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July 21, 2008

The Business of Burgers

Burger
AP Photo

by Mollie Chen

Condé Nast Traveler contributing editor Susan Hack is our expert on all things Middle East, from Dubai's booming art scene to Egypt's most famed antiquities guru. She has a must-read piece on the changing Arab world in this September's Power Issue--but for now, Susan has a lead on the world's best burger. 

Every summer, she and her family decamp from their Cairo home to New York. This year she has a very important mission: to determine whether New York has a burger that can rival the one served at her favorite Cairo diner. Lucille's Mermaid Columbus, an American-owned restaurant in the city's Maadi neighborhood, has maintained a loyal following of both homesick expats and locals, even through the unstable post-9/11 years. Susan says, "It was and is the place that unites people, however they regard the U.S. government and its disastrous Mideast policies; you see veiled women as well as Texan oil workers." Everyone comes to Lucille's for its burger, which Susan claims is the best she's ever tasted (Time agrees). What sets this restaurant apart is the perfect ratio of lean, responsibly sourced beef to belly fat and the homemade toasted bun.

With a couple of months left in New York before she returns to Lucille's, Susan is determined to taste the city's best burgers to see how they match up. I sent her to my two favorites--Shake Shack, for its juicy haute fast food version and chaser of frozen custard, and Prune, for its petite lamb-laced patty on a buttery English muffin--and then did a bit of Web digging to see how the critics weigh in.

Predictably, there's no shortage of lists, rankings, and musings on the burger beat--both in New York and nationwide. Food writer Alan Richman has plenty to say, from last year's round-up of the 20 burgers to eat before you die to this year's tidy top five list. I was gratified to see that Raymond Sokolov stopped in at my favorite Boston spot, Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage, in his countrywide quest for the best burger, and mostly agreed with New York magazine's high/medium/low picks. And I'm this close to picking up Josh Ozersky's The Hamburger: A History to see what Mr. Grub Street thinks about this iconic food. As for the New York Times piece on the Parisian burger trend? Perhaps waxing on about burgers being subversive and illicit is applying Psych 101 to something that is just, how do I say, délicieux.

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