19 Pittsburgh-Area Hamburgers That We Love


by Hal B. Klein | Photos by Laura Petrilla

‘What is the best hamburger in Pittsburgh?’ is a question without an answer. 

I could make an argument that the burger at Whitfield, which is prepared from a whole-animal blend of dry-aged Jubilee Hilltop Ranch beef, is the best because of the quality of its ingredients. I also could argue that the burger at Gab & Eat, with its umami-rich smashburger crusting, its fair price, and the restaurant’s nostalgic, lunch-counter vibe, is at the top of my list.

But where does that leave the decadent hamburger at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, which, topped with braised veal, eats like a meal? The answer is they all are fantastic for equally valid reasons.

“What makes a great hamburger?” is a better question. It’s also one that, after eating scores of Pittsburgh-area burgers, I can answer. 
 


Thinner patties — the sweet spot is somewhere in the 6-ounce oz. range prior to cooking — tend to be better than thicker ones because they cook more evenly and don’t leave you feeling like you need to waddle to the nearest hammock. The best burgers are deeply caramelized on both sides, preferably as a result of interaction with their rendered fat. Speaking of fat — 20 percent fat by weight allows for an ideal mix of juiciness and flavor concentration without making the burger feel greasy.

Great hamburgers typically begin with a base of fresh-ground chuck meat and are enhanced by cuts such as short rib, brisket and other muscles; restaurants with in-house butchers have a leg-up here as they can add trimmings from prestige steaks, too. Loosely packed patties are superior to patties that are more densely packed. Order your burger medium-rare.
 


The best bun is the one that’s right for the burger. For example, a soft potato bun works perfectly for a snack-stand burger but would disintegrate with a complex build that calls for more support; you’d want a Kaiser roll for that. Toasting a bun is mandatory as it adds necessary structural integrity, crunch and, well, toastiness.

Simple is nearly always better than fussy when it comes to the toppings — and out-of-season tomatoes should be banished from burgers. Nostalgia, while not an actual flavor enhancer, can be an important factor in deciding where you want to eat a burger. 
 


Nearly everyone who eats beef has a favorite hamburger. Whenever I talked about my search for the tastiest hamburgers in Pittsburgh, I received terrific suggestions from friends and colleagues (including members of the The Hamburger Sandwich Benevolence Club) who pointed me to their favorite off-the-beaten-path locations (tip: always ask Rick Sebak). You might see your favorite burger on this list, you might not. But even if you don’t, I bet you’ll find one that’s going to make you very happy.  —HBK




Whitfield

Whitfield’s outstanding cheeseburger is a welcome offshoot of the Ace Hotel restaurant’s butchery program. A whole-animal blend of dry-aged Jubilee Hilltop Ranch beef is charred under a broiler and topped with cheddar, buttermilk-fried onions, mustard-infused mayonnaise and pepper jam. The brightness of the pepper jam cuts the funky back-note of the aged beef, and the onion straws add bite and texture. The Mediterra Bakehouse brioche bun is soft, buttery and perfectly toasted. Tip: At $15, this is one of the pricier burgers on our list (and worth every penny), but it’s $10 at the bar during the nightly happy hour.
[120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty; 412/626-3090, whitfieldpgh.com]


photo by Teghan Simonton
 

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen

Looking to crush a decadent hamburger? Head to Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District. The big Burrito Group’s contemporary American restaurant is home to one of Pittsburgh’s most indulgent burger builds. A mix of chuck, short rib, and brisket from Weiss Provision Co. is grilled, brushed with Worcestershire-horseradish butter and then topped with braised veal, bacon, crispy onion and a choice of cheese (I recommend Emmenthaler). The whole shebang is served on a housemade brioche bun. You might need to schedule a nap after eating the Eleven burger — but it’ll be just as satisfying as the meal you just finished.
[1150 Smallman St., Strip District; 412/201-5656, elevenck.com]
 

Gab & Eat

Lunchtime brings a hubbub of activity to this nearly 40-year-old diner. Gab & Eat co-owner Karie Goedert (who runs the business with partner Susan Smith) smashes half-pound portions of aged Angus beef from Curtze Meat in Erie on a red-hot, 2-inch stainless-steel flat-top griddle. Crusted brown on both sides — crispy, even, on the edges — and juicy in the center, the Gab & Eat burger is the Platonic ideal of a diner hamburger. It’s nestled in a lightly griddled BreadWorks bun and topped with traditional fixings such as lettuce, tomato and razor-thin onion slices. At $6.05 for a cheeseburger, this is a steal of a deal.
[1703 Washington Ave., Carnegie; 412/276-8808, gabneat.com]
 

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