Can we all agree that there are three core components to a burger? The meat’s one; toppings are the second. And the third? The bun! Burgers’ skyrocketing popularity has brought us limitless variations on core components #1 and #2, but buns remain the poor relations of the burger family. Marginalized, ignored or scorned.
R.F. O’Sullivan & Son in Somerville, Mass., has one of the longest burger menus around: 27 different burgers, each “made fresh with lean ground sirloin. Served with Sullie’s fries.” And there’s not one mention of buns. I’m not sure you get one. Apparently they just don’t matter.
Then consider the essence-of-customization menu at 67Burger in Brooklyn, N.Y. Customers choose from three meats or a veggie patty; 11 different styles (The Southwestern has spicy chipotle mayo, roasted peppers, green onions and Jack cheese); eight choices of cheese; 16 other toppings; and four dipping sauces. But the small print tells you “All burgers come on a toasted sesame bun.” What’s with that? One bun choice but four dipping sauces? It’s an insult that’s delivered to buns on menus every day across the country. And it doesn’t have to happen. Some burger joints understand that no one bun is right for every burger.
BRGR Kitchen + Bar, which opened earlier this year in Prairie Village, Kan., knows how to make a burger and how to match it with a bun. The Roadhouse—with bacon, Wisconsin Cheddar, onion straws and barbecue sauce—is served on a corn bun; the Mangia’s Parmesan crisp, fried tomato and garlic aïoli top a burger on a multi-grain bun; and the signature BRGR has caramelized onions, American cheese, pickles and mustard served on an onion bun.
“When we started to conceptualize the menu, we went through a lot of variations. It really does come down to three things: the meat, the bun and the accoutrements. We felt we’ve got to put all three of those elements together to be successful,” says BRGR Kitchen + Bar co-owner Alan Gaylin. “In most burger places, in my personal experience, the bun’s either 2 inches thick and you’ve got all bread or it’s so thin that the meat juices run all over it and by the time you’re a quarter way through it, it’s all soggy. And there’s usually just one or two kinds of buns available.”
“We matched all our bread to our different products,” Gaylin says. “So if we’re doing something more southwestern, we use perhaps a corn bus. When we decided to do something called the Tailgate [with Wisconsin beer brats] we had a pretzel bun made. Then we tested the size and thicknesses for weeks on end so our baker would get the exactly thickness we wanted. It has to fit the meat so that when you eat the burger you get a good balance of bread and meat and everything else on there.”
Gaylin credits Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar, Bobby Flay’s Bobby’s Burger Palace and other celebrity-chef ventures with re-establishing buns’ importance. “They get it because they have the culinary sense. But a lot of the knockoff burger places, they don’t [pay attention to buns]. Probably because they don’t understand the importance of that balance and how it makes the great burger.”
When the owners of Kansas City, Mo.’s Blanc Burgers + Bottles decided to open a lower-price concept called B:2 A Burger Boutique in Lee’s Summit, Mo., the buns were a purposeful point of difference for the brands. Most burgers at Blanc Burgers are on brioche buns. “That was a little upscale, so we went with potato and egg buns” at B:2, said chef and co-owner Josh Eans. “Not as fancy, but the same high quality.”
The ultimate in bun consciousness may be embodied by Chicago’s Goose Island brewpubs’ Executive Chef Andrew Hroza and chef-trained Head Brewer Jared Rouben. They gather spent grains that remain from the brewing process for their seasonal ales and send the grains to their off-site bakery partners. The grain is baked on top of their brioche burger buns where it adds character and texture.
Not many other burger joints go to that extreme, but many find ways to give buns their props. The menu at Deluxe Bar & Grill in Seattle tells you the buns are baked fresh at nearby Mario’s Bakery the way many others tell you the names of the farms supplying the meat or cheese or produce. Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., offers only one bun option but respectfully describes it on the menu as “A Sweet, Buttery Soft, Freshly Baked Pennsylvania Dutch Bun.”
“Really, it’s no different than fries,” says BRGR Kitchen + Bar’s Gaylin. “If you’re a burger joint, you have to have great fries. The buns need to be great, too. We think it makes a big difference with our burgers.”