5 burgers worthy of a 21-bun salute

In taste test of Lexington hamburgers, five stood out for juicy, meaty, irresistible goodness

Contributing Restaurant CriticJuly 22, 2010 

  • LEXINGTON'S GREAT BURGERS

    Here are the restaurants, in alphabetical order, visited for the accompanying article, details about each and tasting notes and prices on the burgers we tried.

    Bunk's Gourmet Burgers. 333 S. Limestone. (859) 243-9934. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed., Fri.; 11-2:30 a.m. Thu., Sat.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun. www.bunksburgers.com. Price: $5.59-$6.99. Bunk's trumps others with its toppings — from blue cheese and horseradish to jalapeños with spicy Sriracha sauce.

    Campus Pub. 393 Waller Ave. (859) 231-0957. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m. daily. Price: $7.25-$7.95. Big burgers are a bargain at this large, comfy college hangout.

    Five Guys Burgers and Fries. 2467 Nicholasville Rd. (859) 260-1471. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. www.fiveguys.com. Price: $3.49-$4.02 for singles, $4.56-$5.29 for doubles. Famed for "never frozen" beef patties and many free toppings at affordable prices. Lexington has joined the affordable chain's legions of fans.

    Jonathan at Gratz Park. 120 W. Second St. (859) 252-4949. Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. daily. Brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun. Burgers served at lunch only. www.jagp.info. Price: $12. Everything shouts best of the Bluegrass, from the local beef to the melted cheese topping using bourbon beer.

    Lynagh's Irish Pub and Grill. 384 Woodland Ave. (859) 255-1292. Hours: 11-2:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-2:30 a.m. Sun. http://lynaghsirishpub.com. Price: $6.95-$8.95. Lynagh's tumbledown appearance belies the fact that the O'Round, its signature burger, has refined the art of the sandwich. Seasonal tomatoes leave no doubt that it's summer.

    Natasha's Bistro and Bar. 112 Esplanade. (859) 259-2754. Hours: Lunch: Buffet 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri., sandwiches 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 5:30-11 p.m. Fri., Sat. www.beetnik.com. Price: $8.75 at lunch, $12 at dinner. The juicy "starburgers" and "spaceburgers" are made with Kentucky range-fed buffalo meat at this hip downtown setting.

    Portfino. 249 E. Main St. (859) 253-9300. Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon-Fri. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 5-11 p.m. Fri., Sat.; 5-10 p.m. Sun. Burgers served at lunch only. www.portofinolexington.com. Price: $11. From perfect tomato to buttery bun to balsamic-grilled onion to scrumptious ground sirloin, this high-end Italian establishment leads the pack with an American classic.

    Ramsey's Diner — High Street. 496 E. High St. (859) 259-2708. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., Sun. www.ramseysdiners.com. Price: $8.95. Intergenerational restaurant and watering hole offers burgers with luscious sautéed mushrooms and an onion bun.

    Sawyer's. 325 W. Main St. (859) 281-6022. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri., Sat. Price: $6.19. Sawyer's is among the best downtown spots for a quick bite before a sporting event at Rupp Arena, and the burgers here are interactive: They arrive unadorned; you dress them at the condiment bar.

    Smashburger. 535 S. Upper St. (859) 280-2202. Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. www.smashburger.com. Price: $4.99-$6.99. This chain customized its menu to Central Kentucky: The "Bluegrass Smashburger" has Wild Turkey bourbon barbecue sauce.

    Stella's Kentucky Deli. 143 Jefferson St. (859) 255-3354. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon., Tue.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. http://stellaskentuckydeli.com. Price: $5.95-$7.95. Every fresh and delicious bite showcases Kentucky's agricultural bounty. Al's Bar, Stella's more northern alter ego, uses the same beef for its burgers.

    Tulip Bistro and Bar. 355 Romany Rd. (859) 367-6687. Hours: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu.; 4:30-10:30 p.m. Fri., Sat. Price: $11. Prosciutto, basil aioli and gouda cheese give this burger lots of personality.

    Wines on Vine. 400 Old Vine St. (859) 243-0017. Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 5-10 p.m. Thu.-Sat. www.winesonvine.net. Price: $8.50. In addition to great burgers with top-quality condiments, the perfect wine pairing is easy to accomplish here.

The hamburger is one of America's most versatile dishes.

Traditionally the centerpiece of summer back-yard dinners or the theme of casual dining spots, it adapts equally well to gourmet restaurants and fast-food chains (which seem to be popping up all over the place these days).

Also increasingly, grass-fed or -finished beef raised on small nearby farms is being used, widening the circle of burger mavens to include the socially responsible eater.

Such abundance naturally leads to a seemingly infinite diversity of opinions about The Great Burger Experience, yet there are a few qualities that most people agree on.

A burger can be well-done but must not be dry. It should have a crisp crust protecting a juicy interior. Seasonings need be little more than salt and pepper. And a burger should be a willing and able base for a spectrum of flavorful breads, fresh garnishes and delicious condiments.

I kept these criteria in mind while sleuthing around for Lexington's finest examples of the great hamburger.

Anonymously, I visited 13 restaurants where "gourmet" burgers are served. They are mostly small local businesses but include a few well-regarded franchises; they range from funky to upscale, with meat both mass-produced and hand-crafted, from unadorned to gussied-up.

Repeated back-to-back tastings of Lexington's best burgers were at times overwhelming, but rather than deadening the palate, that experience had the opposite effect: Comparison gets easier. Distinctions between "juicy" and "greasy" become clear. Sensitivity to quality sharpens.

All the burgers I tasted had something to offer — come on, how bad can a burger be? — but the tipping point for the ultimate became the imagination and care that brought everything together, including garnishes, condiments and bread.

In the end, the deal-breaker between good and excellent was: Which burgers were hardest to put down?

My five irresistibles had several similarities: a grilled bun (often with butter), outstanding ingredients, attention to detail and perfectly delicious meat.

Here they are, in no particular order. For details about each establishment, see the sidebar at right.

Jonathan at Gratz Park: The juicy delight at upscale Jonathan features local meat from Walnut Hall Grass Fed Beef Co., making the flavor richer and deeper. The burger itself was grilled to perfection. There is an insane creativity in the toppings, too, especially the rich, melted bourbon barrel ale beer cheese that played off the paper-thin red onion slices. And the bun was bread, not air.

Stella's Kentucky Deli: Funkier but equally tempting — and slammed at the lunchtime hour, so get there early — is Stella's Kentucky Deli. Its wonderful hamburgers also are sourced locally. I am partial to the Revro, which replaces red tomato with a slice of cornmeal-dusted, grilled green tomato and adds two small strips of tender, greaseless bacon.

Wines on Vine: Wine shop and bistro Wines on Vine excels in its simplicity with a sesame bun, good lettuce and tomato, and a juicy, judiciously salted half-pound chuck burger with a perfect exterior char and a tender interior. There is nothing fancy about this version, and that is its own pleasure.

Lynagh's Irish Pub and Grill: The O'Round at Lynagh's deserves its reputation as one of Lexington's best hamburgers. It was surprising to find fantastic tomatoes and knowledgeable service in this setting, not to mention sterling execution of a grilled sirloin burger. The provolone on top melded into the beef, making a seamless connection between the two.

Portofino: Finally, there was Portofino, where, given its Italian theme, I did not expect a great American classic ... but there you go. This was a perfect hamburger, with every detail attended to. The bun had a golden, buttery, toasty surface, the slice of balsamic-grilled onion was smoky and sweet, the tomato slice was bright red and garden-ripe, and the patty of ground sirloin was flawless in flavor and texture.

Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.

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