By: Beci Russell
Pittsburgh has always had a bit of a sordid love affair with unhealthy food. Oh, we have other food mistresses as well: local food, ethnic food. But the old standby happens to be anything fried, salty, creamy, or meaty. Introduce the most recent variety of our artery clogging passions: the burger bar. There exist myriad options if you’re looking for a burger in the ‘Burgh; Tessaro’s in Bloomfield, 5 Guys Burgers and Fries, Hemingway’s in Oakland, and Fathead’s on the Southside are just a few well-known spots to hit if you’ve a hankering for hamburger. But three newer locations are getting the bulk of the buzz these days: Burgatory, BRGR, and Winghart’s.
Burgatory opened in 2011 in the Waterworks Mall in Aspinwall. The brainchild of the guys over at Uncle Sam’s Subs, Burgatory’s focus is all about the burger…and the shakes. They’re using local and organic whenever possible, but the biggest pull seems to be the build your own burger option. There are notepads on all of the tables where you simply check off the boxes to make your own Franken-burger baby exactly the way you please. Choose the bun, burger, rub, cheese, sauce, and other delectable toppings to your heart’s content and be in total control of your culinary experience. They also have ready-made varieties including the Morty’s Steakhouse: a standard beef burger that’s been crusted in peppercorns, smothered in gooey horseradish cheddar, piled high with fried onions, and finished with a red wine sauce. They also do a daily “exotic meat” burger special with things like elk meat or rattlesnake, which is weird, but also kind of cool. There are vegetarian, pescatarian, and non-red meat eater options as well. All burgers come with a side of the house-made sweet and russet potato chips, but you can get an order of fries for a slight upcharge. In my opinion, it’s worth splurging and getting the truffled bleu cheese fries for the table. They’re warm and salty, a little bit woodsy from the truffle oil: absolutely delicious. And lastly, the shakes. Hand-spun and made with in-house vanilla bean ice cream, you can get them adult optioned or child-friendly. The (virgin) caramel pretzel will make you want to punch your mama and say ‘daaannnng!’; you’ve been forewarned.
BRGR (yes, you say it bee-arr-gee-arr) is an East Liberty establishment that opened in the location of the former Red Room (they also have a newer location in Cranberry). Sharing a kitchen with their sister restaurant, Spoon, BRGR pumps out gourmet burgers but without the flexibility and freedom of the custom options at Burgatory. The menu is small-ish, but with interesting and quality choices. One of the burger options is the Double Yoi, a burger topped with sharp Swiss cheese, a mound of pastrami, a dippy fried egg, creamy coleslaw, and a handful of fries then doused in thousand island dressing. Another newer option is the My Big Fat Greek Burger which captures the flavors of a gyro into burger form: a ground lamb patty is the transferring vessel for seared gyro meat smothered in a cool and creamy tzatziki, then topped with tomato, red onion, and lettuce. As with Burgatory, you can also opt out of the cow variety of burger if you so please, with a crab patty, chicken, veggie burger, or even hot dogs. The burgers don’t come with a side at all, so fries cost extra here (and some say it’s not worth it). What actually is worth it are the fried pickles. If you’ve never had a fried pickle, then you need to put on your big kid pants, buckle up, and get ready for the greasiest, tangiest, most amazing taste sensation you never knew you wanted to have. They’re crispy and soft and wonderful dipped in ranch dressing (you know how we do in PGH). I usually have to share with other people when I go, but I would definitely eat the whole order by myself…I just wouldn’t be able to also eat a burger. BRGR originally got buzz for their spiked milkshakes, which use Dave and Andy’s ice cream. If you’re opting away from the tipsy variety, then their shake options are pretty boring, truth be told. They only have a few non-alcoholic flavors and there’s nothing particularly special about them. Nothing I’d want to punch my mother for, at least.
Winghart’s has opened the most recently, downtown in Market Square. This place is definitely the edgiest of the three burger bars we’ve been examining. The place is tiny, dark, and just on this side of a little bit scary. But it’s owned by a local guy and the burgers are pretty stellar. No shake options here, but they do serve wood fired pizzas alongside burgers on their menu. The Shipwreck Burger is a total taste sensation, combining smooth Brie cheese, a pile of sweet and soft caramelized onions, crisp-chewy and smoky bacon, peppery arugula, and a generous smear of white truffle aioli. They also have a create-your-own burger option if you trust your own flavor creations more than the chefs here; and as with our other featured burger joints, there is also a vegetarian option if you’re looking for that variety. They make an in-house honey mustard that you’ll probably want to bathe in, and they grind all the meat right in the back the same day it hits the grill. As with BRGR, Winghart’s doesn’t offer a side with their burgers. But if you’ve got a few members of your table that are on the brink of hangry, you won’t be disappointed with the chili cheese fries. They make the chili with brown ale and the same meat they use for the burgers then smother the thick, dark fries with a generous helping and then smother all of that in cheese. I don’t think there’s anything too special about the fries on their own, but they’re a little magical with the addition of the toppings.
So just to conclude, I’ve sat down to a juicy, greasy, savory mess at each of these establishments (at least once) and I definitely have my own opinions about them. Here are just a few assessments and tips before you try:
Burgatory: If they try to seat you at a high-top table, do yourself a favor and wait out for a booth or a normal table. The excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs on the high-tops will make anything you eat less delicious because of the pain you’re in. The service is excellent and the food is good; don’t go too hungry though because the wait can be long since this place is so popular. Nothing can beat that caramel pretzel milkshake though…
BRGR: The service at the East Liberty location is notoriously bad (the service at the Cranberry location is much better). But, personally, I like their burgers the best out of the three places. If I’m going on taste alone, I’d want a burger and fried pickles from BRGR over any of the other places.
Winghart’s: When I said this place is small, I mean it’s really small. They only have two tables and a counter besides the bar. The quality of meat is really good, but from most assessments I’ve heard, the pizzas are actually better than the burgers. The service is spotty, at best; not a first date kind of place.
In a city where we harbor a fondness for fries on salads and sandwiches, drown little potato and pasta dumplings in a cup of butter and onions, and liberally drench everything we can manage in ranch dressing, a penchant for burgers seems natural. Check out these hometown highlights and decide for yourself which locale actually is the burger king.