A really great burger starts with quality beef. It should have processed cheese that melts well. And it should be inside of a potato bun, sesame seed if you must.
Don’t use ciabatta bread or a kaiser roll. As good as brioche can be, it’s not well-matched to a burger. The bun is a delivery vehicle for the burger. It needs to be big enough to contain the burger, but shouldn’t be so large that it overwhelms the contents – especially the meat.
Everything you put on the burger needs to fit inside of the bun. You don’t want the burger to fall apart when you eat it, and it shouldn’t be overstuffed. The goal is a balance of flavors inside, getting a combination of everything with each bite rather than winding up with pieces of meat or pieces of bun leftover at the end.
In ‘n ‘Out, Shake Shack, and Whataburger all do pretty good renditions of the classic burger, though better meat and cheese can improve upon what they offer.
Both American and United have staked a claim to top burger offerings in their new premium lounges. The burger is a staple that they offer even while they try for regional variation in their menus across locations. And I’ve had the chance to sample both American’s attempts and United’s. So which airline makes a better burger?
The American Airlines Flagship Burger
I first sampled the American Airlines Flagship burger in their first new business class lounge (Flagship Lounge New York JFK). I had it in their ‘Flagship First Dining’ which is only open to first three-cabin class passengers, though they extended the burger on a cooked-to-order basis to the rest of the lounge for several months in their ‘Bridge Dining’ area.
The Flagship Burger exceeded expectations — it was actually delicious. Danny Meyer’s attempts notwithstanding this is easily the best burger at JFK. It held together, it didn’t have too much stuff, it didn’t try to do too much. It just tasted good.
Flagship Burger, Flagship Dining New York JFK
At the end of last year I had a chance to try the burger again in Flagship First Dining at the Miami airport. I had lunch there with Lucky from One Mile at a Time and Ed from Pizza in Motion.
The burger was good in Miami but didn’t quite have that umami that the New York burger seemed to. The bun was bigger than it should have been. Still, it was structurally sound.
I’ve also sampled the burger in American’s Flagship First Dining at LAX.
The meat was very good in American Airlines Flagship First Dining LAX, but the bun overwhelmed the burger more than in Miami. It was just too large, too tall, too much bun. It was a different bun than they used in New York, and I was told at the time that they were working on sourcing something closer.
The United Polaris Burger
I tried United’s premier burger at their Polaris lounge in Houston. When I visited the Chicago lounge last year they weren’t offering the sit down menu. When I was at the Newark lounge it was breakfast time. So Houston in the afternoon on August 9th was my first chance to sample it.
At first glance the burger itself looked pretty good, although it wasn’t plated well. There was just too much space on the plate. They could have used more interesting plates, or organized the fries differently. Just too much empty space that didn’t seem to make sense.
I opened the burger up though and nearly had a heart attack. My server had offered condiments, ketchup or mayo (I accepted some ketchup), but it never occurred to me that they’d be putting so mayonnaise on the burger itself. It was slathered on. Technically the menu describes this as a ‘garlic aioli’.
I realize that people on the West Coast expect mayonnaise on burgers. That doesn’t make mayo on beef any less of an abomination.
However the United Polaris lounge is catering to guests from all over — New Yorkers connecting down to South America, not to mention Texans who believe meat shouldn’t be tainted by sauce at all. Of course I was surprised that the Newark Polaris lounge menu includes a burger with aioli as well.
It seems to me that if they’re going to insist on adding mayo by default servers should be instructed to flag this for guests (“The burger comes with mayonnaise on it, will that be alright for you today?”). I asked for an extra knife so I could scrape it off.
In addition to mayonnaise there was a fried egg, bacon and cheese on top of the burger. The bacon extended out past the bun, which means you’re going to wind up eating some of it separately and you won’t get enough of it with each bite of burger. They could really stand to use better bacon.
Below the beef was lettuce, tomato, and onions that had been marinated in vinegar:
Give me fresh white onion. Grill the onions if you’d like. But don’t marinate them or pickle them. Whenever something is covered up with vinegar I assume it’s to hide the taste, and to make it last longer rather than serving it fresh.
United’s Polaris lounges are the best business class lounges in the United States. They offer sit down dining to business class passengers — not just first class passengers the way that American does.
Much of what they’ve done in these lounges is fantastic. The burger, at least the way it was served to me during my visit to the Houston lounge, is not one of those things. United needs to go back to the drawing board on this burger.
So comparing the Flagship burger and Polaris burger is simple, a slam dunk win for American’s entry.