Burgers are one of my favorite foods, but eating one sends me through a spiral of guilt and self-loathing. It's a feeling that can't be justified by a soggy, flavorless cheeseburger from McDonald's, or the burnt, dry hamburger that you eat at your friend's Fourth of July party because you're afraid to hurt their feelings by telling them that they don't know how to work a grill. When I eat a burger, I want to know that the exhilaration of ordering it and the satisfaction of eating it will be worth the indigestion and lethargy it later brings. I want a burger worth eating no matter what, and so I set out on a quest, tried 11 burgers, and found that perfect burger. 

1. BurgerFi: West Palm Beach, FL

My journey for the perfect burger begins in my hometown of West Palm Beach, FL. I've just finished my sophomore year at Duke and I'm home for a few weeks before I start my internship in Jacksonville. For some background, there's this custom, made-to-order burger chain that originated in nearby North Palm Beach, FL named BurgerFi. The closest one to my house before this summer is 25 minutes away. My friends dragged me there a few times and I was hooked. 

Fast forward to the beginning of May, when I hear that they're opening up a store 5 minutes from my house, but the opening date is June 3rd, 2015. That's three days after I'm set to leave. I'm devastated. I fill up their mentions on twitter. I even dig up their corporate office phone number just to call them up and ask about the possibility of moving up the opening date of that new location. I'm given a vague answer by a woman who is clearly confused as to how I got her phone number. The end of May approaches and my prayers have been answered: opening day is May 28th, one day before I leave.

I get there at 9:58 am, ahead of their 10:00 am opening time. I have to go back to my car because I forgot my wallet, and so instead of being the first, I'm the second customer ever at the BurgerFi Wellington location. I miss out on a photo-op with the managers of the store, but I'm not a huge fan of the publicity so I don't really mind. 

 I order a burger with a potato bun, cheddar cheese, beef patty, hashbrown patty, and a dash of a mayo. I usually get a fried egg and maple syrup but I skip out on it this time. The patty and cheese melt in my mouth while the hashbrown patty adds a crispy texture and, along with the potato bun, bathes my tongue with wholesome carbs. This will be the standard against which the rest of the burgers are measured. It's nearly perfect, but not quite there. As great as this is, I know there's something better in that big, beautiful world out there. And so my quest to find the perfect burger begins.

2. Whataburger: Jacksonville, FL 

I ate obscenely healthy that summer, but on one of my last days I knew I had to try Whataburger before I went back home and then went back to college, neither of which are remotely near a Whataburger. I first ordered a standard Whataburger as is, even though I'm not a huge fan of traditional toppings on burgers. I enjoyed it, but my immediate thought was that it was not nearly the same level of delicacy as BurgerFi, though it was half the price. The real novelty of the place (besides their honey butter chicken biscuits) is how big the burgers are in terms of circumference. They're are 5-inches in diameter as are the buns, which have to be specially made.

After I ate that monster, I decided to order a Patty Melt and eat that before leaving as well because I am a savage. It was a hefty stack of pure meaty-cheesy-buttery-caramelized onion heaven and I preferred it to the burger, but I hesitate to include it as a burger because it was technically a "melt." Either way, I knew my search for the perfect burger would have to continue.

3. Shake Shack: Washington, D.C.

One of America's favorite burger chains, Shake Shack, was born in New York just like I was. My first time having it was at Union Station on a trip to Washington D.C. Instead of trying one of the famed menu hacks, I played it safe and ordered a classic Shackburger: soft bun, perfectly crispy and juicy patty, with fresh lettuce and tomato. Shack Sauce is a major key – definitely one of the top proprietary fast-food sauces out there.

This burger is a real crowd-pleaser, but I wouldn't call it perfect. There's no question that it's well made, but it didn't leave me with the sense of obsession and craving that I thought it would. For a while I was sure that my search for the perfect burger would end with Shake Shack, but I was just getting started.

4. Burger Bach: Durham, NC

lettuce, salad
Izzi Clark

Self-described as a New Zealand gastropub, all of their locations are in NC or VA. All I heard about for weeks when I came back to Duke as a junior was how good the burgers were at Burger Bach (pronounced "batch"). They have some of the most unique combinations of toppings around, and have so many sauces to choose from that it's overwhelming.

I always have an internal battle of whether to get the West Coast (chipotle BBQ sauce, uncured bacon, organic cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, jalapeño remoulade) or the East Coast (blueberry chipotle BBQ sauce, uncured bacon, brie cheese, caramelized onions, garlic aioli). I usually just end up getting some customized mashed-up version of the two.

Burger Bach has a sauce for every taste, so I typically get them all on the side and alternate dips between bites. The burgers take my breath away, but sadly they cost upwards of $13. With the unique flavors they offer, they're far from what many consider a traditional American burger. For these reasons I don't think I can hand them the crown.

5. Bull City Burger: Durham, NC

I love everything about how Bull City Burger runs their restaurant, especially that they make everything in house (except ketchup) from scratch in their kitchen, but sadly their burger just wasn't as good as I hoped it would be. Their skinny duck frites are to die for though, and their garlic aioli is one of the best dipping sauces I've ever had.

6. Smashburger: Durham, NC

Smashburger opened up a location in Durham at the beginning of my freshman year and I remembered that a few of my friends who were familiar with them were freaking out. It's another $6 to $7 burger chain where you can create your own burger – similar to BurgerFi. Their burgers a little more customizable since you can pick your bun and they offer some unique toppings (although they don't offer one of my favorites from BurgerFi: the hash brown patty). I ordered a pretzel bun with my go-to topping of fried egg and cheddar cheese. I also topped it off with their proprietary Smash sauce (blend of mayo, mustard, relish, and lemon juice).

Even though I hate mustard and relish by themselves, it really comes together nicely with the mayo and lemon juice. It's not quite as tasty as Shake Shack's Shack sauce, but I also appreciate how they're less secretive about what's in it. The whole burger melted in my mouth perfectly, but I remember wishing that the bun had just a little bit of salt on it to take it to that next level.

I give this burger a tie with BurgerFi for their pretzel bun option and gooeyness of their fried egg, but the real hallmark for me is their Smashfries. They're skinny fries tossed in olive oil, rosemary, and garlic, and are in the top 3 of fast food fries out there in my book.

7. Good Stuff Eatery: Georgetown, Washington D.C.

I found myself hungry one night (shocking!) near West End during my summer in D.C., and seized the opportunity to take a short Uber to the Good Stuff Eatery location in Georgetown. I had heard of GSE being ranked as the best burger in D.C. in a magazine, so l was looking for any excuse to try it.

I got the "Spike's Sunnyside," which is essentially their version of the breakfast burger. The egg adds the perfect amount of gooeyness to the tender meat of the burger patty, and the unique sauces that include mango mayo, chipotle mayo, and Sriracha mayo, add a nice customizable touch. For a $7 price tag and a ridiculously rich taste that blended perfectly on my tongue, I knew I had found myself a new favorite burger. Being a perfectionist though, I had to continue my search. 

8. Duke's Grocery: Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

The "Proper Burger" from Duke's Grocery is ranked as the #1 burger in D.C. in a few publications, so this was next on my list. I was so hungry, that I ate it in about 45 seconds, which made for a depressingly brief experience. This was one of those burgers where I didn't know what half of the ingredients were, but I trusted the chefs to know what they were doing.

The burger was quaint, rich, flavorful, MESSY and the ingredients (creekstone farms angus beef, melted gouda, charred red onion, Thai sweet chili sauce, garlic aioli, arugula, brioche bun) came together so well that I can't even come up with an adjective for it. Definitely worthy of the "best burger in D.C." discussion, but the fanciness of the whole experience and $13 price tag would avert me from coming here too often. Still, everyone should try this at least once for just how purely decadent it is.

9. In-N-Out: San Diego, CA

I went on a service trip to San Diego in March of my junior year, and on one of the evenings of the trip, we had just finished our 12-hour itinerary for the day and were exhausted. We were at a police department office for our final event, and they implored us to try In-N-Out before we left. At that point, I had made my mind up. We were going that night and I was going to convince everyone that we had to go. We get in the van to head back to where we were staying, and I find one on nearby on Google Maps and casually bring up that we should stop by. Slowly, I use my immaculate persuasion skills to warm everyone up to the idea, and to my excitement, we decide to go.

We pull up to the In-N-Out and see that the line for the drive-thru is 10 cars long. Out of desperation, I pull out an emotional Oscar-winning moment speech out of nowhere to convince everyone that it's worth it. At long last, we order and get our food, and wow, it's a beauty.

You know those cases where the thrill of anticipation is better than the actual thing? Sadly, this was one of those. Though it was definitely a tasty burger, it did not live up to the level of heavenliness that everyone in the entire world hypes it up to be.

I think what it comes down to is that burgers like this and Whataburger are a different type of burger than some of the others on this list. They're quintessential fast-food burgers, priced for the everyday buyer with a very approachable atmosphere. Many of the other places on this list are quite the opposite. In the end, I'm glad I tried it and would recommend that everyone try it if given the chance, but don't expect a round trip through heaven from a burger this affordable. 

10. Paradise Valley Burger Company: Scottsdale, Arizona

I was really looking forward to my trip to Arizona because it has so much of what I enjoy: dry heat, minimal rain, the amenities of a big city, beautiful nature and hiking, college towns, cool shopping hubs, and historic sites. I didn't end up liking it at all though, and I think the biggest reason, apart from the fact that there's literally no grass, was that everything is ridiculously far apart. I would look on Google Maps during my stay to plan out my ventures out from my AirBnB and would realize that two places seemingly next to each other on the map were somehow 10 miles apart.

I get hungry during my first day there and go on Yelp to find out what's available. I find a famous burger joint recently featured on Guy Fieri's Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." Luckily, it's right next to where I'm staying, so only 2.1 miles away! I chart out a moderately long run that'll make me end up at the Paradise Valley Burger Company, where I can reward myself by eating twice the amount of calories I just burned in 97º heat.

I got a burger with caramelized onions, fried egg, havarti cheese, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. I was so hungry at this point that it tasted like the best thing ever, but all I could think about at the time was how overwhelmed I felt with the creativity of the place. Though I went with my typical order to be able to compare it to other burgers, I know I might have found a new favorite burger if I had more time to try some (or all) of the other options on their menu, especially their specials. The burger only put me down $8, so if I lived in Arizona, I could definitely see myself being a regular here. That being said, I will probably never live in Arizona.

My favorite part of Paradise Valley Burger Co. was their French Toast Fries. I nearly didn't get them, but I knew the name itself was too appetizing and unique for me to pass up. It's exactly what it sounds like. They look like potato wedges from a distance, but the powdered sugar gives away their disguise. It's fried egg bread that's crispy on the outside and wonderfully soft and buttery on the inside, with a side of maple syrup for dipping. I couldn't finish them all, but I enjoyed them so much that I took a to-go container and jogged the 2.1 miles back to my AirBnB. I had to stop a few times because I thought I nearly threw-up, but luckily, I made it back safe and puke-free. The French Toast Fries made for an incredible breakfast the next morning.

11. The Ainsworth: Manhattan, New York, N.Y.

I'd seen the Ainesworth's mac and cheese burger all over my Facebook feed several months ago and had been desperate to try it. I made a reservation during a trip to New York and prepared my stomach for what was about to come. When I walked in, there were two guys doing the "Ainesworth's Mac Burger Challenge," where you pay $60 for a chance to win $500 by eating three mac and cheese burgers stacked on top of each other, accompanied a giant plate of mac and cheese with fried mac and cheese bites, and, finally, a side of fries that taunts you. 

You have 45 minutes to finish this, and I watched intently as the two guys next to me horsed down their food. They ate impressively fast, but at the end of it, they didn't even come close. Though I've been wanting to try a food challenge for a while, I knew there was no way I would fare even close to as well as those two, so I settled for just ordering one off the menu for a steep $18.

Best burger I've ever had. Maybe the best piece of food I've ever tasted. In case you can't tell, there's a Panko-crusted fried mac and cheese patty, burger patty, melted cheese, all topped off with more mac and cheese. I had to stop several times to appreciate how unbelievable this burger was. Please try this if you like burgers and/or mac and cheese and find yourself in New York. Though the $18 price tag is far from perfect, I could not imagine a burger more satisfying. I still have dreams about it when I go to bed at night. So worth the hype.


As I tried burgers in Florida, North Carolina, D.C., New York, Arizona, and California, I began to realize that no burger I had was perfect in every aspect. How lucky are we, as Americans, to have so many incredible, diverse burgers across this beautiful nation? Though I may not have found the absolute perfect burger, I plan to keep my quest alive, if only as an excuse to eat a burger everywhere I go. If you have suggestions of where I should go next on my burger quest, please shoot them my way!