Posted by Matt Choi '14
Here in Saratoga, we are blessed with a food scene that exceeds-in both quality and quantity--what you would expect from a town of similar size. In my time here, I have been lucky enough to eat at several Saratoga standbys and witness the recent boom of bars and pubs downtown. This year seems to be one of particular transformation. Following the success of Druthers, and The Local before it, Saratoga has welcomed Henry Street Tap Room and The Merry Monk (as well as a renovated Peabody's) to its ranks of beer-centric eateries. Proper reviews of these places are to come, but I want to talk for a second about the one thing they all have on their menus: burgers.
Burgers are inherently subjective things. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a good burger is often in the taste of ones own taste buds.
The criteria I focused on include the quality of the patty meat, the texture of the outside char and the consistency of the medium-rare insides. Of course, I paid attention to the bun too, but cared less about the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce and bland tomato slices which are an unfortunate staple, even at more expensive places. Lastly, although prices are relatively similar, I took cost into account because we're students after all.
Druthers: Druther's Burger $13. The standard Druther's burger has some rather untraditional toppings. Pickled green tomatoes, pickled shallots and Druther's aioli come standard. I've had enough bad burgers with unusual toppings to know that no amount of truffle oil or fried baby shallots can make up for a subpar patty, but I was pleasantly surprised by Druther's offering. The aioli added a nice peppery bite, and the pickles a pleasant sour note. The patty was nice and rare on the inside, fading to pink and then brown towards the outside. The bun was good as well, and sort of reminded me of the dense squishy buns that come with classic Nathan's hot dogs. Wash this one down with a house made I.P.A, $3 a pint on Tuesdays.
Max London's: Grilled Long Lesson Farms Grass Fed Angus Burger $14. I have had more good meals at Max London's then at any other restaurant in Saratoga, which is why my most recent burger experience there was all the more painful. Maybe it was because it was during Chowder Fest and chef Derrick Adams was outside the kitchen passing out cups of his pulled pork chowder to the masses, but my most recent burger was off.
Let's start with the good. This burger had the best bun of any on this list: buttery brioche, toasted to a deep brown that prevented the meat and cheese from making it a soggy mess. The patty was fine, a little lean for my taste, but cooked to nice pink medium-rare and incredibly moist. Unfortunately, that excellent bun could have fit another half a patty in-between it. The poor bread to patty ratio led to one of the ultimate burger faux pas, a first bite in which you get bread and no meat. I've had cheeseburgers here before and the cheese has been perfectly fine, but for whatever reason today it tasted like a Kraft Single, and not even the normal kind. It tasted to me vaguely like Kraft's approximation of mozzarella. Some people say a slice of Kraft cheese is the only true cheese for a good burger. I am not one of these people. The melted Kraft contributed a plastic, almost fishy taste to the top of the burger.
It almost sounds like I'm making this up. A Kraft Single? In Max London's! But I assure you this was the case, or at least tasted like it. If these criticisms sound nit-picky to you, it just shows that when you are constantly in the "best restaurant in Saratoga" conversation you are held to a different standard. This is still a burger worth having, just specify your cheese, and maybe don't go during Chowder Fest.
Merry Monk: Classic ? Pound Burger $12. My dining companion for my night at the Merry Monk is the type of person who likes to cut their burger in half. I never do this (you lose too much juice and heat), but on seeing the inside of theirs I was tempted to. A beautiful pink center changed suddenly to a light brown before turning into a blackened char.
This is the kind of burger that can only be made when you have a grill that is so hot it can quickly cook the outside before heat penetrates the inside, leaving the center relatively rare. The Merry Monk must have a grill that runs on volcano stones because this thing was cooked perfectly. Biting into the burger revealed a taste that matched its look. The patty was lean enough that it kept its firmness and didn't fall apart, with just enough fat to stay juicy. Of course, that perfect medium-rare also gave it a wonderful texture. I also enjoyed the toasted brioche bun. I should mention that this thing is huge. In my memory it is a good three inches thick, but maybe that was the Belgian beer talking (don't skip on that). Not even the most expensive Burger on this list, but a step above the rest.
The Local: Local Burger $9: The Local really caters to people who like to dress up their burgers. They have an exhaustive list of toppings, including obscure things like hummus and black olives. If you like lots of traditional toppings, and some not so traditional toppings, then go for it. If not, don't let that distract you from a very good and well-priced burger. The meat is local and suitably beefy. The patty is about eight ounces and they usually do a good job cooking it. One of my companions said hers was a little off, but mine had a good medium-rare center. The bun is unremarkable but serviceable. This is a great bang-for-your-buck meal, but not necessarily a destination food. I'm usually more inclined to get fish and chips here, but if you find yourself craving a burger at The Local fear not. Bonus points for great sweet potato fries as well.
Henry Street Taproom: Wagyu Beef Burger $15. The description of the Henry Street burger is full of buzzwords. The very first thing I noticed was not the heirloom tomato, nor the wagyu beef, nor the Adirondak Farms cheddar, it was the poor white bread bun, the kind of bun that comes with your bacon egg and cheese at the Spa. If you spend the time to source Wagyu beef and heirloom tomatoes, why not invest in a good bun?
The patty was tender and fatty. This sounds good, but it was so tender and fatty it pretty much disintegrated in my hands the second I picked it up, dropping little burger meat-bombs all over my plate. Despite this tenderness it was rather small, which makes a pink center nearly impossible because the whole patty cooks quickly. Sure enough, the entire burger was a dull brown. The heirloom tomato was a cut above your standard deli sliced tomato, but not by much. The fried shallots were too salty. Points off too for the limp oily fries. Avoid it. A real shame for the place with arguably the best beer selection in town, and one of the friendliest bartenders.