The big ground-up: A select survey of the best burgers in Prague, and goodbye to all that
There are a number of backyard chefs who insist that the quest for perfection ends with grilled red meat in a slightly scorched bun.
Perhaps they’re right. The soul of America’s greatest contribution to culinary annals ascends from a patty of ground beef. And the hamburger needs little more than bittersweet caramelization over an open flame and two slices of bread to set it aloft.
Yet, as Robert Browning once wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Meaning, in this case, that human nature’s desire for self-fulfillment almost forces chefs to pile sautéed red onions, goat cheese and other upscale ingredients on burgers in their search for something more perfect than perfection.
Meanwhile, in this less-than-perfect world, it’s time once again to judge the handiwork of those seeking the unattainable. Each year we sample one burger at selected Prague restaurants in order to find the best — a temporary and imperfect measure, granted. Nonetheless, we undertake this process not only as a reader service, but to acknowledge those who do a great job with good piece of ground beef.
Our visits are random and anonymous, of course. We assessed each burger on the quality of meat, its “doneness” (considering nearest to medium as best), the bun, seasoning, quality of condiments, “eatability” (it’s a sandwich, not a knife-and-fork meal), overall impression and the fries, assigning points to each and adding up the total.
Points were assigned on the basis of a single visit, which may be an imperfect methodology; in a number of cases this year (Gate, Jáma, Fraktal), restaurants failed to match their usual performance. But here are the final results, in order of ranking:
Mozaika (Nitranská 13, Prague 3–Vinohrady. Tel. 224 253 011). Years ago my predecessor awarded this restaurant the best burger prize. My experiences have been less satisfying, with the kitchen always finding a way to mess up my order. One time it was a stale bun, and on another occasion the meat was essentially uncooked. Ah, but when they get it right: The patty itself is musty and meaty, the bun fresh with a bitter undertone from spinach, and every addition — from onions to bacon — applied with consideration for the burger itself. So, after three years of mediocrity, Mozaika is back on top.
Banditos (Melounova 2, Prague 2–New Town. Tel. 224 941 096). The burger here is wisely presented open-face, allowing the patty to stand out. Seared with black scars, grassy and bitter, it resembles a backyard creation. Unfortunately, it’s a little too small for the bun. Sagging fries bring down the overall points total as well.
Gate (Sokolovská 34, Prague 8–Karlín. Tel. 224 815 305). Better on nonreview visits, the kitchen suffered an off-night. Still, this popular restaurant’s Texas Cheeseburger is charred beautifully, and the aroma — well, it reminds you of a barbecue grill. Too much sauce and flaccid fries (a problem in many restaurants) hurt the final score.
Mon Ami (Roháčova 20, Prague 3–Žižkov. Tel. 222 780 808). Last year, this place tied for the top spot with Fraktal. This time around, the kitchen pulled the earthy-sweet beef and lamb combination from the heat far too early, a mistake that dulled the overall flavor. Oh, well — the bun is great. Only one point for sides, but the kitchen doesn’t promise more.
Fraktal (Šmeralova 1, Prague 7–Bubeneč. Tel. 777 794 094). Usually one of the best, but on this occasion the goat cheese and pistachio burger was drowned with a giant dollop of the former. The tart, tacky sensation draped everything, obscuring great beef and beating down the prickly sauce. Dull fries, too.
U Dědka (Na Kozačce 12, Prague 2–Vinohrady. Tel. 222 522 784). Emboldened by a handful of pepper, it’s a strident burger that stands up to whatever condiments you decide to layer on top (guests can build their own). A glob of tacky, useless cheese upset the overall impression, however. And the fries are, well, pointless.
Jáma (V Jámě 7, Prague 1–New Town. Tel. 224 222 383). A favorite spot for some people, and you realize why when you bite into the patty: great beef cooked just right. But on this visit it was sitting in a bun stale by several days, judging by the unpleasant crunch. And the fries smacked of old oil. Still, it’s about the best patty around.
El Barrio de Angel (Lidická 42, Prague 5–Smíchov. Tel. 725 535 555). The meat has a savory side to it, along with very fresh cucumber, tomato and onion — so explosive that the vegetables almost take over. It may be the one dish this kitchen cooks with competence and confidence. Too bad about the fries.
Bohemia Bagel (Masná 2, Prague 1–Old Town. Tel. 224 812 560). Woeful meat with a sawdust texture, despite a juicy burst. Overcooked in the center but, curiously, with evidence of red on the edges. No real beef flavor, just a hint of smoky meat from a layer of bacon. The bagel serving as bun is a nice touch, though, and the fries nicely rendered.
Final (slurred) words
These are, indeed, my final words. Several weeks ago I accepted a position as food critic at a paper in Dallas. Yeah, the place lacks Prague’s charm. On the plus side, there’s a lot less cabbage and pork fat.
Restaurants in Prague changed a lot during my short tenure. Allegro earned a Michelin star. Oliva and Angel opened. Several other nice, chef-driven places popped up as well. At the same time, Czechs and expats both seemed to be evolving, slowly, from the “It’s good because it’s cheap” mentality, learning that a restaurant may be good and cheap, but never good just because of cut-rate prices.
Still, reviewing restaurants in Prague requires a certain willingness to, well, explain things. Consider, for example, comments from readers claiming that it’s near-impossible to cook fresh pasta al dente, or the one who insisted that the USDA’s grading system (prime, choice, etc.) promotes hormone-injected beef.
For the record, al dente does not mean “crunchy.” And the USDA applies grades to both chemically altered meat and the free-range, grass-fed variety.
But it’s a great city with a burgeoning food culture, and I enjoyed my time there — especially working with some of the best journalists anywhere.
By the Numbers
Best Burger rankings, out of a possible 40 points
Mon Ami 25.5
U Dědka 24.5
El Barrio de Angel 21.5
Bohemia Bagel 19
Best: Jáma, Fraktal (tie)
Worst: Bohemia Bagel
Best: Mon Ami
Best: Mozaika, Bohemia Bagel (tie)
Worst: U Dědka