10 burgers, two guys, one day: the quest to find the best burger in Pittsburgh
Recently, Brad Stephenson and Patrick Jordan went on what they dubbed the Pittsburgh Burger Tour 2011, where they ate ten burgers from ten different establishments in a single (and very long) day. By the end of the journey, they were lethargic, meat-sweaty, and in pain.
But they did it all for you, Pittsburgh.
Following each entry below, we’ve included some of Brad’s tweets from the tour along wtih Patrick’s mustache meter rating.
115 W Braddock Ave
Hidy’s, the former Dante Club that’s tucked beneath the Rankin Bridge in Braddock, has been hosting thirsty souls for decades. Though it was only 10:40 a.m. when we arrived, and the sign on the door stated clearly that the place didn’t open until 11 a.m., we pulled the handle anyway.
“Can’t yinz read?” asked a loud, gruff voice from up the street. It was Hidy, the bar’s owner and namesake, and this introduction really summed up the establishment. It’s a no-nonsense place known for cheap beer and good burgers.
We ordered a cheeseburger with basic toppings, and the result was surprisingly delicious for a bar that has a sign warning people not to sell crack. The cheapest of the day by far, the Hidy burger was as straightforward as its creator, but the simplicity contributed to its appeal.
“This is a $4 burger, not a $12 burger,” said Hidy. No matter the price, though, a good burger’s a good burger.
@bstephenson, 11:27 AM: “Hidy's - Under the Rankin Bridge - Best $4 burger in Pittsburgh. No pretense and no crack allowed.”
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Sam Peckinpah - The right element of danger, no pretense, great sense of history, smoke, dim lighting, best value and Hidy might lose it and kick your a$%.”
Fat Head’s Saloon
1805 E Carson St
Fat Head’s, which has been in business on Pittsburgh’s South Side for more than 19 years, offered quite a contrast with its menu of gluttonous sandwiches to the simple Hidy burger. Our waitress recommended the Quadruple Bypass, a heaping burger topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, beef brisket, fried egg and barbecue sauce. It comes by its name honestly.
It’s difficult to judge this burger against the others we tasted on our tour, because there was just so much piled on. Still, crazy portions of good bar food, along with a great atmosphere, have made Fat Head’s a Pittsburgh institution.
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Ron Jeremy - It was greasy and kind of made you feel dirty and like you don’t want to tell any one after… but sometimes you need that.”
413 South Craig Street
I work just a block from Union Grill and have been there on many occasions, but I had never eaten a burger prior to our tour. This was due in large part to the fact that I’d never heard many positive reviews.
Union Grill, which sits in an ideal location near both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, recently updated its burger, though, and Patrick and I were pleasantly surprised by one of the best burgers of the day.
We ordered a basic burger with artisanal cheddar cheese and basic toppings. The patty, a blend of three cuts of steak, was the thickest and juiciest of the day. Add some of Union Grill’s incredible waffle fries, and you have a tremendous meal.
@bstephenson, 12:47 PM: “F#%* turkey. Red meat! RT @ODonnellWithAnO: Union Grill’s turkey burger is fantastic, too.”
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Mike Ditka - Straightforward, no BS. Just a high quality, thick and juicy burger.”
5997 Penn Circle South
BRGR, pronounced bee-arr-gee-arr and located in East Liberty, was the first real gourmet entry of the day. Opened in 2010, BRGR is a sister to the upscale Spoon, and the burgers certainly look fancy.
Patrick and I ordered the Button Buster, an Angus selection topped with braised beef short ribs, white cheddar cheese, béarnaise aioli and crispy onions. The flavors were well-balanced, and this was clearly a meal crafted by a chef.
BRGR also offers delicious milkshakes that can be laced with liquor if you’re feeling adventurous.
After this fourth stop, we began to feel the effects of overeating. With six stops left on our tour, every rich, succulent bite was starting to become a bit more arduous.
@bstephenson, 1:21 PM: “Just on the Tunch and Wolf show, ESPN 970 talking about the Pgh Burger Tour 2011 for @PopCityMedia.”
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Salvadore Dali - Attempting to make a burger art even if it looks like it may be melting?”
932 Freeport Road
Burgatory, the catalyst for this quest, is located in Aspinwall’s Waterworks Mall and recently opened a stand in the CONSOL Energy Center. The unique thing about Burgatory is its custom creations menu, from which customers can select from a variety of meats, buns, seasonings, sauces, cheeses and toppings.
Because I consider myself a regular at Burgatory, it was decided that I should create a custom burger for this stop of our tour. I selected a hormone free beef patty, a brioche bun, angel dust rub, house sauce, grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms. Alas, mine was a failure of fromage, as I chose gorgonzola when I meant to add gouda.
“The cheese is overpowering,” said Patrick, and I hung my head in shame.
This is one of the risks Burgatory takes by allowing customers to create their own burgers -- not everyone understands flavor combinations. Pick the wrong cheese, for instance, and you end up overwhelmed by gorgonzola. Cheese issues aside, Burgatory offers a great atmosphere, an extremely friendly staff and delectable burgers. Like BRGR, Burgatory also offers freshly spun milkshakes of the alcoholic and virgin varieties.
@bstephenson, 2:10 PM: “Headed to Eleven, presumably to vomit at the nicest place in town.”
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Anthony Edwards in Top Gun - This is mostly for how much Brad loves this place. Goose was a nice guy that you go in pullin’ for, but his pilot gets him killed.”
1150 Smallman Street
Let’s be clear: It is unfair for any other hamburger in Pittsburgh to be judged against the otherworldly entry served at Eleven in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Topped with braised veal, bacon, onions, and a choice of gourmet cheese, the Eleven burger is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever eaten.
True, this $16 burger was the most expensive of the day, but you definitely get your money’s worth with every bite. As difficult as it is to resist the restaurant’s other menu items, do yourself a favor and try this burger.
@bstephenson, 3:40 PM: “Eleven's amazing burger. Braised veal, house-made bacon, white cheddar, crispy onions. Wow. http://campl.us/fDiO
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Burt Reynolds (highest respect) - Perfect mix of intelligence, elegance and taste with enough strength to prove your masculinity and put hair on your chest.”
Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar
5 Market Square
Market Square entry Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar, conceived by its namesake Zach Winghart, is unlike any of the other stops on our tour. The place has a hip, indie feel, and the staff is incredibly welcoming. From the atmosphere and vibe, one might guess that this restaurant has been serving up burgers and fries for ages, even though it’s been open for less than a year.
Patrick and I had the Tallulah Hula burger, topped with pineapple, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions. It was served plateless and half-wrapped in paper, which to some might be charming. All I could think, though, was, “When was the bar my burger just slid across last cleaned?”
I can see the appeal of Winghart’s, and there is definitely a good selection of whiskey, but the burger is like a higher quality version of a snack bar offering. It doesn’t fall into the same class as many of the other burgers we sampled on our tour.
@bstephenson, 4:12 PM: “I no longer look forward to the arrival of burger to our table.”
Patrick’s comments: “Frank Zappa - Looks kind of messy and is an acquired taste but its followers are die-hard.”
Meat & Potatoes
649 Penn Ave
At the eighth stop of our tour, the recently opened Meat & Potatoes in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, our bellies were getting quite full, and we were really hoping for a simple, straightforward burger with limited toppings. Our server had other plans for us, though, and recommended the pub burger, topped with pork belly pastrami, a fried egg and horseradish cheddar.
After you’ve eaten seven burgers in a row, the Meat & Potatoes pub burger is quite a rich and hearty challenge to consume. While this burger was very good, judged against some of the others on our tour, it wasn’t a standout.
Still, Meat & Potatoes is a welcome addition to the Cultural District, offering a varied menu and an elegant yet relaxed experience.
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Sam Elliott - The place is higher class than the name would denote and the burger lives up the phrase ‘beef… it’s what’s for dinner.’”
1227 Monterey Street
Located in the historic Mexican War Streets on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Monterey Pub offers an excellent selection of Irish fare. By the time we arrived on the North Side, both Patrick and I were ready to curl up in the fetal position and weep. Still, we vowed to push on.
Before we stepped into Monterey Pub, Patrick warned me that the restaurant’s burger was large, and I was filled with dread. But there was something about the warm and inviting interior of the place that calmed my soul. A couple sips of Guiness, and we were both ready for burger number nine, the Monterey Burger. This was a simple, straightforward, delicious burger with monterey jack cheese and caramelized onions.
I chatted with some patrons from Ohio who were staying in the War Streets on their way through Pittsburgh who said the food at Monterey Pub was some of the best they’d ever had. They were right -- it’s no gourmet burger, but it’s very, very good.
@bstephenson, 6:18 PM: “F#%* unicorn. Red meat! RT @ODonnellWithAnO: You need to find some place that sells unicorn burgers.”
Patrick’s mustache rating: “Cliff Clavin - I was going for a cheers kind of neighborhood bar thing here… this place is much better than this rating might seem, but Cliff had substance and Norm has no ‘stache.”
4601 Liberty Avenue
It’s really only fitting that Pittsburgh Burger Tour 2011 ended with the granddaddy of all local burger joints -- Tessaro’s in Bloomfield. Ask people in Pittsburgh where you can get the best burger in town, and most will say, “Tessaro’s.”
Aside from Eleven’s entry, which was more like a Greek God sitting on Olympus than a mere mortal of a burger, Tessaro’s was the clear winner of the day. Patrick and I ordered the a cheddar cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The Tessaro’s burger, which you can watch being cooked through a window in the back of the restaurant, had a distinctive, flame-grilled flavor. The bun, phenomenal; the meat, crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
It is truly a testament to this Pittsburgh institution, that after eating ten burgers, I could have eaten another one.
@bstephenson, 7:33 PM: “There’s a reason everyone says Tessaro’s has the best burger in the world. This has been fun. Going to curl up and die now.”
Patrick’s mustache ranking: “Tom Selleck - Always consistent. You can’t name a mustache without comparing it to the Selleck, and you can’t name a burger without comparing it to Tessaro’s. ”
So that’s it, Pittsburgh. We ate a crazy amount of red meat to find the best burger in the city. It was fun, but we strongly advise against duplicating our journey. All the burgers we ate are worthy of your time and taste buds, but you may want to consider spacing out your own visits a bit. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
It’s clear from our divergent lists that Patrick and I have our own opinions of the best burger in Pittsburgh (Eleven and Tessaro’s notwithstanding), but we agree that Pittsburgh has some of the best burgers in the world. This city is a burger lover’s heaven.
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Brad Stephenson is a non-native Pittsburgher who thinks this city has no equal. He is a writer, actor and producer who can be found on Twitter at @bstephenson. Patrick Jordan is a Pittsburgh enthusiast who works as an actor and is the artistic director of barebones productions.
Captions: Union Grill; Meat 'n' Potatoes; Burgatory; Tessarros; Eleven; Brad and Patrick; BRGR.
Photographs courtesy Brad and Patrick