The trend in Pittsburgh food lately has been restaurants with single word names. Here’s a no-doubt incomplete list: Legume, Toast!, Spoon, Elements, Habitat, Salt, Notion, BRGR and Burgatory. These last two play to another recent trend: fancy burger joints. I see this as a good opportunity to pontificate about about burgers and burger places.
To my mind there are three things you want in a burger place. I will list them here in order of importance:
1. Good meat.
2. Fries and other side dishes.
3. An appealing atmosphere and attitude.
Now, the next thing I’m going to say will cause many in the audience to huff and puff with a general sense of disdain, because their experience may have been different than mine. But I only know what I know. In my experience, if what you are after is a really good beef hamburger with really good meat and generally well-prepared and well-served, there is only one place to go and that place is Tessaro’s.
I know that people have issues with the service there. I know that people have had issues with the kitchen there. If you are one of those people, I can’t really help you. All I can say is they serve me well every time I go there and the meat and the burgers are really still the best in the city, even with the new fancy places opening up.
Now, we can all agree that their side dishes suck. The awful excuse for “potatoes” that they serve are just shameful. But the meat is the thing, and the meat is great. Still, sides, and especially fries, can’t be discounted.
And this is where the discussion gets more complicated because the side dishes and atmosphere are where the two new places: BRGR in East Side and Burgatory in Aspinwall shine. Both have a hip young bar vibe going. Both have cool boozy milk shakes (I’ve only had the BRGR version, so I can’t comment any further). Only BRGR has good fries. Both also serve respectable beef-based hamburger sandwiches. On the whole, I think that Burgatory has better meat and BRGR is better at everything else. But neither has as good a beefy beef patty as Tessaro’s.
My conclusion is this: the meat at T’s is still the best. But the overall sandwich experience you get at the new places might be better because of their wide range of interesting toppings and sides. The Filthy-a-delphia burger at BRGR is a particularly brilliant combination.
However, BRGR loses a few points for making sandwiches out of strange patty shaped ingredients and calling them a “burger.” I guess in theory there is nothing really wrong with this, but I’m personally not very interested in going to a burger joint to get salmon, or falafel, or turkey for that matter. Turkey is a particular sore spot for me. To me, poultry is entirely unsatisfactory as a basis for a ground meat sandwich. The texture is all wrong and the fat doesn’t have great that great rush of juice when you bite into the sandwich.
Even so, the strength of the fries at BRGR more than makes up for a few weak points on the meat axis. Good fries count for a lot.
So my final order of preference is T’s, then BRGR, then Burgatory. Feel free to make your own choices. Even if you’d be wrong.
As a closing thought, I do have to give a shout out to Five Guys. Five Guys is not really in the same category as the other places we’ve discussed. It’s cheap food prepared as fast as they can do it. On its own it doesn’t really have that much character. Still, it was almost the best food that you could get near the Apple Store in Bethesda Row in Bethesda Maryland. The only place in that pathetic excuse for a gentrified outdoor mall was the great Indian restaurant my friend took me to. So, good job there.
As a second closing thought I also have to give a shout out to Little Big Burger in Portland, Oregon. They do little burgers. They do them really well. And they don’t coast on the foofiness of their toppings either. Highly recommended. Beware of the hipsters though. But if you are in Portland you already know that.