The World's Best Burgers

August 2012

Hamburger experts advise Gourmet Live's Megan O. Steintrager on where to get an all-American burger in Kuwait, New Zealand, Russia, and other surprising locales

The Really Big Shawn Burger—three beef patties topped with chili, cheese sauce, bacon, and jalapeños, served on a bed of chili cheese fries—from Moscow's Starlite Diner.

Never. Nowhere. None. These were the initial responses my Gourmet Live colleagues and I received when we first began asking around for where to find the best traditional American-style hamburgers overseas. "I've never had a decent burger abroad," insists Josh Ozersky, Time columnist, author of The Hamburger: A History (2008), and the driving force behind Meatopia, an annual celebration of all things carnivorous. Some, like road-food expert and frequent Gourmet Live contributor Michael Stern, follow a when-in-Rome policy: "I have never spent so long overseas that I craved a hamburger enough to abandon local food in search of one," says Stern. "To me, it would be like having carne adovada in New York or lox and bagels in Salt Lake City." Others contend that nobody outside of the good ole U.S. of A. has mastered the perfect patty.

"Ten years ago, the burgerscape outside of America was pretty grim," admits George Motz, author of Hamburger America (based on his documentary of the same name), host of Travel Channel's Made in America, and star of an upcoming show on burgers in America, Burger Land, also on Travel Channel. "But in the past few years, gourmet-style burger joints and fast-casual burger spots are popping up everywhere. Every major city in the world now has a few great new burger joints."

Hooray! A ray of cheese-swaddled sunshine! Expats, travelers, and ground-round addicts, rejoice, and read on for juicy picks around the world from Motz; meat-master Pat LaFrieda, Jr., the preferred supplier of custom blends for some of the New York area's finest burgers, including Shake Shack's, and a star of Food Network's Meat Men; Robyn Lee of Serious Eats' A Hamburger Today; food historian and Hamburger: A Global History author Andrew F. Smith; and our own editor-in-chief, Tanya Steel, who has traveled the world with two teenage boys—perhaps the ultimate burger consumers.

Australia: Andrews Hamburgers

"Andrews has been making burgers the old-fashioned 'American' way for decades," Motz reports. "What's not to love?" The self-described "traditional hamburger grill" in Melbourne opened in 1939 and serves its basic burger with lettuce, cooked onions, and "tomato sauce" (the local term for ketchup). Optional toppings include bacon, egg, tomato, cheese, beets, pineapple, mustard, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, and hot chile sauce (the burger with "the lot" sounds divine: a patty topped with egg, bacon, tomato, and cheese). According to the Australian newspaper The Age, "six professional flippers aren't enough to keep the queue from snaking out the door."

Brazil: The Burger Map

It's not a huge surprise that Motz gives the thumbs-up to Santo André's Burger Map, which uses Motz's book as a reference guide to create a rotating menu of special burgers, made with beef that's ground fresh daily. "One week they might have the Oklahoma onion-fried burger, the next Connecticut's steamed cheeseburger," Motz explains. Their basic hamburger, which is topped with onion and tomato, pays homage to New Haven's Louis' Lunch, widely recognized as the originator of the all-American hamburger, back in 1900. Other American classics at Burger Map include Milwaukee's Butter Burger and Minneapolis' cheese-filled Ju(i)cy Lucy. And although Motz might be a bit biased, he reports that in addition to using his book for research, "they've made numerous trips to the heart of burger country just to make sure they got it right."

Canada: The Burger's Priest

North of the border, burger pilgrims are reverent about Toronto's Burger's Priest, where the patties captivated editor-in-chief Tanya Steel and her voracious teenage testers. "What makes this classic burger a breed apart is that the Burger's Priest freshly grinds its beef throughout the day," Steel reports. "The bacon cheeseburger is juicy and decadent, and when you have it with chili cheese fries, it is nirvana." Erin Jackson, one of Lee's colleagues at A Hamburger Today, is also a devotee.

England: Gourmet Burger Kitchen

When in London, food historian Andrew F. Smith gets his burger fix at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a small chain with about 55 locations throughout England (and a few locations elsewhere, including in Greece and Turkey). GBK's burgers are made with beef from independent farms, according to the company Web site, and include the Classic (with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, and relish), the Frenchie (with Gorgonzola, bacon, and onion jam), and the Taxidriver (with onion rings, American cheese, Cajun relish, and smoked chile mayo), plus a new variation featuring meat sourced from Windsor Castle's herds. Smith praises GBK, founded in 2001 by chef and cookbook author Peter Gordon and two other New Zealanders, for using "nutritious products" and the "freshest ingredients available."

For more burgery goodness in the U.K., A Hamburger Today's Lee recommends two London-based review sites, Burgerac, written by an anonymous burger enthusiast, and Young & Foodish, a blog by Daniel Young, who has been a food critic for the New York Daily News and has written for a wide variety of food publications.

France: Le Dalí and PDG

Paris chef Yannick Alléo has won three Michelin stars for Le Meurice hotel's namesake restaurant, and he's clearly bringing the same game to the hotel's second eatery, Le Dalí. There LaFrieda devoured an "awesome" burger with smoked bacon, lettuce, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise. "The meat is so tasty," he recalls. "I later discovered that the chef uses a mix of chuck and beef rib. Superthick and succulent." (LaFrieda also gave a shout-out to the buns from the "amazing" Frédéric Lalos of Le Quartier du Pain.) Le Dalí's burger will set you back €42 (more than $50), but those in search of a more budget-friendly burger in this culinary capital will find satisfaction at PDG, whose all-American burgers were named best in Paris by Le Parisien in 2006—an accolade seconded by Steel, who calls the jumbo double bacon cheeseburger "all about American excess," while noting that plenty of inspiration, such as the brioche-like bun, comes from France.

Germany: Burgermeister

This tip comes from Lee of A Hamburger Today, which recommended Burgermeister this year as well worth the sometimes-long waits for "classic-tasting, extremely well-balanced" cheeseburgers and standout chili cheese fries. But what captured our attention most about Burgermeister—aside from its awesome name—is its location: a converted public bathroom below the elevated tracks of the U-Bahn's U1 line near the Schlesisches Tor station. Another endorsement comes from Time Out Berlin, which lists Burgermeister among its top 30 restaurants: "The patties are generous and grilled to order and make perfect fodder before a night in the Kreuzberg clubs."

Japan: Freshness Burger and MOS Burger

According to Motz, what makes Japan's Freshness Burger special is that the chain, which has locations throughout Japan as well as in Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore, doesn't pay attention to details: "Freshness seems like the only burger joint in Japan that doesn't fuss over their burgers," he explains. "Other places tend to concentrate too much on the picture-perfect burger and miss out on taste. In most cases it's the sloppy, gooey burger that wins the taste test." The Freshness menu has its share of exotica, such as a teriyaki Spamburger topped with a fried egg and a choice of veggie burgers made with beans or tofu, but it's the classic burgers and cheeseburgers that will satisfy classic American cravings.

Another Japanese chain, MOS Burger, has caught the attention of Smith. Founded in the early '70s in Tokyo, MOS now has nearly 1,500 locations around the country, plus outposts in Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and beyond. Like Freshness, MOS has straight-up American-style burgers, plus a number of non-beef options, such as shrimp and curry, which vary by location. "It's Japan's largest hamburger chain, but it's worth trying," says Smith. "They looked at how McDonald's operated and did the opposite. Instead of cranking out quick, cheap hamburgers, MOS Burger emphasizes the quality and safety of its ingredients. And they have been extremely innovative in their product offerings, such as a Teriyaki Burger."

Kuwait: Smashburger

"With Colorado-based Smashburger having opened its first international location in Kuwait this year, the worldwide burgerscape is about to change for the better," declares Motz, who's a huge fan of the rapidly expanding five-year-old chain. The restaurants serve freshly ground Angus beef burgers (formed into balls, then smashed on the grill, thus the name) with classic toppings like American cheese and other standard fixings, plus regional variations. The Kuwait City edition is served on a spicy chipotle bun and topped with hot pepper cheese, grilled jalapeños, labneh, spinach, tomato, and cucumber.

New Zealand: Fergburger

Motz praises Queenstown's "beloved" Fergburger for its Big Al, billed by the eatery as "a double serving of prime New Zealand beef (1/2 lb), lashings of bacon, a whole lotta cheese, 2 eggs, beetroot, lettuce, tomato, red onion, relish, and a big wad of aioli." In short, an apt expression of Fergburger's original mission statement, circa 2001: "Let there be burgers for the people to eat when they are drunk to hell." Sober diners and hamburger purists can opt for a regular Fergburger, simply topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion, aïoli, and tomato relish. But whichever they choose, they'll be assured they're getting quality ground beef: "The beef they use at Fergburger is New Zealand grassfed prime," explains Motz. "It's the same New Zealand beef you buy at Whole Foods without the 8,700 miles of travel."

Russia: Starlite Diner

Steel, recently returned from Russia, recommends that when in Moscow, homesick Americans—and burger lovers of all nationalities—hit Starlite Diner, "a quintessential version of an American diner, replete with route signs, record albums and funky clocks adorning the walls, vinyl booths, and $10 milkshakes." Starlite offers items that you wouldn't find in most diners back home (Okroshka soup, anyone?), but its burgers are classic American-style. "The 'Cowboy' is their best, with BBQ sauce, Cheddar cheese, bacon, and caramelized onions," Steel advises. "You do pay the price of homesickness, though—four people can't get out of there for less than $100."

United States: Classic and Creative Picks

Ozersky declined to endorse a single burger overseas, but he named several favorites right here at home. "Burgers in the U.S. come in two varieties: the classical, orthodox, old-school burgers, 4 ounces or less, and produced with the regularity of hexameters; and gourmet creations, generally of atomic size, which tend to rely on specialized buns, toppings, or seasoning," he explains. "The best of the first kind is to be found, for my money, at places like Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena, California, and Keller's drive-in in Dallas; and there is no best of the second kind, which are all equally awful. Some artisans have tried to elevate the traditional burger with admirable success, though—among these I would count the Company Burger in New Orleans, Schnipper's and Bill's in New York, and Shake Shack everywhere."