Taking stock of the local burger scene is never a bad idea, but the task became more urgent this summer with the announcement that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is coming to Ann Arbor. The 670-outlet chain serves a decent burger, but it’s also armed with a media budget and cult following that make it hard for mom-and-pop joints to hang onto their share of the local burger dollar. Five Guys has a nasty habit of demolishing its homegrown rivals, taking the “best burger” crown in reader polls across the country, including Zagat’s in August.
So does Ann Arbor have the local meat to compete? I visited six burger-only joints, ranking each in a quasi-scientific fashion. To keep matters manageable, I confined the search to Ann Arbor proper, and excluded the big chains (@burger and Bagger Dave’s are, so far, small and semi-local). I also omitted restaurants where a customer could conceivably order something other than a burger without becoming a laughingstock. So take heart, all you fans of Casey’s and the Sidetrack: I’m not challenging the superiority of your favorite sandwich. I just had to draw a grill mark somewhere.
I weighted these equally, awarding from one to four points for each.
Burger flavor: The category that matters most. Here, flavor encompasses everything that makes a burger worth eating: richness, juiciness, robustness, and beefiness. And since I didn’t have a separate category for texture, I rolled that into this score too.
Burger aesthetics: Professional meat tasters (a viable job in places like Texas and Kansas) sample beef in the dark so they won’t be swayed by the looks of what they’re eating. I took a more shallow approach, giving extra points to a thick, gleaming burger.
Burger accessories: It’s possible to find a great burger on a mediocre bun, served with limp, forgettable fries. But a meal’s so much better when the accessories shine.
Toppings: A few burger spots serve signature creations with so many toppings that the beef ends up singing backup. Rather than waste time pleading for burger purity, I doled out points for freshness and wide selection.
Ambiance: A burger joint could be loud, sweaty, and crowded, and still score a perfect four stars in the ambiance category–it’s my assessment of whether the restaurant feels like a fun place to eat a burger.
A final note: These reviews aren’t comprehensive. I didn’t take note of service, investigate cleanliness, or order dainty side dishes like the strawberry praline salad at @burger. My grail was burgers.
Quickie Burger Score: 9
Students adore owner Varujan Arman and the full bar his family keeps open till 2 a.m. According to a fawning student blog devoted to the bustling eatery, “Varg has been known to stop the line to write personal hate messages on people’s food orders.” That sort of attention to detail is invaluable in the restaurant biz, but it sadly doesn’t extend to Quickie Burger’s namesake dish. The floppy cheeseburgers here barely taste of beef, so the patty seems like an intrusion upon a perfectly good grilled cheese sandwich. Arman’s renowned, though, for his “secret sauce,” which pairs deliciously with Quickie’s salty curly fries.
800 S. State, 222-4555, quickie-burger.com
Great Plains Burger Score: 9
Great Plains confused my rating system: it wasn’t designed to sum up a restaurant where the padded Zingerman’s-made buns are phenomenal and the French fries skew greasy. The toppings at Great Plains, which prides itself on “simple, honest” ingredients, threatened to crash the system entirely: they’re wonderfully fresh–Great Plains uses whole leaves of romaine instead of shredded iceberg–but the selection’s paltry. Still, that’s all rendered rather irrelevant by the crumbly hand-patted burgers themselves, which are cloaked in a startling amount of salt. They’re also a bit dry, a common problem with burgers made from lean, grass-fed beef: Great Plains gets its all-natural meat from Davis Creek Farms in Virginia.
1771 Plymouth, 769-6900, greatplainsburger.com
Famous Hamburger Score: 10
Famous Hamburger’s namesake sandwich is buried under a grocery cartload of toppings: There’s a fried egg, a slice of cheese, onions, lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes, all of which are doubtless intended to draw attention away from a decidedly mediocre beef patty and Kroger-made bun. But the whole really is better than the sum of its parts, and it’s easy to imagine grabbing a booth in the brightly lit dining room for a satisfyingly greasy post-party late night snack. It’s worth noting that Famous Hamburger keeps a halal kitchen, which makes its burger one of the few that never shares a walk-in cooler with rashers of bacon.
1739 Plymouth, 369-3471, famoushamburger.com
Blimpy Burger Score:11
There are surely odes to Blimpy’s and its barking cooks, but their scribes have probably been too addled by grease to publish them. Blimpy’s is an Ann Arbor legend, which makes an objective critique of its burgers almost pointless. But, if you must know, the leathery slider I had here stretched the definition of burgerhood: it tasted like a sloppy joe without the slop, with an off-putting burnt onion flavor. Fries were forgettable. Still, admission to this dynamic diner is only granted to eaters, so dig deep and order a quint.
551 S. Division, 663-4590, blimpyburger.com
@burger Score: 13
It’s hard to believe Big Boy himself would still think burgers are fun, having spent decades with one hoisted in hand, but that’s the message at this new clean-lined concept eatery from Big Boy Restaurants: when a customer’s burger is ready, a talking tabletop pager yelps “Your burger is coming!” The home-style burger is a tad under-seasoned–and the one we tried was slightly undercooked to a medium rare that stunted the beef’s juices–but the golden-hued fries are tough to resist. @burger caters to a student crowd accustomed to cafeteria mixing-and-matching, and has the topping selection to prove it: the “Trash Can” comes dressed with fourteen toppings, including chili, Velveeta, banana peppers, and onion straws.
505 E. Liberty, 222-8440, atburger.com
Bagger Dave’s Score: 18
Bagger Dave’s cultivates the well-scrubbed look of a corporate chain, but there are only three locations thus far. That’s a statistic that makes even less sense after trying the restaurant’s remarkably succulent burgers, which taste vivid and clean. Featuring tender meat swaddled in a resonant char, the sandwiches can be customized a zillion different ways: the menu offers three buns, six cheeses, six sauces, and two dozen toppings, including freshly made fries that deserve to be sampled on their own. My server confessed he’d gone to work at Bagger Dave’s, which is nicely decorated with photographs of old Ann Arbor, partly because he loved the burgers so much.
859 W. Eisenhower, 994-3283, baggerdaves.com
Most of these burgers failed to impress–or even match the quality of burgers served at the best non-specialist restaurants. Perhaps their owners assume customers who love burgers so much that they’d choose an eatery with the word “burger” in its name aren’t picky. Or perhaps they’re shy about charging the prices that burgers made from high-quality meat command.
Let me know if you have any theories. I’ll be at Bagger Dave’s.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the November, 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. The description of Quickie Burger’s “secret sauce” has been corrected.