Things that make me crave hamburgers: fast-food billboards; waxed paper; SpongeBob SquarePants; bags of charcoal; Popeye; the Coca-Cola logo; any mention of Harold and Kumar; any mention of literally anyone named Harold; the Budweiser Clydesdales; literally, any horse; and, ironically, the phrase, "nothing burger." (Note: this list is not comprehensive.)
In other words, my burger cravings are Pavlovian. And everything is a bell.
Those bells ring louder in summer, with the promise of cookouts and food truck festivals around every corner, so I decided to catalog some of my favorite local burgers and to try out some new ones. I began with a quick Facebook crowd-surfing effort. Dozens of friends and acquaintances weighed in. There were a lot of tried-and-true institutions and a few surprises.
Tommy's Burger Stop (1106 W. 29th Place), a Spenard stalwart, was the clear front-runner of my informal survey. It had been years since my last visit and I was happy to discover that it has maintained its quality along with its popularity. The interior is tiny, with only a few tables, but in the summer months you can chow down in their surprisingly tranquil outdoor patio. High fences and flowerbeds create a comforting oasis amid the decidedly unlovely liquor store and pawn shop parking lots. That said, the burgers themselves are transporting enough. The patty, made from Australian beef, is subtly seasoned with a Cajun spice blend and full of flavor. I'm awarding extra points for thoughtful, friendly service during the hectic lunch rush and was impressed that our shared single burger was neatly halved and served in two baskets with fries on each. ($9.25 for a bacon cheeseburger.)
Another gem in the Spenard burger crown is Out of the Box (3807 Spenard Road), an artisanal eatery with a reputation for gluten-free options that has, mysteriously, remained off my radar. Occupying a decidedly vintage building, the menu itself is delightfully fresh. I opted for the Truffle Butter Burger ($13) on a traditional (non GF) bun and I was smitten. This burger has a lot flavor and is a master class in balance. Black Angus beef, provolone, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle, Thousand Island dressing, and somehow, miraculously singing above the symphony of flavors was the earthy, funky luxurious taste of truffle. I know, I know, I'm waxing poetic. But this burger was that good.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from the burger at Pangea Restaurant and Lounge (508 West 6th Avenue), another popular crowd-sourced suggestion. I'm a big fan but it would not cross my mind to order a burger in a restaurant where you can get Moroccan Goat Tagine, Tempura Pork Belly, or an Oxtail Bao. I guess I figured a Pangea burger would be on the bougie side — topped with caviar and a fried quail's egg, perhaps. I couldn't have been more wrong. Actually called the "Drive In Burger" ($13) this version clings close to the classic, with ground chuck and brisket, cheese, onions, pickles, lettuce on a brioche bun with a side of excellent fries. I ate this solo, at the bar, with a nice glass of red wine: comfort food and Cabernet.
A couple of blocks and a few decades away is Club Paris (417 W. 5th Avenue) whose not-so-well-kept-secret is their lunch-time-only burger ($11.50) which is ground fresh daily from the trimmings of their famous filet mignon. This burger is thick and juicy and pairs perfectly with an icy martini. What's that you say? Lunchtime is a bit early for you? Never fear. In this vintage restaurant's dark and moody bar, it's always happy hour. In 1958.
Similarly untouched by time is Wee B's (1260 O'Malley Road) in South Anchorage, which I once described in a review as "feisty." That hasn't changed and I like to think it never will. Old-school burgers (including buffalo and elk options) with thin patties for maximum char, housemade buns that squish nicely, and truly great onion rings are just a few of Wee B's charms. Others are the old-fashioned milk shakes, cellophane-wrapped deviled eggs, and a vintage Ms. Pac-man machine. Don't forget your quarters. ($6.85 for a quarter-pound bacon cheeseburger.)
At the Long Branch Saloon (1737 E. Dimond Blvd.), the pleasantly dive-y tavern in South Anchorage, I almost always order the jalapeno burger ($10.25) with bacon (an extra $2.25). Perhaps I gravitate to this order because the Long Branch is one of the few places in town where I'm likely to eschew a glass of wine in favor of a good local beer. The low, slow heat and vinegary bite of the jalapeno peppers, the charcoal-y crust, and the smoky salt of the bacon is the perfect foil for a tall, cold pint of your favorite brew. The Long Branch is known for its housemade buns but I'd like to shout-out the house-cut fries, which are crisp on the outside, perfectly seasoned and beautifully tender within. Other Long Branch attractions include two pool tables, a jukebox, occasional live music, and a complete lack of windows if you're in the mood to lose track of time.
I've reviewed Kriner's Burgers & Pies in Mountain View and while the burgers are great, I much prefer to eat them at Kriner's Diner (2409 C Street) — the old-school, Midtown diner. If the burger joint is slick, the diner is cozy. The décor is pure Alaskana, with a photo or two of the few brave souls who have been equal to the Kriner's Burger Challenge: single-handedly consuming a burger with a 2-pound patty on a 10-inch bun with eight slices of cheese, toppings, and a full pound of fries in under 45 minutes. I can't resist a place with kitschy signs (my favorite: "I don't repeat gossip, so listen carefully.") and snarky staff T-shirts ("Not trying to make everyone happy, just a solid 75%"!). They almost don't even have to have a great burger. But they do. I'm partial to the Hollenbeck burger ($14.49) — a half-pound burger patty on toast with sautéed onions and Swiss cheese. This patty melt is creamy and filling and we were way more than 75 percent satisfied (extra points for refilling our tater tots at no extra charge).
Part time capsule, part Alaskan museum, part burger mecca, Arctic Roadrunner (5300 Old Seward Highway & 2477 Arctic Blvd.) looms large in the hearts and appetites of Anchorage burger lovers. Compared to the Alaskana on the wall, I'm a relative newcomer to the state, and even I have almost two decades of Roadrunner-related memories. I have fond, if hazy, memories of warm afternoons by the creek, sipping a blackberry milkshake while my daughters paddled after ducks and gulls, offering French fries and bits of burger bun. I wondered if those memories were a bit idealized, but I recently returned with my younger daughter (now a teenager) and her best friend to the same umbrella-topped tables for a birthday lunch. The creek is the same. The ducks are the same. And, happily, the delicious burgers and perfect onion rings are the same. (bacon cheeseburger: $8.)
Sadly, Dick Sanchis, the beloved owner of Arctic Roadrunner passed away on June 25. He leaves behind a legacy of community service and culinary excellence.
Whether your tastes lean toward the truffle-topped or to the wax-paper-wrapped creation eaten with lusty gusto at an obliging picnic table, Anchorage has your burger cravings covered. My husband wondered if writing this piece might for once, if briefly, make me sick of hamburgers. It has not. If anything, I might have to write a burger series. Stay tuned.
Got a favorite burger or burger-joint that's not on the list? Tell us what we're missing at email@example.com or in the comment section below.