Pittsburgh-Area Burgers That We Love
PM dining critic Hal B. Klein spent months eating scores of hamburgers in and around Pittsburgh. Find out how he narrowed his list down to 19 — and see which ones made the cut.
photo by nick spanos
The “Marco burger” used to be a regular fixture at the Strip District establishment Bar Marco. Now, it’s only available as a Tuesday-night special and a weekend brunch entrée. Make plans to visit the restaurant on one of those days, because this hamburger, which begins with espresso-rubbed, Clarion Farms ground chuck, is exceptional. It’s seared in a cast-iron skillet and dressed in a thoughtfully constructed, but not fussy, fashion: crisp bacon, tarragon aioli and a smattering of fresh, peppy salad greens. Pastry chef Dianne DeStefano makes my favorite hamburger bun in Pittsburgh — it’s soft, yeasty and cooked buttery and toasty.
[2216 Penn Ave., Strip District; 412/471-1900, barmarcopgh.com]
photo by Hal B. Klein
(Editor's Note) brunoise closed after the original publication of this article.
Miss the legendary Salt of the Earth burger? I do and so do members of the Hamburger Sandwich Benevolence Club. Ryan Peters, chef /owner of brunoise in the Strip District, now is serving what can affectionately be called “Son of Salt Burger” at his Smallman Galley restaurant. Peters — who worked at Salt from 2013 to 2014 — starts his burger with a ½-pound custom blend of chuck, short rib and brisket from Strip District Meats. It’s cooked sous-vide and finished with a hard sear on a cast-iron griddle. Peters is straightforward with his components: aged white cheddar, Bibb lettuce, housemade pickles and dijonnaise, served on a Mediterra Bakehouse challah bun; he’ll add tomatoes only when they’re in season.
[54 21st St., Strip District; 412/281-0949, smallmangalley.org/our-restaurant-concepts/brunoise]
Squirrel Hill Cafe (Squirrel Cage)
I suspect that most cities have a great hamburger hidden in plain sight — a sandwich known only to burger lovers and budget-bite afficionados. For Pittsburgh, that’s the hamburger at the Squirrel Hill Cafe (Squirrel Cage), one of our 2017 Best Bars in Pittsburgh. Cook Tom Tantlinger hand-forms 7 to 8 oz. patties of 80/20 chuck, seasons them with salt and pepper and, just like he’s been doing for 11 years, griddles them on a flat-top. Just before service — no fancy fixings here — he butters a BreadWorks Kaiser bun and toasts it on the flat-top. It’s an ideal bar burger, and at $5.75 for a cheeseburger, one of the best deals you’ll find in town. (This might have to do with the fact that costs are kept low because The Cage still allows smoking.)
[5802 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/521-3327]
I like how Burgh’ers, with locations in Lawrenceville and Harmony, straddles the line between gourmet and everyday hamburger. Owner Fiore Moletz and his crew form 5 ounces of custom-blend Jubilee Hilltop Ranch beef meatballs and smash them on a stainless-steel flat-top. It’s one of the few burger joints where I recommend stepping beyond a traditional burger build and going for a unique construction such as Maggie’s Farm (smoked gouda, horseradish, caramelized onions, Maggie’s Farm rum aioli) or Bloomfield (Swiss cheese crisp, sauteed greens, caramelized onions, fennel, mayo). Rosemary fries are ridiculous, and the mac ‘n cheese, while neither a traditional nor an advisable side-dish, is outstanding.
[Lawrenceville and Harmony; burgherspgh.com]
Butterjoint in-house butcher Mary Maze’s dry-aged, whole-cow blend is the foundation of one of the beefiest, most flavorful burgers in town. It’s also one of the few cooked on an indoor grill, so it tastes as if it’s been prepared for a backyard party. Butterjoint’s basic burger is straightforward: a patty topped with lettuce and onion. A variety of cheeses plus bacon, rhubarb-ketchup and caramelized onions are always offered and the “Fancy Burger of the Day” option affords the Legume kitchen a chance to play with different builds. Butterjoint also offers a rare find with its tempeh burger, an excellent, meat-free burger that Executive Chef/Co-Owner Trevett Hooper spent years working to craft.
[214 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412/621-2700, butterjoint.com]
The Vandal in Lawrenceville is one of my favorite spots for a fresh, seasonal meal. It’s almost a bonus that it also serves a fantastic hamburger. A beautifully seasoned 6-oz. patty of Goodness Grows beef is seared on the flat-top and served inside a Mediterra Bakehouse brioche bun. Add tomato-mayo, housemade bread-and-butter pickles, sharp white cheddar and Bibb lettuce for a meaty, juicy, crunchy and properly balanced hamburger sandwich. The deeply toasted bun — which gets a boost from a coating of marrow butter — adds a structural umami element that can be a challenge to find in Pittsburgh burgers.
[4306 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/251-0465, thevandalpgh.com]
photo by Teghan Simonton
Bubba’s Gourmet Burghers & Beer
Leave it to the son of a butcher named “Big Ed” to get serious about his meat. Bubba’s Owner Marc “Bubba” Snider — best known for his morning Bubba Show on 100.7 Star— worked with Speciality Steak Company to craft a custom blend of NY strip, sirloin, ribeye and brisket. The juicy burger is cooked in a multi-step process: first, it’s seared on a high-temperature flat-top, next it’s charbroiled and then it returns to the flat-top for cheese and other toppings. BreadWorks provides the buns, which are delivered daily; add fresh toppings such as a dippy-egg or order any of the specialty builds and you’ll likely knife-and-fork it here.
[3109 Washington Pike, Bridgeville; 412/564-5638, bubbaspgh.com]
The Kaya burger is busy, and it’s messy … and it’s marvelously satisfying. A tight patty consisting of a 50/50 mix of Weiss Provision Co. short rib and chuck is seared on cast iron and placed inside a toasted BreadWorks sesame seed bun. It’s dressed with pickles, bacon, avocado, tomato, Chihuahua cheese and “Kaya sauce” and then topped with a fried egg; even with all of that, the burger doesn’t get lost in the mix. Although this is a knife-and-forker — with everything going on, the bun eventually will fall apart — the Kaya burger never feels heavy. Must be the avocado.
[2000 Smallman St., Strip District; 412/261-6565, bigburrito.com/kaya]
Smoke Barbeque Taqueria
Add the Smoke hamburger to your list of “you want to get this when you can get it” hamburgers. Executive Chef/Co-owner Jeff Petruso started making burgers because he loves to eat burgers, and now the Lawrenceville barbecue restaurant serves flat-top-cooked 5.5-oz. patties of house-ground, Australian-wagyu brisket and sirloin every Tuesday. Go for a “deluxe” burger, a treat that features a litany of housemade items: brioche bun, American cheese, bacon, smoked-tomato mayonnaise, ketchup and pickles, plus caramelized onions and Bibb lettuce.
[4115 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/224-2070, smokepgh.com]
photo by nick spanos
Meat & Potatoes
It’s challenging to find a great late-night hamburger in Pittsburgh, but owl-shifted Pittsburghers can find one on Monday nights at Meat & Potatoes with the nightcap burger. It’s a straightforward patty of 100-percent Black Angus chuck, grilled and served — until 1 a.m. — in a Mancini’s potato bun. It’s smoky, beefy and a steal at only $6; look for rotating weekly specials. Build in an always-excellent cocktail special and your week is off to a solid, if perhaps bleary-eyed, start. The establishment’s dinner-menu “Plane Jane” and “Pub” burgers also are worth ordering.
[649 Penn Ave., Downtown; 412/325-7007, meatandpotatoespgh.com]
photo by Hal b. klein
OTB Bicycle Cafe
What’s better than chowing down on a fat, juicy hamburger that tastes like a backyard barbecue? Eating that burger while relaxing by a beautiful lake after you’ve spent the past few hours bicycling, hiking or kayaking. Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe’s North Park Boathouse location serves a selection of charbroiled, ½-pound, loosely packed ground chuck burgers in a variety of permutations. I’m partial to The Trail Builder Burger (bacon, provolone and cheddar cheeses, onion straws, lettuce). OTB’s original South Side location serves equally delightful burgers, minus the view.
[Allison Park and South Side; otbbicyclecafe.com]
Nox’s Tavern & Grille
Steamers — hamburgers cooked primarily via steam — typically are a New England theme, but you can find them in Blawnox at Nox’s Tavern and Grille. Cooks at the family-run establishment begin by searing an 80/20 mix of ground beef on a flat-top and then give it a hot sweat in a steam table to cook the meat. The hamburger returns to the flat-top for a final sear before it’s topped with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato and pickle, and then it’s sandwiched in a buttered and toasted Mancini’s Bakery Kaiser roll. Bonus: the bar’s steak-fries rank among my favorite in Pittsburgh.
[720 Blaw Ave., Blawnox; 412/794-8233, noxstavern.com]
Winghart's Burger & Whiskey Bar
A solid base of flavorful fat is the secret ingredient in Winghart’s flavorful hamburgers. A boatload of bacon is cooked at the beginning of each shift, seasoning the flat-top; add a layer of clarified butter and the 8-oz., 100-percent chuck patty is off to the races. I quite like how toppings such as pickles, onions and bacon are chopped, ensuring a bit of all of the accouterments in every bite. A gently toasted Mancini’s Bakery bun is sturdy enough to hold everything together. The original Market Square location is my favorite of the three burger bars (also South Side and Greensburg). Wash down your burger with a selection from Winghart’s outstanding, and reasonably priced, whiskey list.
[Downtown, South Side, Greensburg; winghartburgers.com]
photo by richard cook
Bier's Pub (formerly Benjamin’s Western Avenue Burger Bar)
It’s easy to discern that hamburgers are the specialty of the house at Benjamin’s. Fresh, hand-formed patties of ground sirloin, brisket and short rib are seared on “hot steel” to create a full-flavored burger; the blend is so rich it can cause a soggy bottom on the establishment’s toasted BreadWorks Kaiser bun. Benjamin’s burgers are great straight-up, but some of the specialty burgers — particularly My Morning Burger and Kentucky Bourbon — are standouts. No french fries on the menu, though.
[900 Western Ave., Allegheny West; 412/224-2163, benjaminspgh.com]
photo by hal b. klein
Custard's First Stand
There are snack stand burgers, and there are Snack Stand Burgers!. The hamburgers at this roadside ice-cream stop in the North Hills are the latter. The thin burgers, made from locally ground, antibiotic-free beef, are seared on a flat-top. The fast-food-style burger stands out because of the deep caramelization on both sides of the patty, creating an umami-rich, salty and crunchy crust. The bun is of the soft, generic variety, but it’s nicely toasted and buttered. Top it with “Custard’s Sauce” (basically, Big Mac special sauce) and American cheese. Even after adding an extra patty (a good idea), a burger at Custard’s First Stand still costs less than $8.
[313 Camp Horne Road, Kilbuck Township; 412/766-3101, facebook.com/CustardsFirstStand]
Ed. Note: Custard's First Stand currently is on hamburger hiatus. We'll update when/if they resume preparing their excellent snack stand burgers.
Tessaro’s American Bar & Hardwood Grill
One of Pittsburgh’s longstanding favorite hamburger joints features a 10-oz. patty that’s kissed with woodsmoke as it cooked on cast-iron grates. The twice-ground blend of chuck, short ribs, brisket and NY strip and filet trimmings is prepared daily by in-house butcher Dominic Piccola, cooked by 30-year grill-master Courtney McFarlane over a combination of Pennsylvania hardwoods (oak, maple, hickory and ash) and packed in a fresh-baked bun from Bloomfield neighbor Sanchioli Brothers Bakery. My favorite spot to enjoy a Tessaro’s hamburger is at a seat at the historic bar. Tip: the burger patties tend to be a tad underseasoned, so feel free to give them a sprinkle of salt.
[4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; 412/682-6809, tessaros.com]