A drive down any major thoroughfare will reveal signs for places claiming to have the best burger in town. Clearly, some of them have to be wrong. • Or do they? • Going out for the perfect burger is as much about the mood as the meal. Sometimes simple is better. Sometimes it's all about the situation. Often it's about convenience, and if you have a favorite as hawked by a clown or a king, we're not here to tell you you're wrong. • But here are a few burger-eating scenarios — not including the ever-convenient drive-through — and places we'd recommend when the urge hits. Jim Webster, Times food critic
There's nothing fancy here. No custom grinds of heirloom meat. No frisee. No brioche. Cheese is optional, but it will likely be orange, probably American. If you want to get fancy, you can add bacon. Or an extra patty.
This is the hamburger that became an icon.
If this is your favorite, you're in luck, because it's the easiest to find. In addition to the ubiquitous chains, places like Five Guys are opening all over the place with just this kind of burger.
For a little more local character, you can have a burger outside under the trees and beside the bathtubs at Chattaway in St. Petersburg, or while surrounded by the Rays game on dozens of televisions at El Cap, the St. Petersburg stalwart.
If you don't mind switching over to Phillies paraphernalia — or even prefer it, maybe? — Delco's Original in Dunedin has a good one on the menu, buried under the cheesesteaks and hoagies that are the more famous imports from Delaware County, Pa. A side dish that makes it worth the trip: cheese fries seasoned with Old Bay.
El Cap, 3500 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 521-1314
Burger with a shake
It's a classic pairing, one originating in the sitcom drive-in. Sometimes the cheese isn't enough dairy to go with that protein patty, and it's fun to have what amounts to a big glass of ice cream masquerading as a beverage.
The classics are chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and malts, and if you head to Munch's in St. Petersburg, you'll find those to go alongside the classic burgers and patty melts. There's even a classic mixer behind the lunch counter. Want to get a look at the place before you go? It will be featured on an upcoming episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network.
If you prefer something a little more modern in your milkshake — and your burger — Burger 21 in Tampa has seven shakes that move beyond the classic flavors. For instance, there is a key lime pie shake. And it isn't even listed as a dessert. The tangy sweetness would be the perfect match with the Tex-Mex Haystack, with its guacamole, fried onion and spicy chipotle-jalapeno sauce.
Burger with wine
Well, now we're getting a little more sophisticated. But that's not a problem, because there's a burger for that, too. What's the best wine to go with a burger? First, the official answer: We're talking about red meat, so you'll probably want a red wine, something not too dry, with a little spiciness to it.
At Tampa's Pane Rustica, there is always a burger on the lunch menu. It's cooked over a wood fire, and the recent incarnation includes a smoky barbecue aioli. Try the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Vallevo for $9 a glass.
Red Mesa Cantina's burger is a mix of beef and a fresh chorizo sausage. Not coincidentally, the Cantina also makes a nice sangria. Counter the spicy burger with the sweet wine and sit outside at the popular downtown St. Petersburg watering hole.
At Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, chef Chris Ponte blackens his 8-ounce chuck burger and serves it on brioche. Echo the peppery notes of the blackening with a glass of Sin Zin zinfandel ($11.50). And then take the afternoon off.
Now, the unofficial answer: There really aren't rules about wine anymore. Drink what you want with what you want. Want champagne with a burger? That would be fantastic. (More suggestions for wine with burgers, Page 7E.)
Food at any sporting event is notoriously expensive. And it isn't easy to eat in the seat. And it is often less than worth the money or effort. Better just to stop off for a bite after the game.
Leaving the St. Pete Times Forum after a Lightning game, head to a Connecticut-based mini-chain called Frankies. Frankies keeps it very simple with its burger, plus it is open until midnight on the weekends. It also offers a side of vegetables with your burger. They're fried, but they're vegetables.
At the edge of the parking lots at Tropicana Field is Burg Bar. The burgers here stay simple, too, but the beer list is impressive, and the kitchen is open until midnight most nights. It's a small room, though, so getting in after a game could be tricky.
Bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato will only take you so far. Sometimes you need to get a little crazy with the toppings. Here's where to do it:
Square 1 Burgers in Tampa has a menu full of interesting combinations, including a pimento cheeseburger and an ostrich burger topped with sweet and jalapeno peppers. But even better, it has a menu of ingredients so you can build your own. Suggestion: Start with the Angus — Kobe burgers are overkill — on a kaiser, chipotle ketchup, Gruyere cheese, tomato, caramelized onion and a fried egg. They've also got one they call the Buffalo Bob that's a buffalo patty with bacon, an onion ring and spicy beer cheese.
Twisted Cork in St. Petersburg tops its half-pound burger on grilled ciabatta with pulled pork, perfect for the person who can't decide between a burger and a pulled pork sandwich.
There are different ways to go over the top. It can be done with sheer volume. And it can be done with attention to detail and superior, luxurious ingredients. You can find volume almost anywhere. For those looking for burger luxury, look at these:
The burger that chef Greg Baker is making at the Refinery in Tampa this week is served on a brioche kaiser and topped with curly kale, tomato . . . and potato salad. If that sounds good, go tonight, because on Thursday, the menu changes. A source — well, Baker — says that next week's burger will be crusted in sea salt and chile de arbol with white cheddar, roasted onion and banana pepper relish. So there is merit in waiting, too.
And if you want the most luxurious burger experience in the bay area, go to Z Grille in St. Petersburg, where chef Zack Gross has built a budget-busting burger. The patty is topped with grilled onion, Neuske bacon and a large slab of foie gras. Once topped, it is an architectural sight. It comes with a steak knife, which is a good hint of how to attack it. For good measure, the fries are tossed in truffle oil and topped with Manchego cheese. All for $21.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.