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Kings of the grill

The glorious hamburger has spun many copies. Even made of falafel or tuna, tasty burgers rule.

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 10, 2011

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We take it for granted, but the hamburger may be America’s supreme culinary achievement. It’s certainly the first thing that friends visiting from Europe want to eat. That’s not to say that Europeans can’t be snobbish about our handheld edible icon. We’re still smarting from a 1985 exhibition on cultural identity at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The curators chose the hamburger to epitomize the United States. “Mass-produced, cheap, efficient, but essentially juvenile,’’ they noted. We prefer the term “casual.’’ Moreover, the hamburger has grown up a lot in the last 26 years, becoming the US equivalent of a steak-frites on some of the classiest menus. The format of grilled patty on a bun has proven so versatile that chefs push the envelope with such variants as tuna and even falafel. We won’t pick a food fight by claiming these 10 spots are the best in New England, but each one makes a burger well worth the trip.

STANLEY’S FAMOUS HAMBURGERS, Central Falls, R.I. Polish immigrant Stanley F. Kryla opened his hamburger joint in 1932. The Stanleyburger, as he called it, remains a modest patty of freshly ground beef served on a soft bun with grilled onions and tangy sweet pickles. It can be gussied up with tomato, mushroom, bacon, cheese, or pepper, but the original remains a standard. Grab a seat at the counter and watch the grill cook at work. 535 Dexter St., 401-726-9689, www.stanleyshamburgers.com, $1.99-$5.49

SEAFOOD CENTER OF MAINE, in Arundel This modest Route 1 fry shack is locally famous for its clam cakes made from a “top-secret recipe.’’ We would guess that the recipe includes a lot of chopped sea clams, some cracker meal, and something to make them stick together. The patty is lightly breaded and deep-fried. The restaurant’s clam cake burger consists simply of slipping said clam cake onto a toasted soft bun and serving it with good cole slaw. Order at the counter that looks into the open kitchen and have a seat at one of the tables. The clam pieces can be a little tough, but this is a rare fish burger you can really bite into. 1181 Portland Road, 207-985-7391, www.seafoodcenterofmaine.com, $2.70

JOEY GARLIC’S PIZZERIA, Farmington, Conn. We were surprised when Connecticut magazine selected a pizzeria as serving some of the state’s best burgers. We have yet to try their pizza, but we can attest that Joey Garlic’s does serve a mean burger. The basic version consists of a half pound of freshly ground USDA Choice chuck served on a buttered and toasted soft bun. A stack of lettuce, tomato, and pickle chips sits on one side, a mound of fries on the other. The meat is so fresh (and noticeably salted) that the burger is intensely beefy. Diners who like it sloppy can add free toppings that range from fried mushrooms, onions, or peppers to a fried egg, and drown the patty in Gorgonzola dressing or what the restaurant calls “chipotle bacon slather sauce.’’ 372 Scott Swamp Road, 860-678-7231, www.joeygarlics.com, $8.49-$8.99

FARMERS DINER, Quechee, Vt. New owners took over this roadside diner parked next to the antiques mall at Quechee Gorge Village a few weeks ago, but they remain committed to the principles that made it a locavore shrine from the outset: simple dishes based as much as possible on ingredients produced nearby. That includes the Farmers Diner burger of 8 ounces of ground sirloin (from a local herd) grilled on an open flame and served on a freshly baked, oversized bulky roll, and accompanied by red onion, tomato, lettuce, and a choice of fries or garden greens. Add Vermont cheddar and-or bacon for a reasonable dollar per topping. Route 4, 802-295-4600, www.farmersdiner.com, $7.95-$9.95

MR. BARTLEY’S GOURMET BURGERS, Cambridge A stalwart of Harvard Square since 1960, Bartley’s is the quintessential college town burger joint. They keep up to date with cute names for the burgers that change with the election returns and pop-culture trends. Thus the current Scott Brown (bacon, American cheese, grilled onions, jalapenos, and fries) and Sarah Palin (grilled onions, cheese sauce, and fries). All the burgers are based on well-salted, inch-thick 7-ounce patties of beef ground fresh daily. The favorite is the Jersey Shore (bacon, cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms, onion rings). Runner-up is the John Kerry (Swiss cheese, mushrooms, lettuce and tomato, potato salad). 1246 Massachusetts Ave., 617-354-6559, www.mrbartley.com, no credit cards, $9.49-$13.10

ROCKY’S FAMOUS BURGERS, Newmarket, N.H. When we stopped in at Rocky’s, a local woman had brought a couple of Thai friends to taste “a real American burger.’’ As they stood at the counter, reading the overhead menu, they were almost paralyzed by all the choices. The 8-ounce burgers can be Black Angus beef, bison, chicken breast, or a house-made veggie patty based on black beans. Then there are all the cheeses, vegetables, and other toppings. . . . They finally (and wisely) chose a beef version of The Rocky, which includes lettuce, tomato, onions, and American cheese. According to manager Caitlin Kalofsky, the second most popular choice is the Bat Man, which features lettuce, tomato, bacon, cheddar cheese, onion rings (on the burger), and barbecue sauce. 171 Main St., 603-292-3393, www.rockysfamousburgers.com, $5.99-$10.24

BREW CITY GRILL & BREW HOUSE, Worcester Somehow it doesn’t seem surprising that a bar with 155 beers - 40 of them on tap - would also have an amazingly complex choice of burgers. You can select among American Kobe, Angus, or Piemontese beef, or farm-raised buffalo. The menu suggests that there are 38 trillion variations, once you factor in the toppings, but we advise sticking to the signature burgers. There really is something delightfully juvenile about the Crunch Time, which tops an Angus burger with beer-based barbecue sauce, crisp ridged potato chips, and pepperjack cheese. It’s sloppy and fun. The Piemonte, on the other hand, is a model of sophistication with its milder and sweeter beef, fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and a slather of basil pesto on a ciabatta roll. 104 Shrewsbury St., 508-752-3862, www.brew-city.com, $9.49-$19.99

CHRISTIE’S, Newport, R.I. Christie’s offers a popular menu of small plates that it describes as “global tapas.’’ But amid the pad Thai, lobster quesadilla, and soba noodles with tofu, the kitchen also makes an all-American hamburger as well as a vegetarian burger. The beef burger is topped with melted provolone cheese and a tangy tomato jam. It is a simple marvel. The surprisingly good vegetarian burger features a large fried patty of falafel served with a side of micro-greens and a lemon-cilantro vinaigrette. It’s tasty enough that a carnivore could love it. 351 Thames St., 401-847-5400, www.41north.com, hamburger $12, falafel burger $10

BLUE SPOON, Portland, Maine Far from the tourist-haunted Old Port, this little neighborhood bar and restaurant on artsy Munjoy Hill is one of those secrets that Portland gourmands mostly keep to themselves. The burger is one of the leanest yet tastiest pieces of beef most of us will ever encounter. The beef is free-range, grass-fed Scottish Highland supplied by A Wee Bit Farm (operated by a retired South Boston police officer) in Orland, Maine. The kitchen keeps a pile of caramelized grilled onions and mushrooms working on the edge of the grill and the cook mixes some of the sweet and tangy blend right into the patty. The burger is grilled to a nice external char and served on a soft but not spongy bun accompanied by a side of warm potato salad tossed in an herb-laden vinaigrette. It’s aptly called the Bistro Burger. 89 Congress St., 207-773-1116, $10

LOCAL 149, South Boston The epitome of the New Southie, this place has the requisite multiple televisions, local ales on tap (including Haverhill Brewery’s Leatherlips IPA), and a sophisticated menu. Chef Leah Dubois tops her tuna burger with eggplant bacon, lemon-garlic aioli, and wasabi pickle slices, and places fried plaintain slices and mixed veggie pickles on the plate. All that crunch and pucker make a perfect counterpoint to the half-pound patty of sashimi-grade tuna. Dubois chops three-quarters of the fish and grinds the rest to get a mix that hangs together on the grill. She also adds fresh ginger, fresh garlic, and some chile-based togarashi spice mix. The blend would make a killer tuna tartare - in fact, the kitchen only sears the burger on the outside, leaving it cool in the middle. 149 P St., 617-269-0900, www.local149.com, $15

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net. Read their food and travel blog at HungryTravelers.com.