We taste-tested and ranked the city’s four best burgers — as chosen by you, the people. (Okay, we rated three of them, and had to agree to disagree about the fourth!)
The people have spoken, via a Seattle Times burger-bracket poll: Seattle’s top four burger joints are officially Dick’s Drive-In, Li’l Woody’s, Red Mill and Uneeda Burger. The final winner — the local champion royale of ground beef on a bun — will be decided by popular vote on Monday, July 16.
In the meantime, Seattle Times critics Bethany Jean Clement and Tan Vinh set out to taste-test the Final Four. Their methodology: Try a basic cheeseburger plus one fancier wild-card burger at each place, along with French fries, onion rings (if available) and a chocolate shake. Atmosphere was not factored in — if a burger is great enough, a dashboard is every bit as good as a table, right?
Phinney Ridge: 312 N 67th St., 206-783-6362; Interbay: 1613 W. Dravus St., 206-284-6363; Ballard: 3058 N.W. 54th St., 206-784-1400; redmillburgers.com
Cheeseburger $5.29; bacon deluxe with cheese $7.39; fries $2.99; chocolate shake $4.29
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The basic burger
Bethany: Red Mill says, “It’s our Sauce that makes our Burgers Great!” (their capitalization), and it’s true that the sauce outweighs any taste of, say, beef. The “Mill Sauce” is “a housemade mayo with a very light Smokey Flavor” (their caps again), and as it’s made of mayonnaise, it is good, if not “Great!” The patty here (flame-broiled, ¼-pound “fresh beef” — not very specific, but better than the alternative) is of the thin, uniformly brown-gray ilk, providing more of a texture than anything else. The lettuce was limp. This burger is okay, in a mid-range fast-food-ish way. If you love it, I’d suggest you try Burgermaster — same idea, but made with local grass-fed meat that your mouth will actually register and appreciate.
Tan: I agree. The meat tasted bland because it wasn’t properly seasoned. It needed more salt and pepper. But I give Red Mill this — as I’m staring at all the tables around us, I see everyone’s cheeseburger is served with melted cheese. I’m a stickler about this. You don’t want a cold or room-temperature cheese square on top of the patty. This is not a cold-cut sub. The patty should be enrobed in the cheese. The melted cheese is what gives it that yolk-like lusciousness. It’s the secret ingredient to saving any dry or bleh burger like this one.
Bethany: Neither of us loved Red Mill’s fries, which were neither pleasantly floppy nor properly crispy, nor salty enough. Ditto the slightly gritty, cloyingly sweet, soft-serve-esque shake. However, Tan found something to love…
Tan: The onion rings! Best thing I ate here. Some of the best I’ve eaten in Seattle. The salty, crunchy batter is a nice contrast to the sweet onions, a coarse, crumbly texture in your mouth with an earthy note that tasted like cumin. The rings stay remarkably crunchy 20 minutes later. But that chalky milkshake — I couldn’t tell this was a chocolate shake. It tasted unnervingly neutral.
This was our least-favorite burger of the Seattle Top Four (with an important caveat — see the Dick’s entry). But if it’s your top choice, you do you! It’s not bad, and what the hell do critics know? Your favorite burger is Seattle’s best burger.
Capitol Hill: 1211 Pine St., 206-457-4148; Ballard: 2040 N.W. Market St., 206-257-5259; South Lake Union: 1091 Thomas St., 206-457-5070; White Center: 9807 16th Ave. S.W., 206-403-1294; lilwoodys.com
Cheeseburger $5; the Fig and the Pig $8.50; fries $3-4, with queso $6; chocolate shake $6
The basic burger
Tan: The 4-ounce patty (hand-formed, all-natural, grass-fed beef, the website boasts) is grilled on an open flame and stacked with Tillamook cheddar and copious amounts of chopped onions and pickles. It’s bit heavy-handed with the ketchup and mayo — a messy, tart-and-tangy burger that tastes remarkably like McDonald’s cheeseburger. It’s filling for $5, but it feels more like training wheels for those who aren’t ready for Li’l Woody’s other greasy bombs.
Bethany: The “Lil’ Woody” is a good basic burger. It’s plumper than a flat fast-food specimen, but with a similar, carefully calibrated balance of meaty-cheesy-saltiness, pickle-and-onion piquancy and ketchup-sweet. I didn’t think the ketchup and mayo seemed overdone — a burger like this wants to be saucy.
Bethany: Everybody loves the fries served with a little cup of Full Tilt milkshake for dipping here, but I’m going to controversially opine that you should really get the version with house-made queso — Lil’ Woody’s nice, thin fries with so much ever-so-slightly spicy cheese goo that a gloppy great lake of it forms in the bottom of the paper-lined basket. Also, the portion is HUGE.
Tan: For all the cheapskates who complain burgers aren’t cheap when you factor in the fries, this deal is for you. For $4, it’s an absurd amount of fries that can be shared among two or three. “The Fig and the Pig” burger (pickled figs, bacon and blue cheese) has this piquant porky, jammy note, which is fine. But I like a burger that tastes like savory beef, not bacon-wrapped dates.
Li’l Woody’s is pretty good, for a balanced-tasting basic burger. It’s worth noting that our last few experiences at the newish Li’l Woody’s in South Lake Union have been subpar (it’s near the office, so we keep trying). Cold fries, scorched patties, indifferent service — it seems like no one cares about this branch, maybe because no one’s ever there (Amazon hates hamburgers?). Anyway, fair warning; we went to Capitol Hill for the taste-test.
4302 Fremont Ave. N., (Fremont) Seattle; 206-547-2600; uneedaburger.com
Cheeseburger $6; mushroom burger $9; fries $2.75; small chocolate shake $4.50
The basic burger
Tan: Uneeda’s “Classic” is a 4-ounce patty with romaine, tomato, pickles and special sauce (mayo, lemon, lemon zest, Dijon mustard and horseradish, the same sauce used in the stellar burger at Quinn’s Pub on Capitol Hill). For two bucks more, swap in a patty made with Gleason Ranch beef, which has such a pronounced grassiness I can taste the blades in every bite. But you don’t need to splurge. The basic burger, with Painted Hills beef, is exceptional already; it’s an 80/20 burger, which in burger-geek speak means 80 percent ground lean beef to 20 percent fat, the ideal ratio. The burger is charred, with a pink center dripping with juice and fat and perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. That’s what all the other burgers lacked: salt.
Bethany: I love this hamburger. Uneeda is the only place in the top four where they asked us how we wanted it cooked — I could’ve hugged the guy at the counter, then hugged the cook when it was absolutely, ideally medium-rare. This burger tastes like meat: The patty is fat, the sear is beautiful. The fresh-tasting toppings stand up without standing out. Stacked tall and gorgeous, this burger actually dripped while I was taking its picture. “Eat me!” it cried. While I was enthusing with my mouth full about how I want to live at Uneeda Burger from now on, this burger reduced Tan to reverent silence. The fact that it is $6, with cheese, is a minor miracle.
Tan: Hands down the best milkshake of the four, hand-dipped, made with Snoqualmie Ice Cream, tasting of heavy cream and more heavy cream. It’s thick and rich, with no cloying sweetness and just as gluttonous as any of its decked-out burgers. The deep-fried sides were cooked textbook-perfect — tempura onions rings were crunchy but not greasy; fries were golden and crispy. But can we talk about that No. 8 specialty burger with crimini, porcini and black truffle salt, shallots and Gruyere cheese? The truffle flavor was just suffocating, and the burger tasted like it was topped with condensed cream-of-mushroom soup. But everyone loves it. What am I missing here?
Bethany: Not a thing. I’m fully with you on the mushroom/truffle burger — just why? And yes, the milkshake will make you say stupid things like “Now that’s a shake!” — straw-clogging thickness, teeth-hurting coldness and super-luxurious flavor. Uneeda’s fries are a paragon of the golden-crisp, potatoey-tasting, mid-gauge style (skip the poutine, as the gravy is lackluster). The crackly-bubbly onion rings are pure deep-fried glory.
Experts agree: Chef Scott Staples’ Fremont burger joint is the best in the city, no contest, and a bargain to boot. You DO needa Uneeda burger! He should clone this place. (His Feed Co. burger spots, in Redmond and the Central District, somehow aren’t quite as great, but certainly worth a try.)
Wallingford: 111 N.E. 45th St., 206-632-5125; Capitol Hill: 115 Broadway Ave. E., 206-323-1300; Holman Road: 9208 Holman Rd., 206-783-5233; Lake City: 12325 30th Ave. N.E., 206-363-7777; Queen Anne: 500 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-285-5155; Edmonds: 21910 Hwy. 99, Edmonds, 425-775-4243; ddir.com
Cheeseburger $1.90; Deluxe $3.40; fries $1.90; chocolate shake $1.90
The basic burger
Bethany: Like anyone who grew up in Seattle, I am biased when it comes to Dick’s. This classic — now historical! See “Posse on Broadway” — local drive-in is so ingrained in me, just the sight of the signature orange cheeseburger wrapper causes happiness (even if it’s wadded up on the ground blocks away, being pecked at by a crow). Is the burger technically “great”? No, it is not. It is flat, and chewy, and often dry around the edges (this is why you get extra ketchup for five cents). But is it actually PERFECT, for hundreds of high-school lunches or a just-walking-by-anytime snack or a late-night life-saver? Yes, it is.
Tan: See, I grew up in Washington, D.C., so I don’t get Dick’s. I put Dick’s into the category of Home Team Food We Love Irrationally. It has little to do with what that burger actually tastes like. None of my East Coast friends understand Dick’s. But they all love Five Guys burger, which is based in the Washington, D.C. area. Likewise, many locals here think Five Guys sucks. And don’t let California transplants with their In-N-Out get started about Dick’s. More than any other food, iconic burger chains are so tied to their communities — cheap, approachable food that friends and families can all relate to. The food is usually tied to some memory or event. It’s more visceral. But let’s critique that food anyway! That burger was dry and flimsy, but it still went down easy, because, ahem, it was coated with globs of melted cheese.
Tan: I do like the fries, though I always feel like it’s a race against time because they turn limp so fast, especially when they’re steaming in that paper bag.
Bethany: If you were raised on them, Dick’s fries are just right: not too thin, not too thick, kind of floppy except for the tiny crispy ones, perfectly salted. And here’s a pro tip: Skip the (totally decent!) shake and get a hot-fudge sundae with peppermint stick ice cream.
Our feelings about Dick’s are so vastly divergent, we must agree to disagree and refrain from a rating. (But Tan is wrong!)