Review: Burgatory

Pittsburgh's newest burger bar is sinfully good.



Burgatory, a new burger bar in the Waterworks Mall, truly delivers on its promise to provide a “helluva burger” and “heavenly shakes.”  The eatery is full of treats: a lively interior, phenomenal milkshakes created from housemade ice cream, hormone-free beef that tastes great—and even a top-notch veggie burger. Most fun is the “custom creation” offering, which allows you to build your own burger, starting with your choice of bun and meat and finishing with a dizzying array of toppings.

Burgatory is the invention of Mike Hanley and Jerry Dilembo, who also co-own Uncle Sam’s four locations as well as Joe Mama’s Italian Deluxe and Fuel & Fuddle. “Everywhere we travel, we look for the best burger,” says Hanley. “We’ve been thinking about creating a custom burger bar in Pittsburgh for a long time.”

Pulling together a great team—including executive chef Brad Kohut, architect Jen Bee and brand-design gurus from Wall-to-Wall Studios—Hanley and Dilembo spent months working on bringing a great experience to the ’Burgh. They started with the burgers, which are made of a proprietary blend of sirloin, chuck, brisket and short-rib cuts. Then the pair moved on to experimenting with different kinds of salt. Additional time was spent sourcing cream for the ice cream; Hanley and Dilembo decided on Titusville Dairy Products Co. in Titusville, Pa.

After the food was thought out, their attention turned to how the place would look. The interior features a cool mixture of surfaces—concrete, metal and dark wood—blending into a successful palette of greys and browns, accented by fun graphics in shades of tomato and mustard. The restaurant lighting and mood adjust to the time of day. Families, businessmen and women and students stop in for lunch and early dinner; later in the evening, the neighborhood bar crowd visits to enjoy sports and conversation around the centrally located TVs. The bar stays open late and offers the full menu until 11 p.m. (including late-night favorites like wings, nachos and sliders) as well as a nice assortment of cocktails and bottled beers.

During cold weather, indoor heat lanterns keep the enclosed patio area (separated from the restaurant by garage doors) nice and toasty; in warmer weather, the garage doors open onto the patio overlooking the mall's breezeway.

The centerpiece of the menu is the custom-creation option. If you opt to build your own burger, you’ll fill out a form that lists every detail imaginable—from the rub to cooking instructions. For the base, aside from beef ($7), you can choose chicken ($7), bison ($10), Sicilian sausage ($6.50), lump crab ($10) or veggie ($8). There are six breads to choose from (focaccia included), six choices for rubs (such as kona crust and cracked peppercorn), eight cheeses ($1 extra), 17 sauces (such as bourbon BBQ, avocado wasabi and banana ketchup) and a host of greens, onions, peppers and the like.  If you want to pile on more, you can add the $1 “drive-it-home” toppings like onion straws, chicken chili or a fried egg.  Keeping with the theme, the burgers are served with a red plastic pitchfork in the center. My ideal burger comprised a tender brioche bun, beef patty, farmhouse cheddar cheese and sautéed mushrooms—and I loved it.
 


At Burgatory, the types of patrons change throughout the day, but some things remain constant: their need to grab a tasty meal and enjoy good conversation—whether at the bar or in a booth.

 

If you don’t want to construct your own creation, there are a number of additional menu items. I enjoyed Morty’s Steakhouse ($10), featuring a peppercorn-crusted beef burger with horseradish cheddar, haystack onions and cabernet sauce. My least favorite was What-a-Jerk Chicken ($9.50)—Jamaican jerk-rubbed chicken with provolone cheese, grilled pineapple, caramelized-onion marmalade, cilantro leaves and banana ketchup served on a whole-wheat bun; in my opinion, the bun was a bit dry and the chicken too peppery.

Worth mentioning is Phat Patti’s veggie burger ($9).  Although I didn’t care for the version with smoked Gouda and avocado wasabi (both flavors were too strong for the burger), the veggie burger itself was delicious. Instead of the usual hard, dry veggie burger, Patti’s (which is also vegan) is a creamy, housemade blend of cremini mushrooms, lentils, cashews and cracked wheat that’s mixed with “about a million secret ingredients.”

Each burger comes with crispy housemade potato and sweet-potato chips. For an extra dollar, you can order the house-cut, thin fries seasoned with rosemary, thyme and sea salt. If you’re not a burger person, don’t worry: There are a variety of other offerings like the side and entrée salads, fried chicken, fish sandwiches, ribs and crab cakes; portions are large, and prices are reasonable.

If you opt to build your own burger, you’ll fill out a form that lists every detail imaginable—from the rub to cooking instructions.

If, for no other reason, you should go to Burgatory for the shakes, which are among the best I’ve ever had. Although you may want to try a simple hand-turned vanilla-bean ice cream shake, there are a number of delicious, original combinations. My favorite is the Caramel-Pretzel shake ($5.50): a great combination of sweet and salty that's made with vanilla ice cream, caramel and tiny pieces of salted pretzels; drink it quickly while the pretzels are still crunchy. Another interesting choice is the Coffee & Donuts ($5.50) that's made with vanilla ice cream, kona coffee, chocolate syrup and donut pieces. The shakes are generously portioned (nearly 18 ounces) and are topped with high-quality whipped cream and garnished with panache (such as a giant pretzel or a toasted marshmallow). These shakes, which are worth the calories, can definitely be shared.

There are terrific hard shakes available as well. A great choice is Monkey Business ($7.50), a bananas-foster shake spiked with dark rum and banana liquor, offering the right level of sweetness and spirits. Although I didn’t try it, my server strongly recommended the Apple Pancakes & Bacon shake ($7.50)—made of Gala apple and caramel vodkas, caramelized-apple pancakes and pieces of bacon.

Despite its sleepy location, Burgatory is hopping. You may need to wait for a seat, but the host will jot down your number and text you when your table is ready. Honestly, you won’t mind waiting because, at Burgatory, the food really is heavenly.


» 932 Freeport Road, Waterworks Mall, Fox Chapel, PA (15238); 412/781-1456, burgatorybar.com.
» Sun.-Thurs.: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat.: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (bar stays open late)
» Classic Shakes: $5.50; Hard Shakes: $7.50; Appetizers & Salads: $6.50-$13.50; Burgers: $6.50-$11; Desserts: $5
» Alcohol, major credit cards accepted, no reservations, vegetarian and vegan options available, wheelchair-accessible, no smoking, mall parking lot, gluten friendly, seats past 10:30 p.m. on weekends, catering/banquet services, outdoor seating.

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