Thanks to the cooking smarts of chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston, the classic California cheeseburger ($12, with fries) lives a very good life at Nightingale. Brimming with a big, bold beefy bite, the quarter-pound patty is a half-and-half mix of chuck and a fat-laced brisket. The patties are fried, caramelizing in their own juices. Sous chef Adam Murphy is responsible for the tender brioche bun, further enriched by plenty of pre-toasting butter. A gutsy four-year-old Wisconsin Cheddar melts like a dream, and the juicy tomato actually tastes like a tomato. McCabe-Johnston replaces boilerplate iceberg lettuce with romaine, a huge improvement; ditto the herb-packed aioli, which subs for mayonnaise. When asked where I dine on my own dime, Nightingale is one of my stock responses, and this awe-inspiring burger is one of the primary reasons why.
2551 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-7060, www.nightingalempls.com
One of the joys of the superb burger ($10 to $14, with fries) at the Kenwood is the kitchen’s ability to hit what can only be described as a textbook example of medium-rare. Forget about some tepid pink; the beef’s beautiful crimson color is barely unchanged in the patty’s center. The exceptional buns, brimming with dairy-induced goodness and made by baker John Kraus at Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis, deserve their own shout-out. Under the patty lie two slices of house-cured pork belly, griddled with a slight cider-sugar glaze, and on the top there’s a generous slice of brazenly melty Gruyère. That’s covered by a pepper-dotted egg, judiciously fried until the white is just barely cooked all the way through, and the yolk, when pierced, slips out in a warm, thick ooziness. Sensational, right? Finally, a sexed-up, super-juiced heirloom tomato slice, totally worth the dollar upcharge, along with a perky bibb lettuce leaf, and then, because Saunders steers clear of ketchup on a burger, the top bun gets a swipe of tomato aioli. Truly, a burger for the record books.
2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3685, www.thekenwoodrestaurant.com
Victory 44 gets it right with its “Perfect Burger” ($14, with fries). The star of the show is a sublimely juicy patty, an ingenious four-to-one grind of beef and pork, a strategy that infuses each bite with a richness not normally associated with lean ground beef. The well-seasoned, jagged-edged patties get a dark, flavorful char, and from there, chef/co-owner Erick Harcey sticks to a disciplined regimen. The rich, golden buns — from Rustica in Minneapolis — are toasted and spread with a mild Dijonnaise. Size-wise, patty and bun are a perfect (there’s that word again) match. The bottom half is neatly covered in a layer of crunchy icebox pickles, which follow a beloved Harcey family recipe. The top of the patty is crowned with two burger classics: Crisp bacon, cut to pancetta-like skinniness, and two melting-down-the-sides slices of plain-old (and wonderfully harmonious) American cheese. Fries get the treatment, too, with finely chopped fresh herbs, a dusting of bacon powder and a flurry of grated Parmesan cheese. Insider’s tip: During happy hour (5 to 5:44 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday), Harcey cuts the price to $7, asking only that each burger be accompanied by a beverage purchase. Yep, perfect.
2203 44th Av. N., Mpls., 612-588-2228, www.victory-44.com
Wise Acre Eatery chef Beth Fisher has a singular source for the beef she uses in her burgers ($14 lunch, $16 dinner, both with fries). It’s the restaurant’s own Plato, Minn., farm. A butcher from Watertown, Minn., grinds the meat, a changes-frequently combination of leftover cuts, including round, chuck and blade. Seasoning is a model of restraint, just salt and pepper, sprinkled on just before the hefty patty hits the cast-iron griddle, frying them next to a ham steak-sized slice of the restaurant’s swoon-inducing bacon, resulting in a patty with a lightly charred crust and a clean, deeply pink and ultra-juicy interior. Cheese is a tangy, super-melted wedge of triple-cream Brie. Greens? Just a tiny (and, yes, fresh from the farm) basil leaf. The finishing touch is a few of the kitchen’s crunchy, slightly vinegary quick (as in 24-hour) pickles. Don’t treat them as a garnish, because like the burger itself, they’re meant to be devoured.
5401 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-2577, www.wiseacreeatery.com
The “Bottineau Burger” ($11 lunch, $12 dinner, both with fries) at the Sample Room is one of those expertly charred half-pound monsters that’s easier to navigate with a knife and fork than with two hands. It starts with lean, flavorful, Wisconsin-raised grass-fed beef, ground in-house. Chef Geoff Hausmann doesn’t skimp on the garnishes, starting with a generous slab of sharp Cheddar. Hausmann brines pork belly for two days, then slowly braises it in pork fat, yielding a shimmering, ultra-porky — and ultra-fatty — finish. Buttermilk-blanched fried onions add a crunchy end note. The bun (from Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington) is a beauty, toasted to a gentle crispiness on the outside, with a milk-enriched softness on the inside. It all works together, like clockwork.
2124 NE. Marshall St., Mpls., 612-789-0333, www.the-sample-room.com
At HauteDish, chef/co-owner Landon Schoenefeld makes a burger ($13, with fries) that’s so all-American that it should be set to its own Aaron Copland score. Before being fried in butter, each bruiser of a 6-ounce patty — two parts chuck, one part brisket — is mixed with garlic, thyme, slow-cooked onions and a taste-bud-tickling powder created by introducing liquid nitrogen to a sharp, house-smoked Gorgonzola. For crunch, Schoenefeld takes a cue from the venerated In-N-Out Burger and places burger-friendly vegetables under the patty, along with a whisper of horseradish-kissed mustard. Up top, there’s a double dose of American cheese, a dollop of roasted garlic aioli, a few thick slabs of applewood-smoked bacon and a vibrant salad of raw button mushrooms tossed with chives, olive oil and lemon juice. The recipe for the sesame seed-studded bun evolved from a dinner roll formula, and they’re split and griddled — in butter, of course — into nutty brown toastiness. The menu boldly declares “no temps or substitutions, ever” and that’s a wise dictate. Insider’s tip: During happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. weekdays), bar patrons pay $10, which includes one of any under-$6 draughts.
119 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-338-8484, www.haute-dish.com
While Instagram-ers have long moved on to buzzier newcomers, the Convention Grill, the 79-year-old Edina landmark — continues to crank out a no-frills classic ($5.95). It’s simplicity itself, just a rough-hewn, clearly hand-formed patty, gracefully seasoned and fried until the center is barely pink but each bite oozes sizzling juiciness. The soft bun bears trace toastiness elements, and the only garnish — next to a few so-so chip-cut pickles — is white onion, either raw or fried (get the latter), and it’s even better with a few big-old slices of smoky Cheddar (95 cents). Those looking for a trendy house-made ketchup have come to the wrong place; it’s Heinz, all the way. History books, meet your burger.
3912 Sunnyside Rd., Edina, 952-920-6881, www.conventiongrillmn.com
The stuffed burger ($15.50) hits the heights at Vincent. Picture this: the center of a giant beef patty brazenly filled with smoky Gouda and slow-braised, fall-apart tender short ribs. The garnishes are strictly old school — chopped lettuce, tomato slices, raw onion — and the final flourish is chef/owner Vincent Francoual’s version of a secret sauce, a blend of mayonnaise, ketchup and cornichons. During happy hour (4:30 to 6 p.m. weekdays, 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday), it’s priced at a Groupon-esque $8; no wonder Francoual’s eponymous burger has been a bestseller for nearly a decade. “It’s crazy how popular it is,” he said. “Maybe I should open a burger place. We make so many that the joke on the line is, ‘Hey, I thought we worked for a French restaurant.’ ”
1100 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-630-1189, www.vincentarestaurant.com