One thing we have learned from the economic downturn, culinarily speaking, is that hamburgers are more popular than ever.
It makes sense when you think about it. But let's not — and instead dive into the meat of the matter: The ubiquitous burger is barging onto all sorts of menus (along with sliders, its triplet midget sisters), even spinning off into burger bars, lounges, and upscale establishments. To paraphrase Charles Kuralt: You can find your way across Dade County using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.
So that's what we did, beginning with three places that have earned sterling hamburger reputations: Five Guys, Clarke's, and Kingdom. Then we moved onto a trio that is attempting to achieve that status: 8-oz. Burger Bar, Dune Oceanfront Burger Lounge, and Bar Burgers at Bourbon Steak. We pitted each of the six against one another, mano a mano, beef a beef, bun a bun.
Bar Burgers at Bourbon Steak
Bar Burgers at Bourbon Steak: Fairmont Turnberry Isle, 19999 W. Country Club Dr., Aventura; 786-279-6600; michaelmina.net. Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Clarke's Miami Beach: 840 First St., Miami Beach; 305-538-9885; clarkesmiamibeach.com. Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dune Oceanfront Burger Lounge: Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, 455 Grand Bay Dr., Key Biscayne; 305-365-4500; ritzcarlton.com. Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to sunset. 8-oz. Burger Bar: 1080 Alton Rd., Miami Beach; 305-397-8246; 8ozburgerbar.com. Sunday through Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Five Guys Burgers and Fries: 3401 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-571-8346; fiveguys.com. Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Kingdom: 6708 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-757-007. Dinner Monday through Wednesday 4 to 10 p.m.; lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday noon to 10 p.m. or until the last customer leaves.
Criteria for judging:
1. Quality and taste of beef, type of bun, proportion of beef to bun, proximity to medium-rare, garnishes (0-50 points)
2. Quality and taste of French fries (0-10 points)
3. Ambiance, service, beer selection, and whatever intangibles come into play (0-10 points)
4. Value (0-30 points).
The esteemed panel of experts rendering verdicts included me plus whichever bumbling, burger-friendly acquaintance I brought along to each joint.
1. To keep things equal, we went with the eight-ounce Queen burger rather than the 12-ounce King burger. The meat is ground on premises, and the burger exudes a strong, fresh beef flavor. The bottom half of the patty was overcharred and well-done; the top half was very rare — an inadvertent occurrence, but actually not a bad combo. The bun is standard sesame; garnishes are a semi-ripe tomato slice, red onion slices, a tired lettuce leaf, and a few pickle chips. 41 pts.
2. Fresh, thin, well-seasoned and -spiced potatoes. 7 pts.
3. Real burger joint ambiance, no pretense, owned by a nice neighborhood couple. Service was a little slack. Only $5 for bottles of imported beer. 7 pts.
4.$11 (burger $7.75, fries $3.25). 26 pts.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
1. Two patties of "never frozen American beef" served well-done only, but juicy and distinctively seasoned — very tasty, if in a greasy, fast-food way. Sesame bun and loads of optional garnishes, from grilled mushrooms to jalapeños to barbecue sauce. 41 pts.
2. Fresh potatoes from Rigby, Idaho, blanched before getting fried in peanut oil. Diners get to season fries, which is a good idea — especially for those who don't like salt. Huge portion (and we're talking about the regular size, not the large). 9 pts.
3. Free peanuts a big plus. Fast-food ambiance not much to speak of, but it's clean. No beer. 5 pts.
4. $7.38 (burger $4.49, fries $2.89). 27 pts.
1. A very juicy eight-ounce hamburger on a soft sesame seed bun — so juicy, and so soft, that the bottom of the bun felt like the proverbial tissue left out in a rainstorm. Solution: heartier bun or smaller burger. Nice char-grilled flavor, but undercooked. Comes with thick slices of ripe tomato and red onion. 43 pts.
2. Thin, crisp, assertively salted fries. 5 pts.
3. Comfortable pub ambiance, friendly service, great beers on tap. 8 pts.
4. $9.95, which includes bacon, cheese, and fresh mushrooms on the burger (all optional), coleslaw and pickle spear on the side, and the fries. 27 pts.
Dune Oceanfront Burger Lounge
1. A prototype of the everyday, all-American, all-beef burger appeared gorgeously charred to an ideal medium-rare and plunked onto a grilled, baked-on-premises, shiny egg-washed sesame bun. An overly thin slice of ripe "heirloom" tomato, red onion, red leaf lettuce, and a teeny julienne of pickle sat on the side. Single-serving jars of Heinz ketchup, Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard are a considerate antiseptic touch, if environmentally wasteful. Ideal meat-to-bun ratio. 46 pts.
2. Pale, thin, frozen sticks — a $16 burger should not associate with such fries. 4 pts.
3. Plush outdoor lounge chairs and sofas with a wide expanse of the alluring azure ocean just a few feet away, plus 11 beers from 11 countries ($7 each). Nuff said. 10 pts.
4. Burger comes with fries (and optional cheese) for $16. 23 pts.
Bar Burgers at Bourbon Steak
1. Chef Michael Mina's burger is a wood-grilled blend of USDA Prime and American Kobe beef. The meat was alluringly charred, cooked to perfection, and absolutely delicious on a sturdy house-baked pain au lait bun — speared with a house-made dill pickle and Tuscan pepper. You can choose the house garniture of melted farmhouse cheddar, shredded lettuce, balsamic-glazed onions, and secret sauce (which tastes suspiciously like HoJo's old secret sauce), or select up to six toppings, which include shaved jalapeño, truffle aioli, and poached organic egg. 48 pts.
2. Signature duck-fat truffle fries come three ways (dusted with herbs, garlic salt, and smoked paprika) and with three dips (barbecue, sour cream/onion, spicy ketchup). No spuds arrived better dressed or chaperoned, but strip away the glitz and the potatoes really aren't special. 7 pts.
3. Patrons slip into plushly upholstered seats in a warm, mahogany, tearoom-like setting. Truffled popcorn is handed out to start — a nice treat. (An adult milkshake, performance-enhanced with Jim Beam and salty caramel drizzled down the interior of the glass, was luscious and packed a punch — not bad for $11. My date, an 8-year-old girl, tried a regular milkshake that was so tasty she wouldn't share, but $11 for a nonalcoholic version is a bit much; this didn't count in the competition, but it should be noted.) Waitstaff was very nice and quite efficient. Fine beer selection. 9 pts.
4. $19 (burger $14, fries $5). 22 pts.
8-oz. Burger Bar
1. Hormone-free sirloin, tri-top, short rib and chuck are ground on site and "cured in our Himalayan salt-tiled locker." Pretty words do not a great burger make, but this one really does exude a buoyant beef taste and is char-grilled to crisp glory. It's served on a delicious brioche bun, and garnishes include paper-thin marinated onions, shredded lettuce, and a ripe tomato slice. 48 pts.
2. Kennebec French fries are thin, fresh, and heartily seasoned. 7 pts.
3. There's a cool, casual ambiance, with a full-service bar, a bounty of boutique beers, good music on the speakers, a hip South Beach crowd, and a pool table. Plentiful and creative à la carte cheeses and other additions are available. Service is personable, although during busy times, you'll have to wait. 10 pts.
4. $14 (burger $10, fries $4). 24 pts.
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Best burger: Tie between Bar Burgers at Bourbon Steak and 8-oz. Burger Bar.
Best burger for the buck and overall winner: 8-oz. Burger Bar