For the last time this year I gathered up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger on a bitterly cold Sunday in St. Louis. This was the final stop in a year long search for the best burger that St. Louis has to offer, based on the input of my readers. You nominated them and I ate them -- one by one -- and the time is quickly approaching to crown the best burger in St. Louis.
But more on that later, we've still got this last burger to recap.
Joining me this go around were Church of Burger alumni Bill Burge (STLBites), Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project), project photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography), Stephanie Tolle (Iron Stef /Food Blog Mafia), Evan Benn (St. Louis Post Dispatch / Lager Heads) and George Mahe (St. Louis Magazine / Relish).
With the introductions out of the way its time to welcome you all back to The Church of Burger. In the name of the bun, the toppings and the holy burger, I present unto you the December Burger of the Month from O'Connell's Pub.
It's little wonder that O'Connell's Pub was voted the best burger in St. Louis. After all, O'Connell's is arguably the burger of record for the citizens of this fair city for over three decades.
To pass through the tight portal between O'Connell's parking lot and its darkened and smoke filled bar is to step into a world that never seems to change. It matters not if its sunny, raining or snowing outside when you arrive, the interior aways seems to have the same greasy, smokey dimness that envelops you -- placing the world around you into a vaseline assisted soft focus for the duration of your stay. Bar stools are well worn and the deep booths isolate diners from the rest of the room. History buffs will note that many of the decorations and antiques within the space were transplanted from O'Connell's original location in Gaslight Square.
If there is a place to take communion with a burger in St. Louis, it is at O'Connell's.
The sparse menu at O'Connell's is dominated by the burger, served with a massive slice of raw onion. Cheese and grilled onions are available upon request. Around the table diners ordered their burgers cooked medium rare to medium. Burgers were delivered on heavy paper plates adorned with small green shamrocks, a slice of pickle and a steak knife for the diner who decides the O'Connell's burger is more of a meal than a sandwich.
Behold, the burger from O'Connell's Pub:
The patty at O'Connell's pub is nine ounces of hand packed beef. Seasoning is light with hints of Worcestershire sauce suggesting that it was added to the mix before patties were formed. My burger was ordered medium rare but served a vibrant pink, closer to medium. Unlike so many burgers that have a slight center of color surrounded by the grey of cooking -- or overcooking -- the O'Connell's burger is awash in pink and red. Compared to its burger competition, cutting into a O'Connell's burger is like watching the Wizard of Oz move from black and white to color -- it is a thing of beauty.
"A 9-ounce burger is somewhat unique in that you know it's a touch bigger than a typical 1/2-lb patty, yet it's not so large that it's intimidating to eat. A happy medium-large. O'Connell's burgers are hand-formed so they're fat in the middle and then taper off toward the edges. Because of the burger's thick midsection and my prior experiences here, I ordered a degree above my usual doneness -- medium instead of medium-rare. The burger came out just as I like it -- charred on the outside, and a deep pinkish-red throughout the inside. The meat really lacked salt and tasted very bland when tried alone. However, a slice of American cheese seemed to up the sodium level to the point where I didn't miss it in the meat."
"The main weakness of the O'Connell's burger lies in its lack of any discernible seasoning. A lack of salt and pepper hurt the patty's overall flavor."
"The patty was a little smaller than the bun. I ordered mine medium-rare. It was done nearly perfectly... nice and pink throughout with a little bit of red in the very middle, even. It was very very juicy. I would have liked more salt, but overall I enjoyed the burger. It was a good burger."
"My burger arrived a perfect medium. It was thick and juicy. There was nothing interesting about the flavoring and no back story about where the beef came from. It was just a simple, good burger. It's clear to me why it was voted best burger by the public. It's the high school quarterback of burgers. It may not be the most interesting burger out there, but it's a good piece of meat that doesn't require much analysis to appreciate. Also, the typically packed (although it wasn't on the day we went) smokey atmosphere which everyone in our group loved to hate somehow makes the burger all the more cool. It's the burger to be enjoyed with lots of friends - popular friends; friends that go out late at night and know enough people to fill up one of O'Connell's long tables."
"That the burger arrived just to the underside of the specified medium - rare was itself an anomaly in burgerdom; that the reddish color was uniform throughout -- completely coast to coast -- is reason to buy that grill cook a beer."
"I've never had an overcooked burger here. Ever. They don't cook a wide variety of food here, but there's a reason they tout their burgers: they know how to cook 'em. Mine was fat and juicy, perfectly mid-rare, and well-seasoned."
"The burger at O'Connell's is bare bones. If anything, in all the burgers we've eaten this year, it was the one you could have used as the standard bearer as it was the closest thing to what a burger historically is—a ground beef patty on an enriched white bun."
"Mine was cooked perfectly—which you'd expect from a place that basically only serves burgers. It was perhaps a tad under-salted, but the fact that American Cheese was one of only two options made up for it as its being processed means it's a bit salty itself. It was juicy, but not too juicy or greasy like the Michael's burger which was another relatively bare-bones burger from the year."
The O'Connell's burger is all char with thick grill marks -- a testament to a kitchen that essentially specializes in turning out hamburgers. Crisp grilled goodness.
"Decent, not remarkable. On previous visits I've had burgers that had the beautiful type of just-charred exterior that only comes from cooking over an open flame. This time, aside from a few requisite grill marks, there was no noticeable caramelization to contribute to the overall flavor."
"The burger had a good charred flavor."
"The addictive taste of ground beef caramelization hit the palate first, then totally disappeared when no spices were detected, resulting in an aftertaste that was flat and disappointing. A single shake of salt did change the burger’s complexion, however, causing the beef taste to linger. Simple but powerful stuff, salt."
The O'Connell's burger is designed to stand on its own. As such toppings are limited to raw onion, cheese, grilled onions and store brand condiments. The onion is an entire slice, ensuring each bite consists of bun, beef and the sharpness of onion.
"The cheese, Swiss in my case, was properly melted; and a generous slice it was, once again in proper proportion to the largish burger."
"The grilled onions I ordered (a tasty treat all on their own at O'Connell's) overpowered the patty with their sweetness. The cheese, too, didn't add much to bring forth the meat's taste. For the first time in our communal burger experience, I resorted to steak sauce to add some interest to the burger."
"The burger is, simple, as it should be. And while I might wish that meat came from a better place because they no doubt go through a shit-load of beef, it was the perfect bar and grill burger, cooked well and served simply. If what you want from a burger is a bunch of toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion, and a cheese even as fancy as cheddar, this is not the burger for you. O'Connell's goes straight to the heart of your standard red meat eating all-american and offers them what they want: meat, starch, cheese, and basically nothing else."
"You know the rules at O'Connell's -- no tomatoes, no cheddar cheese, just some lettuce and onions upon request (and grilled for an upcharge). Sometimes, simpler is better. The iceberg added a pleasant crunch and feeling of healthful eating, while the American cheese provided some creaminess and salt to boost the patty's flavor. Heinz yellow mustard rounded out my toppings -- and, as usual when dining at O'Connell's, I never missed the tomato or cheddar."
"I've ordered grilled onions on every burger where grilled onions were an option. This was the first time that the grilled onions came on the side rather than on the burger. I had no problem with the self-service step of onioning my beef, but I wasn't quite sure why the kitchen didn't simply put the onions on for me. The good news was that the onions were well-seasoned and there were a lot of them. Because they were on the side, I was able to share them with my neighbor (cost saving tip: order one side of onions for two people). The cheese options were weak: just Swiss or American (which I despise more than provel - preview of the forthcoming Church of Pizza write-ups). Tomatoes were nowhere to be found, which I guess is better than serving floppy, out-of season tomatoes. The side of fries that I ordered was a major disappointment. If the burger were the quarterback, these fries were the water boy - they were wimpy and flavorless."
"The burger came with onions and a pickle. They only offer swiss and american cheese, and they don't offer tomato. I just got the onion and pickle. It was refreshing that they kept the topping options simple. Makes you think that they are all about the burger itself. I was glad they didn't have tomatoes. I have yet to encounter a good tomato on a burger this year... plus, it's December."
The O'Connell's burger rests inside a crisp bun topped with sesame seeds -- it is a simple affair for a simple burger. Bonus points for being well grilled before plating. Unexceptional is most ways, the bun does it's job and does not distract from the patty.
"Though nothing about the burger was gourmet, including the bun, I actually thought it was one of the better buns we've gotten all year and, once again, because they serve so many burgers, they get it right and toast it."
"The bun was nicely toasted and held up to the juiciness of the burger - never falling apart. There was a nice ratio of bun to burger."
"Fluffy with a uniform sprinkle of sesame seeds; mine seemed to have been toasted un-buttered on a flat top grill. Unremarkable, yet it stayed together, well serving its purpose."
"This was the part that really let me down -- you can't have the best burger in town if it's served on a dried-out, cusp-of-stale bun. I'm not sure if O'Connell's has changed bun purveyors since my last visit (when I was so enamored with the "soft, doughy" buns that I, too, like the readers of andrewmarkveety.com, declared this the best burger in St. Louis) or if we just got some less-than-fresh ones at the end of the weekend, but these sesame-topped rocks were big losers."
"The bun is nothing special, and neither is the beef, but the key to O'Connell's is the balance. The bun to meat ratio is ideal, and toppings are minimalistic. There's nothing to distract from the goal, which is a workman-like burger made very, very well."
"Kaiser bun...it was soft and normal. The burger was so juicy, the bottom bun didn't hold up too well. It didn't completely disappear like the bun on the micheal;s burger, but it certainly got messy."
If there is one thing I've learned this year, its that folks who love burgers fall into two categories. The first enjoys a good burger, but they enjoy toppings as much or even more -- they enjoy the giant messy package. The second group are simply fans of beef -- well seasoned and cooked cow served on a decent bun -- unencumbered from the additional flavors that toppings bring to the table. The O'Connell's burger is for this second group of people, a burger eaters burger if you will.
The parking lot is dangerous, most of the time the smoke is thick and the staff is unlikely to put up with nonsense. However, if you can make it though the gauntlet, the reward is a burger worthy of the votes it received for best burger in St. Louis.
All things being equal, it seems to me that the votes for O'Connell's rolled in not only for the burger, but for the place as well. Some quotes that struck a chord with me were:
"While some lambast the smoking atmosphere and the no-frills staff and menu, I don't mind the former and embrace the latter. When a restaurant plays by its own rules, it filters out a certain customers. Oftentimes, those customers are what I like to call "assholes". O'Connell's doesn't coddle it's clientele, which means you enter at your own risk and you remember your home-training while you are there. It's largely a place to mind your own business, where you can hide in a giant wooden booth and down a great burger with a Smithwicks without being bothered by much more than secondhand smoke. I'm the type of person who cringes when other patrons are rude to servers or make ridiculous requests of kitchen staff. There's none of that here."
"In my mind, O’Connell’s is on equal footing with that other local classic, Imo’s Pizza, in that there’s no middle ground: it’s either “highly overrated” or “absolutely the best.” On this day, O’Connell’s got within striking distance of the latter. This burger was so close to bar burger perfection that two grinds of pepper and 3 shakes of a seasoned salt would have sealed the deal…yet it fell just short. Were it a dart, it would have hit the outer bull’s eye."
I'm left to ponder the question at had -- is this the best burger in St. Louis? I'd venture to say that its got some steep competition for that top spot.
So, what is the best burger in St. Louis? Well, you'll have to check back over the next few weeks. First we'll recap the past year and give the Church of Burger alumni a chance to chime in on their favorites -- after all -- they ate their way through this list of burgers as well. Then once they've had their say I'll wrap up what we set out to do almost a year ago -- discover the best burger in St. Louis, based on the votes of readers of this site.