With three gourmet burger joints that have just opened in the South Sound — one in October, two in January — I thought it time for another burger pilgrimage.
Today’s burger trail encompasses the land of “chain restaurants,” a term that usually strikes fear deep in the gut of a dining critic.
Don’t worry. These aren’t those mindlessly homogenous could-be-in-Toledo-or-Tacoma chains. These chains are small and Washington-born and bred: Blazing Onion, Lunchbox Laboratory, and Bob’s Burgers & Brew.
Whose burgers proved best? That designation goes to Blazing Onion for superior burger construction, skilled service and pricing that won’t bust your wallet.
I rated each restaurant for variety, construction and flavor. I ate similar burgers at each: a “classic” cheeseburger, a blue cheese burger, a burger with a smokey flavor profile, and a wild-card burger from the “other than beef” category. Each restaurant was visited twice.
Blazing Onion Burgers, Brews & SpiritsWhere: 4502 S. Steele St., Tacoma; 253-476-5053, blazingonion.com
Scorecard: A-minus rating for burger execution, service and atmosphere — but also for dedication to Northwest products. Brew was from Tacoma’s Narrows Brewing; ground chuck from Oregon’s Painted Hills Natural Beef; sturdy kaiser buns from Franz; and Tillamook cheese.Variety: More than 25 burger varieties with gas-broiled ground chuck as the standard patty but also wild boar and buffalo patties. Two kinds of vegetarian patties make Blazing Onion exceptionally veg-friendly.Burger construction: Toasted kaiser buns held up under burdensome toppings, with one exception. Green leaf lettuce, red onions, dill pickle chips and thick-sliced tomato provided cool crunch against the tangy zip of the house burger sauce. Cheese was generously cut, as was thick pepper-flecked bacon. Not once was I asked how I wanted my burger cooked. They arrived medium well.Burger trial: Blazing Onion nailed the Classic Cheese ($8.99) with a heavy slice of Tillamook and tangy burger sauce.The Texas Heat Burger ($9.49) was overloaded with toppings that destroyed the jalapeno-cheddar bun, but the flavor nicely detoured to sloppysville with lingering, building heat from jalapenos, salsa, hot sauce and a glob of chipotle mayo.The Blues Burger ($9.49) had the one-two punch of gorgonzola crumbles and blue cheese dressing and a thump of garlic mayo.Wild boar ($11.79) was deliciously juicy and didn’t taste gamey, most likely because of the sweetened barbecue sauce and a mayo-licked coleslaw. Get this one with bacon.Missed the mark: Long, narrow plates with no room to cut your burger in half. Big burgers need big plates, please.Fries: Solid, skins-on, evenly seasoned, nice surface area, retained heat. Free fry refills and free sauces. Sweet potato fries or battered rings (better than average) for an upcharge.Worth noting: Gluten-free buns from Udi’s.Service: Solid with a slice of nice. Also, Tacoma’s Blazing Onion has table service, different from the order-at-the-counter-and-fend-for-yourself style of dining at the Gig Harbor location.Atmosphere: Typical oversize mall burger emporium, but with a lodgey Northwest palette courtesy of restaurant designer Sue Genty. Despite the restaurant’s sprawl, noise was only a minor issue, even at capacity.Pricing: Ding, ding, ding — we have a winner! Decent prices for burgers served with endless fries, and no upcharges for sauces.
Lunchbox LaboratoryWhere: 4901 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-432-4061, lunchboxlaboratory.comScorecard: B-plus rating for burgers with imaginative flavors, towering premium ingredients and a kitchen with solid aim in burger aesthetic. Extra points for one of the finest shake selections outside of Tacoma’s Shake Shake Shake. Must-try: Boston Creme Donut ($4.99).Variety: 14 specialty burgers with a build-your-own adventure option. Patties impressed with originality: The standard patty was Kobe-style American beef, but patty choices included a “dork” burger made with ground pork and duck, a “churken” with ground chicken and turkey, a lamb patty and a house-made vegetarian patty.Burger construction: Messy to the point of near annoyance for these three-napkin monstrosities. Kaiser buns were toasted, served with shredded iceberg, thick-cut tomatoes, and broadly sliced dill pickles on the side. Griddled onions and thick bacon outperformed the competition. Not once was I asked how I wanted my burger cooked. The burgers were cooked in a cast-iron skillet, and all arrived medium well. I wanted mine medium, for the record.Burger trials: The Classic ’MeriCAN ($11.99), a beefy patty properly seasoned with a glaze of melted American and assertive “Billion Island” sauce.
The Smoker ($13.99) went overboard on the smoke with peppery mayo and extra-thick bacon. Havarti made this burger over-the-top rich, not that I’m complaining.Burger of the Gods ($12.99) married stinky blue cheese with almost as stinky gorgonzola — consider me a fan. But I couldn’t muster any love for the ice cold candied balsamic onions. Ick.The Dork Burger ($12.99) was the must-order menu item with a lighter-than-expected flavor in that gloriously unctuous duck and pork patty.Missed the mark: Again with the fancy, narrow plates that looked nice, but proved to be impractical. The table caught my burger innards.Fries: A recent trial-run upgrade from the too-skinny fries to a fry with more surface area meant fries stayed hotter and offered a more satisfying texture; I appreciated the generous shake of pepper with the salt. Tots were a worthy substitute; skip the dull chips. Sweet potato fries available for an upcharge.Worth noting: Look to the specials menu for the burger and shake of the moment (they always sound tasty). Everyone should try the Tang-O-Rita cocktail (yes, it's made with Tang).Service: Friendly, but with a few lapses in timing and beverage filling.Atmosphere: Loud. Hard surfaces bounced noise. The decor was out-of-this-world awesome, featuring toys and accoutrements from when “Mork & Mindy” inspired our outfits and Fonzie-isms peppered our vernacular. Retro lunchboxes and ’60s and ’70s themed toys ruled every corner.Pricing: Premium ingredients meant premium prices — but worth the splurge. Still, I balked at the 50-cent upcharge for dipping sauce.
Bob’s Burgers & BrewWhere: 15706 Meridian E., Puyallup; 253-268-0496, bobsburgersandbrew.comScorecard: C-plus. I wanted to see more premium ingredients for the prices paid.Variety: 21 beef or chicken burgers with a seasonal menu of seven more. Burger patties were charbroiled ground Angus chuck. Gardenburger patties are available for a $1 surcharge. No other specialty patties or meats.Burger construction: Beefy burgers with pronounced char and perfect criss-crossed grill marks, but they were cooked to medium-well on one visit and overcooked to crumbly on another. Squishy buns held up to toppings, but untoasted buns created a mushy texture. Uneven patty seasoning was confusing — one visit lacked seasoning altogether. Shredded iceberg, thick-sliced tomato and crinkle-cut dill pickle chips were appreciated, but the burger sauce held little tang. Barely warm burgers and fries were annoying.Burger trials: The classic 6-ounce broiled burger ($8.99, plus 99 cents for cheese) was the most successful of the group.The sauce on the Western Bar-B-Q Burger ($11.99) skewed too sweet, and a flaccid onion ring didn’t help the mushy texture of the burger.A Bleu Cheese Burger ($10.99) had too little anemic-tasting blue cheese and the patty was overcooked. A Double Dutch Burger ($10.99) with a cut-and-curled hot dog atop a burger patty was amusing and flavorful.Missed the mark: Pagers to tell you when your table is ready. Yes, it’s that kind of impersonal.Fries: Unsalted fries that cooled to a chewy texture were forgettable; jo-jos were much better. Seasoning is a DIY thing here.Worth noting: A tap list that's above average with South Sound brewery 7 Seas, as well as Georgetown and Elysian.Service: A thoughtful server warned on one visit that the fries and burgers weren’t seasoned; another server asked how we wanted our burger cooked, but it still arrived medium well instead of the requested medium. Servers were trying here, but the kitchen made their jobs tougher.Atmosphere: Loud, loud, loud. I felt I needed ear protection for portions of my meal. Typical burger atmosphere with a Northwest feel — tall windows let in loads of light and the bar was nicely sized.Pricing: Above average, but upcharges were minimal. Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.