by Brian Ardizzone
America takes pride in its cheeseburgers. Every township in America is teeming with burger joints and grills claiming to have the best burger, and Tampa Bay is no exception. With so many places to choose from, how do you find the best burger in the bay?
Not just any restaurant, bar, or grill would be worthy of my taste buds. For consideration in this contest a restaurant must make their burgers to order. Fast-food burgers deserve no mention in this article. My journey would take to me to four towns in the Tampa Bay area. All four representatives came with high regard from fellow burger enthusiasts. The challengers for the crown are as follows: Five Guys of Clearwater, El-Cap of St. Petersburg, The Burger Box of Port Richey, and Burger-Monger of Tampa.
To prevent any unfair advantage I would order each burger the same way: lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and the beef, if given an option, would be cooked medium-rare to test for grilling accuracy. The best place to get a burger will be decided by the following factors; atmosphere: price, and most importantly—the burgers.
Within the last few years, a Five Guys craze has swept the nation. Five Guys’ greatness lies in its simplicity and its dedication to providing an excellent burger at a cheap price. Five Guys opened its first location in Tampa in February of 2010 — there are now over a dozen in the Tampa Bay area. Given the chain’s wildfire reputation and good value, Five Guys would be the first burger featured in this article and would serve as a benchmark for the rest of the competition.
Upon entering Five Guys of Clearwater (located in the Clearwater Mall on Gulf to Bay) it becomes apparent that burger fever is in full effect. Five Guys is almost always packed at this location and for good reason. Five Guys offers little else on the menu (hot dogs, grilled cheese, and the obligatory fries), so special attention is paid to the burgers. If you plan on pairing your burger with an order of fries, bring a friend (or two, or three) as the regular order of fries could feed a small village. Five Guys has a bottomless box of peanuts which are free to all who enter the door and even has a billboard that tells where the day’s fresh-cut fries came from(on this day they were from Walden, WA).
Five-Guys offer a double-cheeseburger for $5.79 (each patty weighs in at 3.6 oz) or a single for $4.44. Once you have selected the desired number of patties any additional toppings are absolutely free. The list of toppings is expansive, including premium toppings like grilled mushrooms, relish, jalapenos, green peppers, and A-1 sauce. For those who have been restricted to only eating McDonald’s or Burger King’s burgers, biting into a Five Guys burger will be a revelation. Although every Five Guys burger is cooked well-done they still manage to be juicy and full-flavored. The Five Guys burger had a copious amount of fresh American cheese. So much so that I could not keep all the melted goodness from falling off the side of the burger.
The most storied and decorated of our burger-makers resides in downtown St. Pete (3500 4th Street N to be exact). Sitting at El-Caps bar gives full view of not only several TV screens showing various sporting events but also a series of accolades and rewards including an AOL’s City’s Best. El- Cap has also been featured on local television programs Flavors of the Bay and The Edge. El-Cap was a family owned and operated business that began its existence as a ham and cheese shop but has been serving up delicious hamburgers since they started to become more prominent.
I had an opportunity to talk with El Cap owner Mary Jane Bonifili and ask her what made El Cap’s burger so special.
Indeed, the first thing I noticed was the freshness when I bit into the ‘world champ’ cheeseburger. The ‘world champ’ cheeseburger costs a mere $3.75 and features a nice thick patty of Midwestern corn-fed beef and some of the freshest, crispest veggies I’ve had on a burger. El-Cap chooses not to season their burgers, letting their beef do all the talking. The Burger was presented very well and the pickle slices protruded out of the sides as if though the burger was sticking its tongue (or tongues) out at you. For a classic old-fashioned burger you cannot go wrong with El-Cap and its hamburger pedigree.
One of the newcomers to the Bay area burger scene is the aptly named Burger Box of Port Richey. The Burger Box was opened up just four months ago by enterprising owner Ray Mansfilb. I asked Ray what makes a Burger Box burger better than any other.
“The Beef!” He replied emphatically. There’s no doubt that Ray knows what the most important part of the burger is. “Where’s the beef!?” He added with a hearty chuckle.
The Burger Box can be found on U.S. Highway 19 just south of Ridge Road. The Box offers bar-style seating or you can enjoy your burger on an outdoor patio. The patio is a great place to enjoy a burger on a cool night and listen to some good old American classic rock. The box delivers and caters, and also offers alternatives like BBQ and cheese-steaks. The Burger Box will also serve beer in the near future. Each burger is cooked with personal attention.
Although the Burger Box’s building might appear small, it kicks out easily the biggest and beefiest of the burgers that I devoured. It was no small task. Burger Box’s fresh-cut burgers come with a staggering 8 oz (that’s ½ a pound to the uninitiated) patty of lightly-salted beef. The beef is matched perfectly with thick-cut beefsteak tomato and thick-cut (notice a theme?) onion courtesy of local Eli Produce. Holding the sheer bulk of such a burger would seem like an impossible feat but Burger Box’s fresh, toasted buns perform admirably. For the size of the ingredients it would be easy for the onions, tomato, beef, or bun to dominate the flavor of the burger but it is perfectly balanced. A monstrosity of a burger and a side of fries (thick cut, of course) can be had for $6.25.
Last but not least, the quest for the best burger would take me to The Burger Monger. The Burger Monger takes a unique approach to their burgers and their restaurant, which can be found at 10412 North Dale Mabry in Tampa. The atmosphere is calm and relaxed, similar to a zen garden. The dining area offers free Wi-Fi for those who wish to kick back with their portable devices. You can wet your whistle with an ice-cold chilled pilsner, white or red wine, or an eclectic selection of oriental-inspired teas infused with flavors such as passion fruit and jasmine. The Burger Monger emphasizes how it uses only 100% USDA, above prime, all natural akaushi beef. In fact, all-natural seemed to be the recurring theme at this establishment.
The burger itself has a taste like no other burger. The akaushi beef patty is only 6 oz but is bursting with flavor. Akaushi beef comes from a rare breed of Japanese Akaushi cattle which is high in oleic acid (a heart-healthy fat) which gives it its rich, full flavor. The beef is mildly seasoned with all-natural sea salt and ground pepper on a mild-garlic challah bun. Burger Monger’s selection of free and premium toppings puts Five-Guys to shame and includes the chef’s special “monger” sauce. A Burger Monger burger begins at $6.99; premium toppings are an additional $1.49. Although I did not take advantage of the toppings for competition’s sake, the combination of the akaushi beef, the mild seasoning, the all-natural toppings, and the garlic challah bun made it a distinctive, unforgettable burger.
The Tampa Bay area contains a wealth of businesses supplying fat succulent burgers, but which of the aforementioned burgers deserves the honorary title of best burger in the bay? El-Cap’s world champ burger’s freshness and Five-Guys’ cheesiness make them fantastic runner-ups, but the ultimate decision came down to Burger Box’s intimidating beef behemoth or the inviting atmosphere and all-natural flair of the Burger Monger.
Although the decision was excruciatingly difficult I ultimately felt myself craving the incomparable taste of the Burger Monger a little more over the feast that is a Burger Box burger. Congratulations to the Burger Monger; You are the best burger in the Bay.