Burb's Eye View: In search of Burbank's best burger

I have seen the mountaintop and it is layered thick in cheese and beef.

Since March my friend and I scoured Burbank for the best cheeseburger in the city. Many readers offered their favorite haunts — and some griddle jockeys I met along the way pointed me to new stops on the path to burger Nirvana.

Like all great adventures, it’s about the journey, not the destination. In my ground-beef-laden stupor I discovered a culinary subculture that revels in the art of the burger. Burbank history is deeply slathered in the wizardry of its burger bon vivants — the places people went 20, 30, 40 years ago are still flipping for your pleasure.

People hold fast to their favorites. One restaurant’s entire clientele exists because its members followed the owner when he moved. Several hole-in-the-wall diehards accepted no substitute for their local watering hole. Burbank’s burger joints function as neighborhood hangouts, nostalgia repositories and off-campus studio cafeterias.

We visited 20 different spots that weren’t chain restaurants or diners. We searched high — well-known places like Tinhorn Flats and Mo’s — and we searched low, where we found a griddle in a liquor store and a burger at a deli.

In all, Jack Swiker of thedangersandwich.blogspot.com and I mowed down 23 different stacks of bread, meat and cheese totaling a little more than $175.

Burgering in Burbank is a lot like watching baseball — there are your major leagues, your AAA clubs supported by the hometown crowd, and then there are the rest. These latter joints have their followers and could graduate to the next level with some changes, but otherwise don’t justify their $8 (on average) price tags.

So this week, we’ll look at the burgers that didn’t quite make the cut.

Cheeseburger math is a simple ratio — we rated meat, cheese, bread and condiments as the whole experience. The best chefs can dole out each taste in a measure appropriate to their strengths and weaknesses, but in the end you should at least be able to experience all components at some time.

Knowing that, we timidly approached the peanut-butter-and-Thousand-Island concoction at The Great Grill on San Fernando Boulevard.

The $7.75 Nutty Burger is presented on a fluffy, traditional sesame seed bun and for its unique composition, it’s almost disappointing that the peanut butter gets lost between the dressing, ample stack of lettuce and flat burger patty.

We also tried the $7.99 Great Burger, which drowns in condiments. The condiments even overtake the heaven-kissed smoke punch of pork that is bacon, which adds a slight saltiness to the sandwich but little else.

Across the street at Fantasia Billiards, a good presentation tries to make up for the lackluster $8 patty that reminded me of the thawed pucks they served in grade school. There’s more care given to the egg-washed bun but not much love shown for the meat.

Other bars also offer burger fare in similar fashion — small, light patties awash in mayo, lettuce and Thousand Island.

Reviews on yelp.com for Rocky’s III on North Lincoln Street make it sound like a hidden jewel of the Burbank burger landscape. However, to call it a “Jumbo Burger” is false advertising — both in size and taste. When the American cheese is the most prominent taste on your tongue, you know you’re in trouble — and this glistening grease bomb unfortunately stays with you long after consumption.

At Joe's Great American Bar & Grill on Burbank Boulevard, variety is the menu’s strong point. Maybe it was the timing, a Sunday morning, that made Jack and I try the $9.95 fried-egg bacon cheeseburger. The “burger” part seemed to be hiding from the lettuce and giant slab of strong onion.

We were asked how we wanted it cooked, but when a patty is this thin, there’s only one way to cook it — so why bother? Maybe the intent of this burger is to let the pickles and onion steal the show, in which case it’s a success. In the end, the nicely fried egg was not enough to save it.

Also hiding somewhere under thick onion rings, bacon, lettuce and barbecue sauce is a tiny patty in the $5.35 Big Norm at Norm’s on Magnolia Boulevard. The sizzle of dozens of bacon strips was a promising sound at Norm’s, and indeed the pig stole the show. It wasn’t enough to carry what should be a marquee addition to the Burbank burger landscape.

We had similar hope for Willie’s Grill and Deli, a corner cooking area of the Alameda Liquor and Junior Market at Alameda Avenue and Victory Boulevard. For $2.99, the cheeseburger was the cheapest we found on our journey and it’s easy to see why — a centimeters-thick patty drowned in mayo and ketchup would fit well within a Burger King drive-through menu.

If that’s all you’re looking for it’s worth a try; we wanted to find something more substantial for our buck.

And we found much, much more. Next week, we’ll look at the vast league of AAA burgers in Burbank, some of which knock it out of the park.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not seeking the perfect cheeseburger, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter at @818NewGuy.

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