In particular, it was early 2010 when we first read about the upscale burger-and-milkshake joints that were all the rage in New York City. Local restaurateurs must have read about them, too, because by the end of the year, there were three in Pittsburgh and another out in Beaver County.
So what does Burgatory, run by the folks who brought you Fuel & Fuddle and nestled in an off-beat, off-the-path corner of The Waterworks strip mall, offer? For starters, you can't run a burger restaurant with just any old ordinary burgers. Not to be outdone by the competition, Burgatory offers its own private blend of all-natural, hormone-free sirloin, chuck, brisket and short rib. And, although the theme of burgers, shakes and fries is dominant, the menu includes quite a bit more, including a BLT with roasted-garlic mayo and some incredible-looking salads.
Some of these non-burger options were truly enticing, but our appetites were whetted for beef on a bun, and would not be deterred. While we debated the options, we noshed on the housemade chips, both potato and sweet potato, with spicy buffalo cheddar dip, topped with some blue cheese. This starter was outrageously decadent and completely addictive. The dip offered plenty of kick, but not so much that we needed to take breaks. The russet chips were classic, kettle-style slabs of extra-crunchy potato with deep, almost roasted flavor, while their sweet-potato brethren offered an intriguing balance of crispness and tenderness that Angelique described as almost meaty.
All of the sides we tried at Burgatory were excellent. The fries were a rustic variation on the classic shoestring, thin and crisp with a bit of fluffiness inside, skin-on for a bit of heartiness outside, and superb potato flavor throughout. A side salad was much more than an obligatory fistful of greens: Tender tomatoes, the thoughtful addition of sunflower seeds and a complex tangy house vinaigrette made it delicious in its own right. And cole slaw was improbably combined with crumbled hardboiled egg that added intriguing texture, a bit of umami flavor and an excellent foil to the tart, creamy buttermilk dressing. We appreciated Burgatory's commitment to excellence across its menu, recognizing that no restaurant can afford to be a one-trick pony.
But how good was this pony's main trick? Excellent. Fantastic. Perfect? Quite possibly. Burgatory's burgers are unquestionably in the running for best in town. The custom blend brings a deep, robustly beefy flavor to each patty -- whatever they were thinking, putting a tough, nontraditional cut like brisket in there, they made it work. Hearty buns were well proportioned to the meat and had a touch of brioche-like, buttery richness.
There's the list of prefab combinations and the pad of checklists for those who wish to go custom. Choose from beef, bison, chicken, crab, housemade veggie and more. But most of all, there are just beautifully cooked, juicy, flavorful burgers. Even the sliders from the kids' menu were excellent, completely unlike the mini-pucks that we've, sadly, come to expect.
Jason's steakhouse-style burger, crusted with peppercorns and topped with horseradish cheddar, haystack onions and a cabernet sauce, was intense with flavors that harmonized to create exactly the intended effect -- a great steak on a bun. The onions deserve particular note, as they were short lengths of onion, barely floured and then fried to soften the interior while still offering some crunch from the coating, all without the big presence that onion rings -- fresh or fried -- would have had.
The buffaloed bison burger had a firmer texture than the all-beef patties, but was not dry or tough as lean meat can often be. We enjoyed the kitchen's play in adding buffalo -- i.e. hot-pepper-based -- seasonings to a bison burger; instead of buffalo sauce, this burger was topped with a slab of buffalo cheddar which heated things up in a way that pepperjack only dreams of, leaving it to creamy ranch dressing (and perhaps a swig of beer) to cool them back down.
Speaking of cheese, we should also note that the kids' menu grilled ham-and-cheese was oozing with white American -- OK, not the most inspired choice, nor one that gives kids a lot of credit, but definitely not skimping on ingredients -- on buttery, beautifully griddled bread. The maple ham provided sweet savor without being cloying, and the whole thing was clearly more than an afterthought to keep the kiddies quiet.
We were too full for the delicious-looking, but no doubt massively caloric, desserts, but Jason managed to squeeze in a bourbon-caramel milkshake. Given the thickness, we're not 100 percent convinced that there was any actual milk: It seemed more like beaten ice cream, and the oversized straws -- you could slurp a blueberry through one -- were necessary. But it was the extraordinary smoothness of the texture that was most impressive: No overfrozen graininess here.
So if the world, in fact, does end in Pittsburgh, let's just all hope we end up in Burgatory.
932 Freeport Road, The Waterworks, Aspinwall. 412-781-1456
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Liquor: Full bar