The most popular American meal is the hamburger, and the most popular hamburger is McDonald's. Having the least-common-denominator hockey puck as a baseline makes offering a better burger a simple proposition.
The standard burger experience breaks down into four categories: Meat, bun, toppings, fries. (I will brook no dispute on fries. Anyone who would argue that French fries are not an essential component of the burger experience is probably the same kind of person who would argue that ketchup is not an essential part of the French fry experience.)
Ambitious burger restaurants aim at elevating each of the four categories. Since Juicy Burger Bar is in Hamburg, the alleged birthplace of the burger, that mission taken an even more solemn air. My thinking going in was that after advertising better meat, better buns, better toppings and better fries, Juicy Burger Bar had better be good.
The restaurant opened in summer 2015, then expanded into larger digs at the corner of Buffalo and East Main streets after its popularity led to standing crowds of patient burger-seekers. The new spot is a long, spacious room with booths and tables on one side, and a bar on the other.
While an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter made hamburger of his foe on the widescreen televisions above the bar, I considered a lineup of burger options that are tough to beat. It was difficult to choose one, which is a compliment.
The Illadephia burger posits a patty of the restaurant's signature brisket, chuck, sirloin and bone marrow blend on a pretzel bun. It's topped with hot cherry peppers and cheese sauce ($12). Zippy peppers and unctuous cheese made an excellent foil for the rich meat main event. Like the other burgers, you can stack another patty on the pile for $3.50 more.
It wouldn't go to waste. This is better beef, seasoned well, with toppings that cooperate with meat for a bigger flavor extravaganza. If only it wasn't overcooked, coming out medium-well instead of medium rare, it would have approached perfection. Unfortunately, all of the meaty burgers we ordered at our meal showed up medium to medium-well instead of medium-rare.
Despite that, quality ingredients and canny topping choices meant they were still tasty.
The 1 Buffalo St. offers a bison burger topped with lettuce, cucumber, pickles, chips and Bison-style onion chip dip ($13), helping the slightly gamy meat shine. Yolks on You crowns a patty with sunny-side-up egg, thick-cut bacon, cheddar and Tabasco mayonnaise. Tried with a second patty ($16), it was a satisfying monster, taken down in a two-fisted fury that was worth the wash-up needed afterward.
Even more staggering was the Chuck Norris Roundhouse ($12), which also won a place in my menu-writing hall of fame: "black and blue burger to the FACE, red onion jam, blue cheese, bacon, America." Double up the patties ($15.50) and feast on the freedom.
Other interesting choices abound. The poutine burger is topped with fries, gravy and mozzarella cheese curds ($12). The Fun-guy brings sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions ($12).
Vegetarians can thrill to a falafel burger ($11) with a well-seasoned fried chickpea patty topped with credible tzatziki. I'd ask for it well done, because mine was a touch undercooked.
French fries are another aspect of the burger game that Juicy has nailed.
Chili cheese fries ($8) was an ample plate of crispy fries drowned in homey ground beef chili and the sort of cheese sauce you get on arena nachos, which fit with this application.
Vegan poutine ($7) came doused in smoked onion gravy, the best meatless gravy I've ever encountered. If the tofu cubes tasted as if they'd been smoked, as advertised, instead of flavorless, it would have been even better. Sweet potato fries, served with cinnamon butter, were an outstanding sweet-salty diversion.
Onion rings ($3) were an oily, undercooked misstep.
Service suffered from attention gaps, annoying but not enough to ruin our evening. A delicious malted chocolate milkshake ($5), lost in the shuffle of our large order, was delivered to the table after dessert, with apologies, and removed from the bill.
Speaking of dessert, ask what Butter Block Bakery has on tap. Colleen Stillwell's operation gave us a waffle sundae ($7), with the platonic ideal of an airy all-crust waffle topped with ice cream and a judicious drizzle of caramel sauce.
Its near-instantaneous destruction made me think of all my childhood protestations that just because I couldn't eat more dinner didn’t mean I lacked capacity for dessert. Which I eventually compressed into a claim of possessing a separate "ice cream stomach." That's where this sundae ended up, and I expect the cookies and milk ($5) and chocolate cake ($7) would have fit, too.
Juicy Burger Bar has successfully built a better burger and fries, as its crowded environs attest. If its staff pays more attention to the details it intends to deliver, it could end the debate over who deserves to define the real Hamburg.
Juicy Burger Bar - 7 plates (out of 10)
1 Buffalo St, Hamburg (648-3200)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: Fries and appetizers, $3-$11; burgers, $9.50 to $16.50
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free options: lots; gluten-free buns no extra charge.