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Dining Out

A burger is only a burger - except when it's a steak

Prime cuts, fancy fixings, house-made buns turn this favorite into a luxury

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / October 13, 2010

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Expensive hamburgers are nothing new. Daniel Boulud famously broke the $20 mark with his foie gras and truffle-stuffed behemoth at New York’s DB Bistro Moderne in 2001, and chefs have come up with countless high-ticket iterations since. Boston has seen its share of pricy patties over the years — Bristol Lounge’s $21 burger, Radius’s $19 version. But of late the species has begun to proliferate. Back Bay Social Club and Towne Stove and Spirits, both of which opened this summer, serve $21 burgers. The Butcher Shop, KO Prime, and Craigie on Main offer $18 burgers. In fact, Craigie on Main may be largely responsible for the phenomenon. The burger served at the restaurant’s bar has received so much attention it broke the glass ceiling for burgers. Now all patties expect equal pay.

Why does a $20 burger cost $20? Chefs cite the quality of the meat, the custom blend, the perfect bun, the love and time and attention lavished on this humble sandwich.

Case study: Back Bay Social Club. Its burger was months in the making. Executive chef Timothy Raines and William Kinnealey, of meat wholesaler William & Co., worked closely together to find the magic formula. They went on burger-eating expeditions to New York, where they sampled the versions at Minetta Tavern, the Breslin, and other spots known for their burgers. Many of these patties are made from special blends of meat created by New York wholesaler Pat LaFrieda, which makes its Black Label blend from dry-aged beef. Raines and Kinnealey wanted to do something similar.

Back in Boston, they went to Kinnealey’s Newmarket Square facility. “We walked through the dry-age room, picking up things we thought would grind really well,’’ Raines says by phone. “We tried at least 20 different varieties, with more of this, less of that, different percentages. We also messed around with different coarseness of grind.’’ The exact details of the final blend are a secret, but Raines shares the basics: Back Bay Social Club’s burger is made entirely from dry-aged beef. The biggest percentage of it is prime rib, with added short rib, flank, and skirt for texture.

The meat is ground for the restaurant each morning and delivered every afternoon. They sear the patties to medium-rare on a flat-top griddle that goes to 600 degrees, using plenty of clarified butter, to get a good crust on both sides of the burger.

Then, the toppings. “You’ve got to have onions, you’ve got to have cheese, but what do you put with beef that’s this good?’’ Raines says. In answer, the chefs created “smothered’’ onions. They take a 25-pound bag of white onions, peel them and shave them thin, and cook them for more than four hours. Those 25 pounds reduce to about seven cups, Raines says. “They’re way past caramelized. It’s almost like a marmalade.’’ For the cheese, they crumble a bit of cave-aged Vermont cheddar on top of the burger and slide it under a salamander to melt. They started off baking the buns in-house, then outsourced their recipe to a local bakery. They’re straightforward, extremely tender, made from a dough that contains plenty of milk.

It’s a lot of effort for a burger, and the beef goes for more than $10 a pound. “For a 10-ounce patty with cheese, onions, buns, and fries, out the door, it’s a big cost,’’ Raines says. The end result tastes fantastic. It’s thick, juicy, with a rich, mellow flavor that’s complemented by the jammy onions and sharp cheese. The bun stands up to the patty without being too assertive. It’s neutral. It doesn’t distract. The meat has heft and texture and chew. When you bite it, it bites back. It’s a burger that just might be worth $21, if you feel OK about paying $21 for a burger.

“It’s an affordable luxury for people,’’ Raines says. “If you can feel like you are plunking down $20 to have the best burger, it feels worth it. It’s something you feel like you’re giving yourself — a realistic indulgence.’’ Because you’re worth it.

Still, such price tags raise questions: At what point does a burger stop being a burger and become a steak in a bun? What is a burger? The answer differs, depending on which of two camps you fall into: form or function.

The form camp believes that a patty of ground meat between two pieces of bread is a burger, plain and simple. What kind of meat, which toppings, what sort of bread, what size price tag — none of this matters to its essential burger-ness.

The function camp believes that a burger is — inherently — an inexpensive meal.

Food historian Andrew F. Smith is among them. The author of “Hamburger: A Global History’’ explains that burgers got their start as street food — without forks, knives, and plates, vendors had to put the beef between bread. To Smith’s knowledge, the first written record of the burger as we know it appears in the Chicago Tribune in 1893, around the time of the World’s Fair. Smith believes visitors may have sampled the hamburger at or around the fair, accounting for the sandwich’s popularity and quick spread. Just a few years later, it had already reached Hawaii.

“A burger has got to be low cost,’’ he says. “It’s got to have lots of fat. I expect something really juicy. It’s not complex at all. All these attempts to make it haute cuisine seem to me to be rather foolish. I frequently sample burgers in the $20 to $30 range. I enjoy them and am delighted to consume them. But to me, that’s not what a burger is all about.’’ His favorites include Five Guys and, on the West Coast, In-N-Out Burger.

Dave Dubois is also a function guy. The Franklin Cafe cofounder opened Tasty Burger in early September. The Fenway burger joint sells its basic burger for $4. Versions topped with the likes of jalapeno and cheddar-cheese sauce, or pineapple and grilled onion, go for a bit more. There are hot dogs, fries, onion rings, and shakes. And at the takeout window, you can obtain a sack of five cheeseburgers for $21. Yes, the same price as one burger at Back Bay Social Club. (Tasty Burgers’ patties weigh in at 5 ounces each, however.)

“I believe it’s every chef’s fantasy to have a burger joint,’’ Dubois says. (He may be right. Todd English has been threatening to open one for years.) “We kind of had this idea — it’ll be great, we can eat burgers, drink shakes, and hang out. It’ll be fun — our little burger joint. Next thing I know, the volume is incredible, and everybody is super-opinionated about burgers. I just stepped into a world I had no idea about. I read some of the reviews and blogs online, and I feel like writing back, ‘Crazy person, it’s a fast-food burger. Relax.’ ’’

He takes his inspiration from a local source: the late, lamented Tim’s Tavern, which offered what was widely considered to be the best burger in the city before it closed several years ago. Like Tim’s before it, Tasty Burger charbroils its patties. The meat was ground fresh daily at Tim’s, so Tasty Burger puts a 36-hour time limit on the beef after grinding. Tim’s burger was chuck, and after tinkering with several recipes, the folks at Tasty Burger settled on a chuck-heavy patty with a bit of brisket and short rib thrown into the mix.

It goes on a Martin’s bun, selected for its generous sprinkling of sesame seeds, along with iceberg lettuce and tomato. Those who want pickles and onions can request them.

“We weren’t trying to be a gourmet burger in any way,’’ Dubois says. “We just thought of it as a cool, handmade fast-food burger. You know what the truth is? We’re not taking it that seriously. To us, it’s a really fun thing. The pool is free, the jukebox is digital, the beer is ice-cold, and the burgers are yummy.’’

If there’s one man qualified to comment on the state of burgers locally, it’s Richard Chudy, a personal chef who runs Boston Burger Blog (tagline: “The Perfect Burger . . . it’s out there’’). He and his friend Nick DiSciscio (title: Burger Guru) are steadily making their way through each and every burger in the city in search of the best. They also hope to start a food truck business, selling burgers of their own.

Chudy says he’s a purist. He wants a simple, perfect burger: beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, bun. “That whole $20 phenomenon, I’m not in love with that trend,’’ he says. “But I think it’s here to stay in some form. Essentially, we’re taking great cuts of steak and turning them into a burger. I’d rather have the steak.’’

Plenty of restaurants make great burgers for less. Some of his favorites include the burgers at Highland Kitchen ($9.95), Miracle of Science ($9), and Toro ($8, lunch only). His least favorite may be at Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill, where the Remy Burger is served on fried dough. “I hate Jerry Remy’s burger,’’ he says. “I make no apologies. Fried dough with a burger is just disgusting to me.’’

So what’s his favorite burger of them all?

The one at Craigie on Main. “Burgers are supposed to be a food for the people,’’ Chudy says. “Everyone should be able to afford them. I have a hard time justifying spending that much. But the Craigie burger is worth it.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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