The Star Tribune Taste Team takes its burgers seriously. Fortunately, 2023 was packed with burger glory. High-quality beef, specially made smashing irons, thick pools of special sauce, crispy-fried onions, square upon square of American cheese and so many napkins: We braved it all to taste the best burgers in and around the Twin Cities.
It's hard to rank perfection; these are all equally stupendous and randomly listed. There's one caveat: Some of our favorites are simply memories from menus and pop-ups that are no more (greatness can be fleeting). Still, whether you're a fan of thick and juicy or skinny and crusty, there's a burger on this list worth crossing town to try.
Private Sector Burger at Nova Bar
The Private Sector burger ($10) has been a cult favorite since it began as a pop-up. We revisited it at Nova Bar while touring river towns this summer and haven't stopped thinking about it since. This gorgeous mess of a burger can reliably be found at the Hudson, Wis., bar every Wednesday night until they sell out (and they always sell out). The meat is vigorously smashed into charred onions on the flat top, creating a kind of alchemy that makes the trip worthwhile. Further topped with special sauce and piled on a specially made bun that somehow manages to be soft while retaining its integrity beneath all that juiciness, it only furthers the argument that this burger is magical.
236 Coulee Road, Hudson, Wis., novabarhudson.com
Just a Burger at Two Mixed Up
Two Mixed Up began as two families who lived across the street from each other and loved to cook — one savory, led by chef E.J. Williams, and one sweet, led by chef Sophie Estevez. They joined business forces first as a food truck, and then in a stand of the same name inside Graze Provisions + Libations in the North Loop. On the menu are a sweet/hot fried chicken sandwich, decadent baked goods and several burger options. But start with the Just a Burger ($15 with optional $2 upgrade for a side of fries or onion rings). Two patties are pressed into a hot griddle until the fat crisps up, forming lacy dark edges around the meat. They're then piled together harmoniously with tangy TMU sauce that takes a flavor cue from In-N-Out Burger, oozy white cheese, crunchy lettuce and thinly sliced raw onion.
Graze, 520 N. 4th St., Mpls., twomixedup.com
Bulgogi burger at Juche
In a snug lounge on St. Paul's East Side, with a menu steeped in comforting, Korean-inspired snacks, we fell in love with a cheeseburger. In this case, it's the bulgogi burger ($11), designed by chef/co-owner Chris Her. This is no smashie. It's a thick, 5-ounce beef patty with a Korean touch: the same marinade that's used to sweeten and caramelize thin-cut beef tenderloin for the Korean BBQ dish bulgogi. The medium-rare patty is coated in the sweet soy glaze, and more gets added while it cooks to give it a little crust from the griddle. Her adds caramelized onions, garlic mayo and a slice of yellow American cheese, and serves it on a brioche bun. You can add a second patty for $4 if you're really hungry — never a bad idea.
1124 Payne Av., St. Paul, juchestpaul.com
More year-end restaurant stories
Howard's Cheeseburger at Howard's Bar
Around here, a great bar deserves a delicious burger. And right out of the gate, the new Howard's Bar in Stillwater delivered. Big time. Howard's Bar is the first restaurant from Caroline Smith and Adam To. To spent time in Twin Cities kitchens before eventually landing at the now-closed Michelin-starred Trois Mec in Los Angeles. The duo moved back to Minnesota, where they opened Howard's Bar this summer with dive-bar intent and modern food sensibilities. To does what Smith affectionately referred to as the "Adam thing," cheffy nods to the homey comforts sprinkled throughout the menu. The burger ($15 for a single, $18 for a double), starts with seared and juicy Peterson's beef on a buttery toasted bun topped with caramelized onions, bibb lettuce, tomato, oozy yellow cheese and a healthy dose of special sauce. What makes it great is its adherence to the classics — no innovation beyond quality ingredients treated with care.
302 S. Main St., Stillwater, howardsbar.com
Double Smashburger at Fool Me Once
This quirky bar, with its neon-lit cowboy-in-space motifs, goes hard at over-the-top bar food on all fronts. The usuals, such as wings, tacos and the trendy Crunchwrap, are all done well. And then there's a smashburger for the ages. This Lyn-Lake "cosmic cantina" goes Oklahoma-style with its double ($16, includes fries), pressing the patties on the griddle over a pile of onions that caramelize to oblivion. They add Thousand Island-y "FMO sauce" and "cold pickles." A thick slice of bacon crowns it, as if you needed more meat — but somehow you do. Unless you're vegan or vegetarian, in which case you should go for the housemade black bean burger with avocado salsa ($15). Basically, go wherever your cowboy heart takes you. Just make sure your journey includes a burger.
3006 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., foolmeoncempls.com
These burgers are no longer available — for now.
Here's an open plea to chefs: Can we please get toasted rice powder on our burgers? When we visited this pop-up inside what is now the second location of chef Yia Vang's Union Hmong Kitchen, we loved the burger that had a sprinkling of this condiment. And now that it's gone, there's a burger-shaped hole in our hearts. The pop-up was centered around the third cuisine of Hmong American food, a combination Vang, a child of the '90s, grew up eating. When he was sharing ingredients with chef Marshall Paulsen, Paulsen fell in love with toasted rice powder. In Vang's words, "He was putting it on everything." It was only a matter of time before it showed up on a burger. This smashburger was topped with American cheese and given an umami punch from the rice powder, which amped up the toasty char on the beef. The pop-up ended in June, and now we only have memories of this juicy moment in burger history. (Unless Vang brings it back with his forthcoming restaurant Vinai. We can only hope.)
901 W. Lake St., Mpls., unionkitchenmn.com
We encountered the Fumo burger pop-up by sort of crashing a backyard birthday party. Under a tent, we found Steve Schirber, a blacksmith and metal fabricator who became a live-fire cook in his own backyard. He then started setting up his griddle in others' yards, like this birthday party, where he smashes the patties down with a heavy, smooth-sided burger press he forged himself. He also holds high-end farm dinners that showcase his skill with smoke and flame (fumo means smoke in Latin), but he's known for his burger pop-ups. Here, thinly sliced onions are layered on the flat top before Schirber smears the meat from the inside out, creating that lace we love, so there's more edge than middle. Piled onto a bun, it's a precarious bite of juicy onions, meat, proprietary pickles and cheese. It's almost enough to throw a birthday bash out of season, just to get that tent and these decadent burgers closer to home.
No pop-ups scheduled, but check fumocollective.com for future installments.