The Local Burger Joint

If you’re not sure how to commemorate Earth Day this week, think about sinking your teeth into a delicious mass of ground beef as a great way to thank Mother Nature for producing cattle. The area around Harvard is a good place to do this sort of thing, with the prevailing burger ethic one of massive size and ultimate juiciness.

The most popular local burger joint – Bartley’s in Harvard Square – is a good place to start. The fries are limp and undistinguished and the onion rings are too greasy, but the eight-ounce burgers come off the high-temperature grill perfectly charred, even when rare. The meat itself is not of exceptionally high quality, but the great cookery would save the burger were it not for the flimsy supermarket buns. Because the burger is ovoid in shape, you have to compress the bun to get your mouth around the whole sandwich, and the leaking burger juices utterly destroy the bun. Bartley’s has a whole menu page devoted to cutesy combinations of ingredients (top your burger with baked beans! an avocado! a pineapple!) which reflects the angst-ridden Harvard Square feel of the place.

O’Sullivan’s, an Irish pub five minutes from campus and yet totally overlooked by Harvard students, is fairly blue collar and totally devoid of the normal Cambridge pretentiousness. This atmosphere and the fact that you can smell the burgers sizzling on the grill makes them seem a bit better than they actually are. The burger retains its moistness at rare and medium-rare better than Bartley’s does, and the bun is up to the demands presented by a round-ish patty, but the meat is less well seared than at Bartley’s. O’Sullivan’s also insists on melting cheddar cheese on the top bun, rather than on the burger, which is as terrible an idea as it sounds, and a compelling reason to get a different kind of cheese. O’Sullivan’s fries are more like starchy potato wedges, but their onion rings are perfect – fresh onions and a moist, crisp batter that manages not to be oily at all.

Tir Na Nog in Union Square, deeper in Somerville, improves significantly on O’Sullivan’s and Bartley’s. Gone are the infinite varieties of toppings; add some cheese, bacon or garlic if you must – nothing will obscure the fat-marbled juice-oozing high quality of their beef. The patties here are formed in the more traditional hockey puck shape and are browned well; a burger ordered medium-rare was served medium, however.

The best hamburgers in Cambridge are available at the Miracle of Science, a fey MIT bar where the menu is chalked on the wall in periodic table form. The burgers here match Tir Na Nog for beef quality, but are cooked more expertly, managing to sport both a great charred crust and retain considerable moisture – my first bite into a Miracle of Science burger sent juice spurting into my mouth as surely as if I’d chomped into a ripe tomato. The romaine lettuce and tomato that top the burger are unusually fresh, the fried potatoes served alongside the burger seem more wholesome than the usual fries – and the ten-ounce patty needs all the accompanying wholesomeness it can get. If the burger has a flaw, it’s that the bun is far, far too good – it’s a fantastically crisp white roll, with perfect loft and soft, doughy crumb, almost upstaging the burger.

The Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown has started serving a Kobe beef burger, with cattle made from an ancient Japanese line bred for a marbled, fatty texture for hundreds of years; Kobe are raised on beer and massaged a lot. In New York, a burger of Kobe beef is sold for as much as $41; in the process of discounting it to $10.50, the Deluxe Town Diner has made the patty too small to show off much Kobe greatness in any state but raw. A burger ordered medium rare came well done, obscuring the quality of the meat even further. It’s no surprise that the burgers served in bars are better; ad hoc appeals to food fashion work for some meals, but a hamburger is a food of proletarian excess, flourishing best when surrounded by crowds, free-flowing alcohol and an attitude receptive to lustily devouring large amounts of meat.

Getting There:

1246 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge
Phone: (617) 354-6559

R.F. O’Sullivan’s Pub
282 Beacon Street, Somerville
Phone: (617) 492-7773

T¡r na nOg
366A Somerville
Phone: (617) 628-4300

The Miracle Of Science
321 Massachusetts Avenue, CambridgePhone: (617) 868 2866

Deluxe Town Diner
627 Mount Auburn St, Watertown
Phone: (617) 926-8400
Editor’s note: this article appeared in the April 24 issue of the Harvard Law Record