Which new gourmet burger bar is king?

Posted at 11:00 AM, Feb 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-02 11:00:14-05

CINCINNATI — Can the Queen City have too many gourmet burger bars?

Three have opened within a mile of one another since December. Bru and Americano opened three days, and blocks, apart Downtown in early December. ZBGB opened in Over-the-Rhine in January. Each advertises the best burgers and craft beer selection in town.

Those claims prompted an obvious question: Which is actually best? As a burger lover, I set out to try a burger at each location. I invited my friend Kelly, a Boone County high school teacher, fellow beer lover and vegetarian, to join me and provide his feedback.

Homemade Veggie

Bru Burger Bar: 41 E. Sixth St., Downtown. 513-463-6003 

We went to Bru Burger on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The restaurant, which is located on Sixth Street inside the former Cadillac Ranch space, is the fourth location for the small Indianapolis-based chain.

Scanning the menu, Kelly and I were impressed with the craft beer selection, which included smaller breweries such as Braxton in Covington. We counted at least 16 burgers on the menu, including vegan and vegetarian options. I chose the Stilton Blue Cheese Burger, a blend of sirloin, chuck and brisket topped by pear-bacon jam, fried onions, truffle aioli and spinach on a buttery bun. Kelly selected the housemaid veggie burger, a garbanzo and mushroom patty topped with balsamic mayo and garden veggies on an oat bun.

Kelly said the veggie burger was a balanced blend of flavors with a slightly nutty aftertaste. The balsamic mayo was not overpowering and the “garden” greens on top complemented the patty well. He was also pleasantly surprised to find the patty juicy, adding, “Many times I’ve had a veggie burger that was dry and bland.”  

The Stilton melted in my mouth: The sirloin blend I ordered medium was cooked to perfection and juicy as well. The pear-bacon jam and truffle aioli created a wonderful blend of flavors -- my mouth is watering just thinking about it.  

The fries were crisp and tasty. The house-made ketchup was a bit sweet, which some people might not like, but I enjoyed it immensely. And, as advertised, both burgers were reasonably priced at about $12 each with fries. 

The Early Bird

Americano Burger Bar: 545 Race St., Downtown. 513-345-6677 

Americano Burger Bar is two blocks away, on Race Street. Again, Kelly and I were both impressed with the beer selection; Americano even had the sometimes-hard-to-find Northside brewery Urban Artifact on its menu. There were fewer burger options at Americano (10, including the Veggie), and fries were listed as an optional side. 

Americano uses barro and cannellini beans for its veggie patty, which made for a dense consistency that had the heft of a crab cake, Kelly said. The patty, which appeared pressed in a form to hold it together, was well seasoned. It was dressed with light mayo and arugula that was fresh and peppery on a nice bun.

I ordered the Early Bird, a sirloin patty topped with a fried egg, crispy bacon, American cheese, onion straws, tomato and Sriracha mayo. I requested my burger “pink.” (The alternative option listed on the menu was “not pink.”) The Early Bird was delicious and perhaps my favorite burger simply for the amount of protein it packed between two pieces of bread. Both of our burgers were messy, with a lot of juice dripping from the patty.

Americano offers three styles of fries: garlic and rosemary, Cajun and regular. Kelly tried the garlic and rosemary fries and thought they were tasty. I opted for regular to get a base comparison with Bru Burger’s fries. We both agreed that Americano’s fries weren’t as crisp as Bru's -- that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Americano's ketchup, though, tasted like it came straight out of a bottle.

Overall burger prices at Americano were comparable to Bru Burger, clocking in at about $13 each with a half order of fries.

The Lori

ZBGB Gourmet Burgers & Bar: 1438 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-744-9242 

ZBGB is the newest restaurant from the owners of Zula Restaurant & Wine Bar. ZBGB, like Americano, boasts 10 burger options, one of which is vegetarian.

That lone veggie burger, a falafel patty made with white beans called "The Lori," is a winner, though, according to Kelly.

"The patty was good, crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside," he said. "It was topped with a tomato-pepper compote that had some heat to it. It brought beads of sweat to my brow. That's not a knock on the burger -- I love spicy and heat, but anything beyond table pepper will make me sweat.” 

I ordered the Triple Bypass burger, aptly named for its bacon-crusted prime beef, hickory bacon, havarti, lettuce and bacon aioli. Its flavor didn't wow me as much as Americano's Early Bird or Bru's Stilton. The patty was a bit dryer than what I enjoy, and at $16.50, it was by far the most expensive burger on the list. I also probably should have ordered the patty medium-rare instead of medium.

Kelly also liked the fries, which had an interesting blend of seasonings that brought a hint of heat. But I found the seasoning off-putting, a bit more sweet than spicy. On the plus side, the in-house ketchup tasted like real tomatoes, without the overpowering sweetness most people expect from the kind they buy in bottles at the store.

The one area Kelly and I agreed upon was the beer: ZBGB offered a nice selection of local and national craft brews not found at the other two restaurants. It's also right across the street from Taft's Ale House.

Assessing the Burger Bars:

Burgers: I was torn between the Stilton at Bru's and Early Bird at Americano. I'm calling it a draw.
Vegetarian options: Kelly's clear winner was the Lori at ZBGB.
Buns: Bru won this category with the buttery bun on the Stilton and the oat bun on the veggie.
Fries: Americano's options were a cut above the rest.
Craft beer: Americano's selection was nice, especially with the inclusion of the smaller brewers.
Prices: Bru was the most reasonably priced.
Best overall: As Kelly stated, Bru Burger was the best overall choice because of the quality of food, price and variety on the menu.