The press has deemed Phoenix a pizza town, but the people have declared metro Phoenix the land of the burger. Come lunch, lines at burger joints wind. At both greasy spoons and polished restaurants, tables buzz with Phoenicians tearing into the most American food. And many of these spots sizzle and toast and melt and build within sight of another burger joint doing the same.
We are blessed with a flabbergasting number of places to demolish a burger. I know. I went through hell trying to narrow them all to a list of 20. And at these select 20, I ate my way to this guide: a power ranking of Phoenix burgers.
Here’s how I tackled the ranking.
Burgers are different at every place that cooks them. I tried to standardize the 20 to the extent that I could, opting for a burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and American cheese when possible. If an eatery had a base burger that hewed close to this model, I went with that base burger. This was because I didn’t see a point in ordering a burger unlike what the average customer would be eating at that restaurant.
As a result, a few burgers may have had pickles where others were pickle-free; a few buns may have been slicked with ketchup while others oozed house mayo. In light of the vast burger possibilities, I leveled the field as much as reasonable.
If a place didn’t have American cheese, I went with cheddar or the nearest relative. If the bun selection included heretical options like pretzel, I went white (when white was an option) or brioche (when it wasn’t). If asked how I wanted my beef cooked, I answered with whatever I was told the chef recommended.
With the input of friends and fellow burger eaters I inked the list of 20 eateries that specialize in burgers. I skipped massive low-end chains. I didn’t include sit-down restaurants that merely had a burger on the menu.
When analyzing each burger, I focused on the core elements: patty, toppings, bun, and cheese. The standardization approach necessarily limits those burger joints that offer a world of creative iterations and gonzo toppings. The only way to write this list was to compare apples to apples, burgers to like burgers.
The ranking isn’t based on any quantifiable criteria. It’s based on the standard of how each burger tasted (or didn’t).
In eating through Phoenix’s top burgers, I noticed a surprising trend.
New-school burger places have pulled far ahead of the old guard.
You want to love the old-school places more. You want to think that a simple burger done right can blow any newfangled creation out of the free fountain water. But this usually isn’t the truth when you strip away environment and hone in on taste. The new places tended to have a focus on two elements that catapulted them above the old.
One: The best new spots focused on fresh, high-end ingredients.
Two: New places showed love to the entire burger, not just the beef patty.
After two weeks of cheese and grease, I present your 2017 burger power ranking.
4375 East Indian School Road, #190 (and other locations)
Classic Smash, $5.49
The Classic Smash is to an actual hamburger as an airline’s billboard shilling flights to a tropical island is to actually going to hot white sand and teal water. The one suggests the other dimly, is faintly reminiscent of grand possibilities. Such is the broken dream of a subpar burger. My square of American cheese was wholly unmelted. The cheese, “special sauce,” and toppings mingled into a chaos of the weirdly piquant, mayo-masked flavor common to fast food chain sandwiches. My patty resembled beef only in color. There was not much to suggest that the disc came from a juicy animal product, beef, that when handled with skill can become one of the ultimate Phoenician foods — the cheeseburger.
19. The Habit Burger Grill
745 East Glendale Avenue (and other locations)
This burger tangoed with the taste buds about as sorrily as the burger that finishes last in our power rankings. The patty lacked vitality, flavor, and punch. Lettuce was bereft of the cool snap expected of a plant once alive. For all its colorlessness, the flaccid tomato could have been sliced in the remote past. At the end of the day, this burger was really no better or worse than those of the fast food joints you see on national TV commercials. But you can do better in Phoenix. The only item that nudged this one above the burger below was a station where you can tong on free hot peppers, perfect for upping the heat and masking the true nature of what you’re eating.
18. In-N-Out Burger
21001 North Tatum Boulevard (and other locations)
Californians who don’t know what beef tastes like have pushed one of the worst lies of the 21st century: that In-N-Out actually tastes good. Holy shit! Call 911! The patty-to-bun ratio of an In N Out burger is dangerously anemic! Whatever fleeting goodness the microscopic patty has is drowned in a sea of white bread that has the taste and sex appeal of jet-puffed shirt cardboard. The patty is skillfully browned, yes. Grilled onions add sweetness, okay. But that doesn’t change the sorry fact that the dominant flavor is bun that sucks. To call this white matter bread is an insult to the Valley’s many skilled bakers. The Styrofoam bun occupies so much real estate that the beef patty is reduced to the same supporting role as the wan tomato slice. There’s a reason you paid a paltry $2.55 for this pretender.
17. Chicago Hamburger Company
3749 East Indian School Road
1/3 lb. Cheddar Burger, $5.85
This burger was easily the strangest of the 20. Open since 1975, this greasy spoon’s ramshackle interior is decked with Windy City kitsch. Its thin burger comes on a floured bun without the softness of your typical burger vehicle, the bread veering more toward ciabatta. Cheese with an off-tasting tang is slicked on the bottom bun. A forest of shredded lettuce, much more pale green stuff than reasonable, provides an invasive crunch. After a bite or three, you realize that the beef patty tastes strangely mild, almost watered-down or thinned-out, which sucks because walking into the old-school joint you want to love the place.
16. Cold Beers and Cheeseburgers
18529 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (and other locations)
All American, $11.50
That your burger arrives skewered with a steak knife brings rich echoes of filet and rib eye. The patty’s meat, through charred and crisp on the exterior, doesn’t approach the magnificence of those hallowed cuts. But it isn’t bad, either. What hamstrings the burger at Cold Beers and Cheeseburgers is architecture. We’re talking a bun about five inches from base to summit, with the patty taking up maybe one. My first bite landed 100 percent bread, lettuce, and tomato; I whiffed on beef entirely. The lower half of the grilled brioche bun disintegrated not long into eating this burger, which sogged up and fell apart. What started as a promising burger became a sloppy knife-and-fork ordeal.
15. Rehab Burger Therapy
7210 East Second Street, Scottsdale (and other locations)
B.Y.O.B (relapse), $8.74
The warm beach bar vibes at Rehab Burger morphed when my burger came. I asked for the chef’s standard medium; the gray patty was torched all the way to well-done. The kitchen may have been having an off day, true. Even so, the rest of the burger had two deficiencies that ultimately crippled the whole show. First, there was a landslide of lettuce. Chopped green-white plant matter spilled from the sides of the patty. Second, an enormous bun brought a puffiness and density that wrestled the focal point away from the beef. A colossal bun like this one could potentially jive with such a fat patty if the bun is done right. Here, things didn’t really come together.
14. Lenny’s Burger
2737 West Indian School Road (and other locations)
Single Burger, $3.99
The throwback ’50s spirit inside Lenny’s has made the joint a Valley staple since the mid-1980s. You order at a counter. There’s black-and-white tile, red check. The burger is as spare and old-school as the room you scarf it in. A bun on the denser side is grilled nicely. It was the rare bun at a lower price-point that added to the total burger rather than subtracting. What brought the burger down was the temperature gap between toppings and patty. The lettuce and tomatoes were ice-cold, probably just drawn from the fridge, and the patty was warm, making for a strange and suboptimal synergy.
13. Lucky Boy
3430 North 16th Street
The Lucky Burger, $4.98
The basic burger at Lucky Boy is sturdy and intelligently built. It comes with both mustard and ketchup — yellow under the top bun, red on the bottom. The cheese (top) melds nicely with the mustard, and together the two are the dominant flavors. Beneath the patty — thin, playing second fiddle to the mustard, and unexceptional — the “toppings” hide on the bottom shelf. They are minimal, with only the tang of pickles punching through to mingle with the more aggressive flavors on top. The top-to-bottom order emphasizes the cheese and mustard. Even so, everything melds into a happy burger.
12. Five Guys
4902 East Shea Boulevard (and other locations)
Five Guys is the blue-footed booby of the burger world. It has an intriguing name and doesn’t really resemble anything else. It’s a meaty miracle that this chain, boasting more than 1,000 locations in North America alone, is able to sizzle and build burgers so satisfying. Maybe the secret is that Five Guys doesn’t use freezers. Anyway, a nice soft crush greets the senses as you bite into the bun and beef. The beef is grilled without fault. What the whole burger brings to mind is a solid, unspectacular cookout burger. It’s plain. It’s straightforward. This story isn’t about fries, but if Five Guys approached sourcing tomato and lettuce with the same passion it does potatoes, this burger would be tastier.
11. Original Hamburger Works
2801 North 15th Avenue
Big One, $5.39
Like Chuckbox, this burger joint sizzles burgers over a badass charcoal grill and lets customers customize them at a toppings bar in the middle of the room. The burger is a little plain but very good. The patty has those sexy grill marks and a thick slice of nicely melted cheese. This burger is what you think of when you think of a backyard burger cooked to satisfaction, nothing fancy. While the burger will knock out a primal craving for one, the patty needs a bit more moisture, the bun a bit more flavor. The same lament about the toppings bar applies here. If you’re looking for an unfussy classic burger, here is a compelling one.
10. The Original Wineburger
4221 North Seventh Avenue
The Original Wineburger, $6.59
Phoenix’s other famous wine burger staple, which has mixed fermented grape juice and ground beef since 1965, falls short of the city’s elite for other reasons. There’s an entire cross-section of onion slipped between its smooth buns. The aromatic pungency of this raw allium chainsaws through every other flavor and texture. I had to remove two-thirds of the purple rings, and afterward chomped on much happier. This wine burger’s patty does not wow with explosiveness. It brings a nice, above-average steaky goodness that could be a little juicier given the wine spiking. Its cheese is nicely melted. The bun actually has fresh-baked vibes — rare for an old-school joint. Once the onions are de-emphasized, this is a worthy burger.
9. Harvey’s Wineburger
4812 North 16th Street
Cheese Wineburger, $8.50
Phoenix has a tradition of wineburgers stretching back decades. Harvey’s, a murky dive where regs knock back Wild Turkey before noon, does the noble tradition proud. As a plump patty sizzles away on the flattop, the cook inverts Bordeaux cooking wine over its disc. The grill hisses with the drizzle. The resulting patty has a wild juiciness that you don’t get in many Phoenix burgers priced below $10. It’s so hot and juicy that you have to watch your tongue or you may get burned. Harvey’s would graduate from phenomenal patty to phenomenal burger if the joint took care of the rest of the package the way it does meat.
8. Lush Burger
18251 North Pima Road, #F120, Scottsdale
Lush Classic Build Your Own, $12.50
Under the string lights and huge canvas umbrellas of Lush Burger’s ultra-chill patio in North Scottsdale, diners chomp into high-end burgers priced accordingly. Burgers are good, almost great. My patty had a robust meat flavor. It was shaped unevenly — rounder in the center than on the sides, resulting in varying levels of doneness. No biggie. It was big, though, that this burger flirts too closely with dryness. Toppings are on the bottom, throwing the just-not-moist-enough nature of the patty into sharper focus. If the cooks worked more fat into the beef blend, this patty would make for a great burger.
7. Shake Shack
15030 North Scottsdale Road, #180G1A, Scottsdale (and other locations)
The first permanent Shake Shack opened in New York in 2004. At that moment, the future of burgers in America changed forever. My first few Shake Shack experiences, at the Times Square and Madison Square Park locations, were nothing mind-blowing. But go to a less crowded outpost, like the one in Scottsdale’s Kierland Commons, and the burger is impressive. Shake Shack is a blueprint for how chains can nail the classic on a large scale. Beef is coarsely ground, giving the patty a rugged, steak-like chew. Everything about this burger is soft — beef, lettuce, tomato, creamy mayo sauce, and cheese, loaded with fat and salt. Shake Shack is both an admirable burger and the future of American fast food.
6. The Chuckbox
202 East University Drive, Tempe
The Big One with cheese, $5.69
You can smell the charcoal grill from down the street. Standing at that grill after ordering, you watch a meat virtuoso flip patties, toast buns, and rain salt as eater after eater cycles through. The burger is simple but very good. The four-ounce patty is thin and wide, creating greater surface area for the patty to kiss the grill and, crucially, making for a higher and more optimal cheese-to-beef ratio (key to any cheeseburger). You can taste a charcoal hint, opening memories of summer grill-outs. Unfortunately, toppings hang out in a buffet in the center of the room all day. If these weren’t sitting around and, instead, were layered onto buns by the professionals, this burger would be next level.
5. Paradise Valley Burger Company
4001 East Bell Road, #102
Paradise CHZ, $6.50
The basic burger at this strip mall hole-in-the-wall isn’t so basic. Fresh cucumbers replace pickled. Red onions, however, are pickled. The switcheroo works, bringing coolness and tanginess. A bun with a burnished exterior also contributes to the quality of this burger. That bun is thin and has a rare, noticeable chew. It has gotten a heavy toasting. Cheese is melted and molten. There’s a heady Maillard brownness on the beef. For the price and hippie-tinged low-key vibes, you won’t find a groovier burger in town.
4. Hopdoddy Burger Bar
11055 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (and other locations)
The Classic Burger, $7.75
This Texas-based micro chain takes a cheflike approach to the humble burger. Buns are baked daily, beef is ground every morning, and kitchen staff cut toppings from whole fruit and vegetables. Why do so many other burger places skip the hard work and ignore all that we’ve learned about food in the last 20 years? A Hopdoddy burger’s fresh-baked, egg-washed bun looks too puffy but collapses to thinness when you grab ahold. Toppings are minimal — one slice of tomato, one leaf of lettuce — but have uncommon vibrancy and life. The cheese is flawlessly melted, coating the patty like running water. That inch-thick patty has a sultry char that crackles a little as your teeth sink in. This is a Platonic new-age burger.
3146 East Camelback Road
Classic Burger, $12.95
A burger at Delux pushes you close to meaty nirvana. The bulbous patty is grilled to a faintly musky char on the outside; the interior is a textbook medium rare (the chef’s recommendation). The bun’s shell glistens. It has been toasted to give the underside a whisper of crispness. The bun is thin and slight enough that it doesn’t curb the glory of the patty. That patty comes from grain-fed Niman Ranch beef. In my opinion, grain-fed beef falls short of grass-fed. Grain-fed packs more fat, yes, but a cook can compensate for grass-fed’s leanness by adding fat via other elements (cheese, sauce, a buttered bun, etc.). On the other hand, grain-fed beef has no such way of catching up to grass-fed’s more intense, nuanced flavor. If you disagree with this take, Delux may be king of your burger list.
2. The Counter
50 North Central Avenue (and other locations)
Create Your Own Burger, $10.50
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Meat loves salt. At this polished, design-your-own burger spot in downtown Phoenix, cooks calibrate the salinity of the patty, cheese, and bun to the precise level that optimally draws out the full character of the beef. And that beef is the star of this burger, bringing the intense, baroque, soul-satisfying depth that makes a sublime burger and gives the word “beefy” its backbone. Any more salt and there’d be too much. The texture of the patty equals its flavor. The meat melts on the tongue almost like burrata. Toppings on the bottom bun register at chill bass riffs to the patty’s lead guitar. (Note: The Counter has such a vast range of toppings that you check boxes on a worksheet to order.)
1. Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar
15257 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (and other locations)
Ladies and gents of the Valley, Zinburger is your burger champion. The attention put into every aspect of this burger makes it king. A thick patty sculpted from grass-fed beef glistens ruby-pink in the center, bursts with juices, and tastes almost like a fatty cut of steak. The bun is heavily buttered and grilled. Its soft sponginess melds with the decadent dissolve of the six-ounce patty. Finely shredded lettuce adds the right amount of peripheral quasi-crispness. The burger’s melted cheese tastes like a vibrant dairy product from a farm, not a lifeless factory slice, touching the burger with distant funk and (even more) glorious fat. Onions grilled with zinfandel lock in aromatics and sweetness. The brain’s sweet, salty, and umami taste centers groove and party from first bite to last. This may be Sam Fox’s best restaurant.