In search of the perfect burger

In the moments that followed the first bite, as the flavour of beef and bacon and cheese filled our mouths, we knew this was one of our more brilliant plans.

Mmmmm

Of course, it didn’t start out that way.

It started out as a tongue-in-cheek joke, a nod to our mutual love of burgers. But as my sister’s trip from the coast to Cowtown neared, it morphed into a serious scheme.

The burger tour of southern Alberta was born.

You see, a truly great burger is more than the sum of its parts.

A solid, but not too filling, bun provides the backbone. It needs to hold the burger together, soak up the juices from beef and sauce, but not be too tall, too bread-y or so flimsy it becomes an annoyance.

Sauces–relish, mustard, ketchup, special or otherwise– should add to the flavour and not overpower the patty taste.

Lettuce and tomato are optional. Onion is not.

The burger should just fit into your hands and be bitten through without feeling you have to dislocate your jaw.

It should be messy. Bonus points for burgers that cause juices to trickle down your hands.

(The trick, I would come to learn, is to turn your plate so the burger drippings fall onto your french fries.)

Establishing a plan took several e-mail exchanges and thorough research.

A cruise through the Chowhound online forums, suggestions from friends and even a photo posted on FlickrĀ  — a photo-sharing website — gave us our plan of attack: five burger joints in four days.

There were tentative discussions about beef detox after that point.

And so, to the journey. From Calgary International Airport, we made our way to the first tour stop: Boogie’s Burgers on Edmonton Trail.

The little sister was off to the races with a double patty burger, adorned with cheese, bacon and pickles. (And a bacon, banana, peanut butter milkshake to wash it all down; if I hadn’t been around when she was born, I would swear she was adopted.)I wanted a slower pace and went with a single with bacon and cheese.

The burgers were the size of my outstretched hand, with a tangy red sauce. The buns were fresh-tasting, with a slightly crisp crust that gave nicely when bitten into. Thick slices of bacon and melted cheddar cheese rounded out the burgers. And they passed the requisite messy test with me having to go through several paper napkins.

Boogie's Burger

The aftermath

We were off to a good start. Day 2 took us down Highway 22 to Turner Valley for a stop at the Chuckwagon Cafe. Charmed by the red barn exterior and the slightly kitschy decor inside, we were eager to see what this little restaurant had to offer.

Chuckwagon Cafe

We both ordered the House Burger, minus the mushrooms, featuring a six-ounce patty of beef raised on a Longview farm with no hormones or steroids, topped with fried onions, bacon and marble cheese.

Chuckwagon Cafe's House Burger

Chuckwagon Cafe Burger

After the plates were set down, the first five minutes were punctuated solely with the sounds of beef contentment, echoed by little more than groans of acknowledgment.

Mmmm. Uh-huh. Mmmm. Seriously.

The thick patty was juicy and flavourful, had nice charred bits and was well-spiced and complemented by the homemade relish.

Charred bits

For the next hour as we drove further south on Cowboy Trail–she marvelled at the expansive Prairie sky while we sang along with bubble gum pop songs –there were moments when we stopped to talk about those burgers again.

In High River, we pulled up to a little red-roofed burger shack whose reputation is well known. The Hitchin’ Post is a local favourite and the steady line of traffic in and out of the dirt parking lot surrounding the tiny takeout restaurant spoke volumes.

Hitchin' Post

Cheeseburgers topped with a full slice of onion and sitting atop yellow mustard and relish were ordered up and washed down with orange soda. The burgers were about the size of my palm and tasty, but more akin to a burger from a fair. It filled the burger need, but not in the way that would keep us talking about them for days after.

Hitchin' Post cheeseburger

By 11 a. m. the next morning, we were ready for round four: Rocky’s Burger Bus –literally, an old red bus jammed into the city’s southeast industrial area just off Blackfoot Trail, with a few picnic tables in behind.

Rocky's Burger Bus

The cheeseburgers were adorned with little more than a generous helping of mustard and relish and a piece of processed cheese. But the thick wedge of beef was the star attraction of this meat-centric burger. It was juicy and tender, likely because the patties are shaped by hand. And it was hot off the grill, which was deliciously unexpected.

Burger Bus I

Rocky's fries

The final stop on the tour was at downtown steak house Saltlik, where friends joined us to try the double-fisted bacon cheeseburger. This was not just a turn of phrase. A thick patty topped with bacon, cheddar, a healthy tomato slice, lettuce and red onion, all jammed into a tall bun–two hands were definitely necessary.

But, as we entered a virtual beef coma at the end of day four, there was no debate about who served the best burger. Even now, weeks later, I think about the Chuckwagon Cafe and how easy it would be to climb into my car and head south.

The sister has already marked it as a must-do for the next tour.

This story first appeared in the Real Life section in the Calgary Herald. For more delicious recipes, visit CalgaryHerald.com/life.


  15 comments for “In search of the perfect burger

  1. thatgirlsix
    August 7, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    i love you sister. i’m going to steal the photos from here unless you want to send them to me. i have everyone in the office sitting in front of my computer…we’re drooling.

    -kid sis

  2. Amy
    August 7, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Glad I’m heading to the lake again tomorrow where I KNOW I’ll have a burger! Great story, Gwen. You’ve got me hooked on your blog, girl! :o) A++

    Cheers!

  3. Carmel
    August 8, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Hey, there is nothing in the world like a good burger. I’m originally from Canada but now I live in Australia where a burger comes with shredded carrot and beetroot (pickled beets!), FRIED onions and NO PICKLE!! Needless to say when I land on Canadian soil, burgers are on the to-do list. Real ones with dill pickles and raw onions, relish, ketchup and mustard…
    but the best, I mean THE BEST burger ever (and I’ve eaten burgers from Vancouver to Toronto) is from Mrs. Mike’s aka Dairy King in St.Boniface, a suburb of Winnipeg, in Manitoba…
    OMG. I can’t even explain except to say the family is Greek, the business is season and generational (both for the staff and the customers) and the burgers include greek chili and I drool while I dream and save up to go back for a visit.
    Best. Burger. Ever. Please do yourself a visit. This might be the only reason to visit Winnipeg!

  4. August 10, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Sadly I won’t be in Calgary this trip home, but now you’ve got me really jonesing for a good burger!

    Now I just need some good places to have burgers in Edmonton!

  5. dinnerwithjulie
    August 10, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    DAMN YOU.
    Call me if you ever need a sub-in sister (a pinch-sister?) for future research. Including burgers: round 2. Seriously, anytime.

  6. August 10, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    I’m tagging along too, but I suggest we start at my house, with Hubby’s burgers. Yes, I’m bragging.

  7. patentandthepantry
    August 15, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Cheryl, I’m totally in!

  8. Kate
    August 18, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Hi my vote goes to http://www.originalmotorcycleburgers.com/ New & Vintage look, rare motorcycle art, detail &branding style in every way including Fuss’s new hand picked playlist, it’s an experience You have to try!!! Featuring “The Original Steak Burger”, AAA Ground Fresh on Site,highest quality ingredients, everything is made to order, variety of Original Steak Burgers, Free Range Chicken, Veggie Burgers, Fussy Wings, Soup & Salads, Original Fries, Sweet Potato Fries & Onion Rings.

  9. thatgirlsix
    August 18, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Julie and Cheryl can come along.

    But they have to like Katy Perry and ABBA.

    And this trip might have to be Post-Paris. I don’t think the five day burger-a-thon is in the training schedule.

    Love you!

    xo

  10. August 29, 2009 at 9:29 am

    i need one ASAP!

  11. August 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Right now, I’m hungry! Those burgers look delicious!

  12. September 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    I found the best chesseburger in the world!! Joe’s in Atlanta. They make with some pork in the groundbeef and use think cut bacon. Unreal!!!! Check out Joes when your in the ATL (as we call it).

  13. October 26, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I’m {forever!} in search of the perfect burger. Awesome post! I’m loving this fabulous {and new-to-me} foodie blog.

    Cheers.

  14. cheeseonthatokay?
    November 25, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Interesting that you singled out the Chuckwagon – we go there regularly for breakfast, but I’ve never tried the burgers. Will make a point of it.

    Also interesting that you hit Boogie’s, but didn’t stop at Peters’. For shame, for shame.

    And if anyone wants to know where the world’s best burger is, I’ll spill: Tommy’s in L.A. The one at Rampart and Beverly – accept no substitutes or alternate locations. I mean it. It’ll change your life.

    • patentandthepantry
      November 26, 2009 at 3:54 pm

      Keeping Tommy’s in LA in mind if I ever get down there, so thanks for the tip.
      As for Peters’, we just couldn’t hit every place in Calgary. There is talk of a burger tour part II though…..

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