“This is no mere sandwich of grilled meat and toasted bread, Robin. This is God, speaking to us in food.” – Marshall, “How I Met Your Mother”

Americans’ love affair with hamburgers goes back almost as far as our love affair with unhealthy eating. Ever since the 1880s, when Fletcher Davis first put ground beef to golden bun at his caf? in Athens, Texas…or wait, was it Frank and Charles Menches in Hamburg, N.Y., in 1885? Or Charlie “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen of Seymour, Wis., in 1885? Louis Lassen, New Haven, Conn., 1895? Colonel Mustard, library, revolver?

Okay, so we’re a little unclear on just how the hamburger was invented. I’m inclined to go with the guy from Wisconsin for reasons totally unrelated to the fact that I live here. Actually it is because I live here. Plus he has a nickname with “hamburger” in it and it doesn’t get much more legitimate than that. The important thing is at some point in history some culinary genius put ground beef on a bun and divine ecstasy ensued.

But which restaurant has the best hamburger in Madison? The internet has many opinions to offer (www.madisonatoz.com is a great resource, by the way – these guys know what they’re talking about when it comes to restaurants) and overall, I’ve gathered that the two restaurants most likely to do battle on a hamburger episode of Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” are The Old Fashioned and Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry.

But before our two contenders face off, a note on a controversial – but increasingly popular – dish: the veggie burger. Most die-hard burger fans abhor veggie burgers on a level more fundamental than just taste. They claim that by masquerading as something they’re not, meatless burgers violate the soul of a hamburger. However, I had three good reasons to order the Nitty Gritty’s veggie burger on a Friday in early April: 1.) I couldn’t eat meat that day, 2.) I was curious and 3.) Everyone knows the Nitty Gritty’s regular hamburgers kinda suck.

I ordered. It came. And you know what? Veggie burgers are pretty unsatisfying. It wasn’t the texture. Though it was missing that charbroiled crust, the mealy grains were a passable imitation of ground beef texture, and it held together like a real patty would. It wasn’t the taste. The “special” ranch sauce was phenomenal and brought cohesion to the hearty vegetable and grain flavors. No, it was something else.

Real hamburgers have a certain decadent, rich center that imbues each patty with heart and vigor. The Nitty Gritty veggie burger was missing that solid center, and it left me feeling deprived. A delicious vegetable-and-grain-mash sandwich it is; a hamburger it is not.

And now, the battle. Hamburger style.

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry vs. The Old Fashioned

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry (317 N Frances St.) constitutes the cult favorite of our two contenders. A rustic exterior and an eclectic, oddball interior attract longtime patrons who return out of sheer loyalty to the funky atmosphere – and, by extension, the food. But I’m sorry, Dotty – your burgers are gut bombs. 

Every time that plate arrives, it is an unholy grease disaster. The grease soaks the lettuce, tomato and bottom bun from the outset, melding the entire burger into a one-dimensional pile of ground beef flavor scarcely salvaged by an equally large pile of ketchup. The burger is so wet it is often difficult to pick up, and it never seems to hold together all the way through the meal. The spirit of the burger gets lost amid the clutter. At the end of the meal, I sympathize with Jim Gaffigan in his feelings about Hot Pockets – “Did I eat that or did I rub it on my face”? I sincerely apologize to any die-hard Dotty’s fans I may have offended, but…you guys just go have fun with your lard fest.

I’m moving on to more coherent and delicious burgers, like the one at our other contender, The Old Fashioned (23 N. Pinckney St., Capitol Square). The basic hamburger patty was just large enough to be satisfying but not stomach-annihilating. 

In signature Old Fashioned style, the patty was smothered in perfectly melted cheddar cheese. The best part of this uncluttered burger package was the bun – toasty golden brown and hefty enough to hold the patty, cheese, lettuce and tomato together through the meal. For those of you who prefer a more indulgent experience, The Old Fashioned House Burger packs a savory punch with “fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged Cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg” – enough Wisconsin farm-inspired ingredients to take anyone to Midwest grub heaven.

The Old Fashioned wins! That settles the battle, at least for this carnivore. 

Samantha Stepp is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you have a favorite burger place in Madison? Need to defend Dotty’s? E-mail [email protected]

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