5 things we've learned while searching for the best burger in NJ
Here are our picks for the 15 best burgers in Bergen County. NorthJersey.com
When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that if I ate too much of one food, I'd turn into that food. If that were true, I'd be a hamburger right now.
If we’ve never met, my name is Rebecca King – food and dining reporter for NorthJersey.com and The Record. Throughout May, I've been eating my way through New Jersey on the hunt for the state's best burger.
I've narrowed down my list to the top two to three burger joints in each county based on reader suggestions, online research and speaking with colleagues, foodies and chefs across the state.
So far, I’ve eaten burgers in Bergen, Essex, Somerset and Union counties and will be visiting the joints in the other 16 counties soon. I have assigned a point value to each burger based on the quality of the patty, bun and toppings (you can follow along in real-time on the North Jersey Eats Instagram and with the hashtag #BestBurgerNJ).
My search continues through June, but before I name the top burger, here are five things I've learned by eating way too many burgers in the Garden State.
1. Medium is rare
Of the three main pillars of burger preparation – rare (bloody and red), medium (pink) and well (brown throughout) – I've decided to make medium my order of choice, a Goldilocks decision in the middle of the two extremes. But nearly every burger I’ve received has been cooked well. New Jersey burger restaurants, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.
Some burger purists scoff at those who order a well-done burger, claiming it turns lush, juicy beef into a hockey puck. I won’t go that far – I’ve tried many tasty well-done burgers so far, served to me in spite of the fact that I asked for medium.
But, one spot of note that did cook my burger to my specifications was the Rocky Hill Inn. Its Fried Green Tomato burger (smothered in tangy, delightful goat cheese) was perfectly pink on the inside.
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2. Buns matter
I’m a bit of a bun fanatic. For many, the bun is simply the forgettable bread they grip to transport patty to mouth. But I think a well-made bun can add flavor and make the eating experience much more enjoyable by holding the patty and toppings together. Conversely, a bun that’s too thin can make burger eating a sloppy mess. A bun that’s too thick can overpower the beef. It’s a delicate balance.
One burger bun I’ve had that seemed to defy all logic was the one at Stuffed Grass-Fed Burgers in Montclair. The bun was made at Nicolo’s Bakery in Montclair. It was toasted, pillow-y yet firm. While eating the BBQ Pulled Brisket Burger, I thought, “This bun should be mush in my hand right now.” It has to withstand a flood of burger juice. It managed to, without a hitch.
Another bun that gets props from me was at Margate Dairy Bar & Burger in Margate. It’s signature MDB Burger was cradled in a soft potato bun that was branded with the name of the restaurant. I’ve gotta give it up for style.
3. A good burger is a good burger, no matter how you dress it
I went back and forth on whether I wanted to judge every burger in its purest form – just a classic patty on a bun. In the end, I decided against that method, since often a burger joint’s creativity really shines in its toppings.
I stopped at Urban Burger in Cranford, which is perhaps best known for its Wicked Bleu Burger, piled with four massive onion rings. Since I’m not one for crazy tall burgers, I opted for the Hefer Smothered in Onions, topped with potato sticks, onion dip, grilled onions and Swiss cheese. At Urban Burger, the toppings are the star.
But a few miles north in Montclair, Tierney’s Tavern has a burger that’s as bare-bones as it gets. I ordered what was simply listed as “cheeseburger” on the menu (no descriptors), and got a super juicy burger smothered with a slab of melted yellow cheese. That’s it – and locals go crazy for it.
Both types of burger have their virtues, and ultimately, if the beef is bad, the burger is bad. End of story.
4. You can find your vibe
What a restaurant looks like has nothing to do with how its burger tastes, but it can make a person more inclined to eat there. In my search for the best burger in New Jersey, I've been to restaurants that span the decor spectrum.
Tierney’s in Montclair, for example, is the type of local bar made for hunkering in — with plenty of dark wood and blackened out windows. Urban Burger in Cranford is a hipster paradise; cassette tapes and old movie posters are plastered to the walls, old-school Kanye West and Lauryn Hill plays from the speakers, and a neon red sign that says “vibes and burgers” glows from exposed brick. Steve’s Burgers in Garfield is retro and convivial. Loaded Burger in Garfield, with its open grill and random, mismatched furnishings, looks more like a friendly mess hall than a restaurant.
Each has its own charm suited to different customers.
5. Sauce never goes out of style
Many restaurants have their own version of a “secret” mayonnaise-based sauce, even fast food spots like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-a. This tangy, creamy sauce is common for a reason – it’s dang good.
I’ve encountered three such sauces so far: the MDB Sauce from Margate Dairy Bar & Burger; the “secret” sauce from Steve’s Burgers; and the creamy sauce, served in tall, communal squeeze bottles at Loaded Burger. These special sauces are most likely made up of some kind of mayonnaise, mustard and vinegar, and add an extra zing to the burger.
And while we’re on the topic of sauce, don’t miss Loaded Burger’s tangy, house-made barbecue sauce, also served in a shared squeeze bottle. Pour generously – you won’t regret it.
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