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.