite in. There’s a noticeable tang that’s reminiscent of relish or tartar sauce.

BK: It’s super satisfying. Especially alongside one of the Pinewood’s fine cocktails. It’s a true bargain at $5 during weekday happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m.

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THE FARM TO FABULOUS

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  1. 3. Miller Union


VITALS: Grass-fed beef burger

A patty made with ground rib-eye and flat iron steak, and White Oak Pastures ground chuck, cooked on a gas grill with applewood chips on a toasted, buttered H&F sesame bun, and topped with housemade mayo, ketchup, dill pickles, red onion, romaine, tomato, and extra-sharp cheddar cheese.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch only

SIDE: Comes with fries

PRICE: $12

SCORE: 40.5

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BK: Now, this is gorgeous. They’re going for maximum lift, building the top bun up above layers of pickle and tomato and onion and lettuce stacked just so. And the colors play beautifully off each other, from the smear of rust-colored spicy ketchup on the top bun, to the bright red tomato, down through the almost-orange cheddar cheese, with green shreds of lettuce mixed throughout as you bite into it. Bravo.

SD: Is “verticality” a word? If so, this burger definitely has that. It weirdly comes with homemade ketchup already smeared on. I wouldn’t have minded as much if the ketchup weren’t so heavily spiced and slightly bitter.

TB: It’s a thick bistro-style patty of very well-seasoned beef. The meat itself is loose, not jam-packed into a dense disc. I asked for medium-rare, and there’s an awful lot of pink inside. It’s actually bordering on too rare, and perhaps depends on your personal interpretation of proper doneness coloring.

BK: The beef here is luscious, soft, tender, but just enough char on the exterior and seared into the meat to balance that out. Finger-licking good, though could use a bit more wow-factorin the flavor department.

JZ: It’s a nice grind with plenty of depth. The tomatoes, red onion, and lettuce are tops. You can tell the chef is sourcing great ingredients.

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THE SIMPLE PLEASURE

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  1. 3. Bocado


VITALS: Bocado burger stack

A double-patty burger made with ground brisket, chuck roll, and short rib, grilled on the flat-top and served on a sesame seed bun with housemade bread-and-butter pickles, two Kraft American singles slices, and mayonnaise.

AVAILABILITY: Lunch and dinner

SIDE: Comes with fries

PRICE: $9.25-$13

SCORE: 40.5

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BK: I look at Bocado’s double stack and I am happy. The melding of the meat and cheese, the thick discs of pickle, the simplicity of it ... and the generous bowl of addictive garlic herb fries ($1 extra).

TB: Seeing three of them plated together as the off-menu Wimpy Platter is impressive. Fries served in a separate bowl put the focus squarely on this photogenic burger. It’s melty and steamy.

JZ: The bun is buttered and toasted, and is spread with a thin layer of mayo to prevent any sogginess from the juices of the meat. It’s a nice touch. The burger construction is nice and tight. I have always liked the size of these burgers, not too big and not too small.

TB: There is an exquisite crust on the thin patties, with edges that are nicely crisp and craggly. But I recall being blown away by this burger the first time I had it. This is good, to be sure, but not amazing. ... The bun is squishy and soft, but holds together well.

SD: I love how the focus remains on the meat and cheese. It’s very elemental, no bells and whistles. It’s a fantastic burger, and it’s been a favorite for years. This time around, the patty’s flavor lacked some of the depth that I remember, like it was missing a secret ingredient or something that has made Bocado’s burger so wow-worthy in the past.

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THE I HAVE TO DO WHAT TO GET A BURGER? BURGER

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  1. 2. Holeman & Finch


VITALS: The Burger, a double-patty burger grilled on the flat-top and served on a housemade bun with pickles, red onion, and American cheese, plus housemade ketchup and mustard on the side.

AVAILABILITY: Dinner and brunch only

SIDE: Comes with fries

PRICE: $12

SCORE: 44.5

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BK: God dammit. After the ridiculous wait, the absurd pomp and circumstance, I wanted to not be taken. I was hoping for a letdown. But from the moment I saw this burger come out of the kitchen, I kinda knew it was gonna be good. Actually, it was almost 20 minutes before that, shortly after 10 p.m., when the aroma came heavily wafting through the room. That aroma was a much better announcement of impending joy than the stupid bullhorn cheer of WHEN I SAY BURGER YOU SAY TIME, BURGER ... TIME! BURGER ... TIME!

TB: Picture-perfect. Look up “cheeseburger” in the dictionary and this should be the accompanying photo. Maybe it’s the two-hour wait talking, but I cannot frickin’ wait to dive into this little bundle of burger beauty.

SD: Ughhhh, this burger is damn good. Everything about it. It’s the Goldilocks of burgers. Not too big, not too small, not too messy. Everything is just right. Is it possible that this burger has gotten better over time?

BK: The patties have got that char, that deep meaty flavor, that salty, juicy dripping through the crust. I love the bread-and-butter pickles, the sweet tangle of onion beneath the melted American cheese. They both play so well beside the beef itself, a touch of acid crunch to go with that oozy cheese. Did I mention the salt? Maybe it’s a topping, maybe it’s part and parcel of the patty, but it’s there ... and it brings everything together. No need to touch that vinegary homemade ketchup, though the Dijon is quite nice.

JZ: I hate the wait for this burger. I am not big on waiting for food in general, but I hate that you now have to come at 8 to reserve your burger for later. It kind of kills the magic of that 10 p.m. “burger time!” call. I also feel this place has lost a little of what made it so special in the past.

BK: How do I score this? The wait is absurd. The rigmarole is ridiculous. But it’s kind of endearing, and the burger is legitimately worth going out of your way for ... at least to some extent. Props for having the balls to keep up this madness when they could sell a few hundred every single night out in the parking lot if they wanted to.

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THE BEST OVERALL

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  1. 1. The General Muir


VITALS: The Burger

A double-patty burger made with ground brisket and short rib, grilled on the flat-top and served on a buttered, toasted housemade bun with Russian dressing, Gruyere, and housemade pickles and pastrami.

AVAILABILITY: Dinner only

SIDE: Comes with hand-cut fries

PRICE: $14

SCORE: 44.75

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BK: “Slutty” may get tossed around a lot when it comes to cheeseburgers, and this one fits the bill. Oozing cheese, grease pouring forth, charred-to-heck patties dripping over the edges. And the crowd of crisp, gorgeous fries hanging out on the side doesn’t hurt.

TB: I love the between-the-patties placement of the caramelized onions; it lets that telltale flavor become part of the burger instead of something just thrown on top of the burger. Russian dressing is totally underutilized in any dish not appearing in a 1970s TV show. What’s up with that? It’s a great add-on here. But the star of this burger is the General Muir’s pastrami. Thick and succulent, it’s draped over the patty in a meat-on-meat love fest.

JZ: The grind is nice and fatty without being too lean and always cooked just enough to stay tender. I love the Reuben-inspired toppings. It’s very in line with the concept of the restaurant and works surprisingly well on the burger. Baker Rob Alexander, formerly of H&F, has worked hard to get this bun right.

BK: Fourteen dollars with that load of fries is nice, and the setting is perfect — part diner, part New York deli, part modern brasserie.

SD: It’s a beautiful thing when the cheese is so melty it actually becomes a part of the meat. The patties are smashed thin, beautifully charred, and yet, still juicy. The crisped-on-the-outside pastrami lends a long, salty, beefy finish to each bite that’s cut perfectly by the tangy Russian dressing. In a burger scene currently dominated by textbook double stacks, it’s refreshing to see a burger with some personality level the traditional playing field.

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