Head to Head: United Polaris Burger vs. American Flagship Burger

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.

Conclusion

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.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. The menu you posted in your review clearly says it comes with garlic aioli and you even reiterate it here. Why would you be surprised that it is on the burger?

    “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?”).”

    My boyfriend can’t stand mayonnaise either, if there is even a hint it will be with a dish he simply asks for the dish without mayo/aioli, and most people who have an issue with a food do the same. Not sure why United needs to spell out for you exactly what components of the dish are served where…

  2. Totally disagree on your assessment of the Polaris burger. Had one during the lounge preview event a couple months ago and it was the high point of an otherwise terrible sit-down dining experience. I thought the brioche bun was a great complement to a really tasty burger. And the pickled onions were a great addition. In fact after tasting all the alternative entrees, I’d probably pick the burger as the stand-out among them.

  3. Anthony Bourdain’s 10 Commandments for the Perfect Burger (just google) says it all
    keep it simple!
    While you like white onion I’ll opt for’ a red onion freshly cut and not refrigerated or marinated (gross) chefs gone mad and sloppy
    Danny Meyers uses Pat La Freida for a custom blend but really the best burgers escape the public eye because they are most exposed to commercial fast food chains like Mc Donald’s and In & out
    Those burgers aren’t a great steakhouse burger which is an entirely different beast
    Those commercial burgers are just upgrades of Burger King and Mc Donald’s
    At the end of the day its all subjective.I wont ever eat any of that stuff
    Get out to San Diego sometime and I will show you one of the worlds greatest burgers known to man kind on my custom charcoal architect designed grill
    The meat flown in Fed EX by the best purveyors of prime aged beef from New York or Chicago who supply the top 1% prime in the nation
    My theory? If you are going to clog your arteries and hurt your sex drive go down on a burger that’s worth the fat and calories and puts a wicked smile on your face
    My Two cents ;):)

    https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/anthony-bourdain-parts-unknown-tips-how-to-make-burgers

  4. Hmmm, so my buddy Dug has a better burger? Wondering how much the bacon is costing me not to mention the aioli.
    To follow the olive, we will immediately begin reducing the number of fries by one.

  5. My only Flagship burger was on the bridge at JFK and it was awful, overcooked and luke warm, tiny.

    Is the Bridge Burger different from the Flagship First dining burger?

  6. I feel horribly silly asking this question, but how does one get into a Polaris or flagship lounge? (and please don’t say through a door! )

  7. As the burger is best eaten without any bun at all, that part is irrelevant. It’s all about the quality of the meat and the ability to cook it rare. Add-ons are a small part of the equation.

  8. Sorry Gary, but I think the United burger looks much tastier than the American one. And the whole package, especially the fried egg on top will appeal to East Asian and other oriental customers more as well. I don’t fly American so I have no experience with it, but I did have the United burger and I thought it was delicious. Bring on the aioli!

  9. Weird
    I have had burgers at both of those places and would rate them as OK, but not excellent. In fact I have had better burgers in the food court at a strip mall. But agree everone has their pwn preferences. I prefer a sharp cheddar or blue cheese for example over processed cheese and I also quite like brioche bun as a personal favourite.

    This is why I like the idea restaurants added to priority pass as they focus more on delivering food that is hot not luke warm and or burnt like I have experienced in the lounges.

  10. Gary… the IAH burger looks disappointing. I’ve had the EWR burger twice (well, one whole burger, as I’ve shared it twice and only eaten half) and both times it was quite good.

    Generally speaking, I still don’t think it beats the Flagship burger (much better presentation, to begin with) but in my view the EWR kitchen made a stronger showing than your IAH experience!

  11. Hmm, not sure I agree that people on the west coast expect mayo on a burger? To me, mayo on a sandwich or burger seems like old-school, unhealthy eating, which I would associate more with the Midwest and East Coast. I lived in SF for 20 years and don’t recall anyone putting mayo on a burger by default.

    But I do agree that the American burger is excellent. I’ve had it a couple of times at JFK and both times I thought it was better than a burger I would have at a nice restaurant.

    Don’t you think you also have to consider the fries when you are evaluating a burger? It’s not the most important aspect of course, but great fries to complement a burger go a long way — as do horrible fries in detracting from the experience.

    I haven’t had the UA burger, but I can tell you that I thought the AA fries that came with their burger were terrific. Not too thick, nice and crisp as they should be. The UA fries in the pics you posted look like they would not be crispy and would instead by sort of bread-y or meal-y inside. I hate that type of fry!

  12. Gary,

    Your assessment of the perfect hamburger is very similar to the late Anthony Bourdain. In his video he speaks of several of the same qualities that sort of make the burger….

    I mostly agree with both of you!

    https://youtu.be/BZwyLVUAS5Y

  13. Scott,

    Quite the contrary, actually. Thinking of mayo as unhealthful eating is old school. Mayo is just fat, and there is nothing unhealthful about fat, per se (obviously, eating too much of anything is not good). Now, the bun is quite unhealthful. So, more accurate health information would have one eating the mayo and not the bun. That;s new school.

    Cheers.

  14. @brp You make a good point that we shouldn’t be terrified of fats and that they serve a role, in moderation. But, I think the beef patty, the cheese, and the accompanying fries give you plenty of fat. So I think in this context, it’s probably wise to hold the mayo. Now, on a dry turkey sandwich, I can see an argument for adding it…

  15. @Georg R – I have seen that before I’m sure, and he likely helped to crystalize and put words to my thinking. It probably helps that we both come out of New York.

  16. They both look good though the best burger I’ve ever had (and view while eating one) was from https://mariposasedona.com/ in Sedona, AZ. Chef Lisa Dahl has won the Scottsdale Burger Battle two of the last three years.

    She makes a BURGER!

  17. I disagree that they should “warn you” about mayo. Just because you do not like mayo doesn’t mean that particular burger shouldn’t have it. I love mayo so personally it is always welcome. And I think the beauty of a burger is that every burger is different and that your rules take away from the beauty of a burger. If you have strict guidlelines, maybe just stop trying burgers and eat the one that fits your perfect vision.

  18. Sauces on burgers are everywhere. Have always been….so mayo isn’t out of question. But the fried egg, that is just disgusting! Just disgusting!

  19. 1. Anthony Bourdain is dead. Let’s stop quoting him.
    2. Try a Fatburger in Los Angeles with a touch of mayo and some ketchup. Absolutely outstanding. Best burger, freshest beef in beef in town.

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