Over the Top: Chefs pile on the toppings to create extraordinary burgers

On a sunny spring day in the Central West End, local residents Ed and Kathleen Goodman enjoyed lunch under the shade of a table umbrella at Liluma’s outdoor patio. They started off with a plate of mussels lightly sautéed in white wine and served steaming in the shell. For a main course, one might have expected them to select the pan-roasted tilapia or chicken with broccolini. But rather, they ordered The Burger.

At first glance, a passerby might have wondered, why dine at a Parisian-style bistro to eat such seemingly simple fare? Liluma’s burger, on the contrary, is no ordinary hamburger, said executive chef Tim Zenner. It is a burger extraordinaire. “You won’t find another one like it in the Central West End,” he said.

What transforms this burger from ordinary to extraordinary is its toppings ? melted white Cheddar, crispy house slaw and french fries ? each component carefully balanced to crown a Jason Meat Company beef patty on a brioche roll. Kathleen Goodman found it so delicious she calls Liluma “a cheeseburger paradise in the Central West End.”

Ed Goodman was equally satisfied. “It was very juicy, had lots of flavor and a great presentation,” he said.

Burgers with extravagant toppings are appearing at many fine-dining restaurants. Bill’s Burger Meister Burger on the menu of Cardwell’s at the Plaza is topped with blue cheese, Cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon and spiced tomato relish. Eleven Eleven Mississippi offers a sirloin burger with melted Tillamook Cheddar cheese and grilled onions. Jimmy’s on the Park tops its patty melt with roasted tomato aïoli along with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions. Crispy bacon, melted Cheddar and grilled onions cap the sirloin burger at Truffles in Ladue.

At Duff’s in the Central West End, the Black-and-Blue Burger is a menu favorite. The half-pound burger is rolled in freshly ground black peppercorns, charbroiled, topped with blue cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onions. About five years ago chef Jimmy Voss, inspired by his own love affair with blue cheese and beef, created the burger and presented it to guests as a special. After receiving rave reviews, he decided to put it on the menu, and it has remained ever since, despite seasonal revisions.

“If it works, we keep it,” Voss said.

Even at stop-and-go burger joints and all-American grills, the lettuce, tomato and onion are being unseated for the more exotic and often more substantial toppings. Order the Bx Burger at Big V’s Burger Joint on Delmar Boulevard, and you’re gonna get a mouthful. This burger is topped with American cheese and a fried egg, smothered in chili and capped with roasted jalapeños. The Bx Burger is one of no less than five creative burger compilations on the menu, which co-owner Vito Racanelli created just by brainstorming his favorite foods.

To him, anything tastes good on a burger. “You just gotta have fun with it,” he said.
Just down the block from Big V’s, Fitz’s American Grill and Bottling Works tempts guests with nearly a dozen unique burgers. Some even require a fork, including the Chili Frito Burger, a half-pound patty smothered with chili con carne, pico de gallo, shredded Colby Jack cheese, sour cream, scallions and crispy Frito Corn Chips.

Just two years ago, Fitz’s Bottler Burger, the standard beef patty with lettuce, tomato and onion, was the only burger offered. Guests could add ketchup, mustard and a few pickle slices for a little more zing. But according to service manager Phillip Hines, who has been serving burgers at Fitz’s for the past seven years, 50 to 70 percent of all burgers ordered today come with toppings galore.

“People always want to try something new,” Hines said. “Food gets repetitive, especially at burger joints.”

Today, Fitz’s list of gourmet burgers includes the Texas Chili Burger; the Sasha Burger, which comes with sautéed mushrooms, gravy and Swiss cheese; the Southwest Burger, served with a side of salsa; and The Elvis Burger, topped with barbecue sauce and coleslaw. However, Hines also suggested that the new craze over more toppings is simply because they mean more food.

“People love to eat,” he said. “Anything more is better ? the bigger the better, the wider the better.”

At Culpepper’s, the unique ingredient on the restaurant’s signature burger is a garlic-cream cheese spread made with Italian herbs and spices. It’s served on an onion kaiser roll. The combination makes the Culpepper Burger the most popular choice of eight burger selections on the menu, said Jesse Graftenreed, general manager at the Central West End location.

For those who just want a taste of something different, Llywelyn’s Pub offers Mini Burgers, an appetizer of four 2-ounce patties that can be topped with a pepper-cheese or a Welsh rarebit sauce.

If your favorite topping combination hasn’t been included here, order your burger at Kitchen K. The K-Burger is listed on the menu with the following instructions: “You know what you want on top so just tell us.”

These exotic and often enormous burgers throughout St. Louis have been designed with careful consideration, creativity and experimentation. When their lips aren’t locked around their own patties, local chefs keep them tight on the secret ingredients they add to enhance their original creations. Racanelli of Big V’s revealed only the basics. “The main ingredients are lots of love and happiness,” he said. “Our customers keep coming back for more.”