Sun's Out, Buns Out: Dig in to Pittsburgh's Best Gourmet Burgers

By Lauren Wells / Photography By Michael Fornataro | August 25, 2015
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Kaya Burger
Art Direction by Jason Solak


Translation: Whether you’re into the beef and bacon version or its vegetarian-friendly cousin (shown here), Kaya’s house burger is truly the life of the party. Think avocado, Chihuahua cheese, a sunny side up egg, sliced tomatoes, pickles, and “secret” Kaya sauce, all piled high on a sesame seed kaiser roll.

Why we love it: One word: versatility. As a garden burger, vegetarians appreciate its palate-pleasing base of barley, black beans, rice, and cheese; while meat eaters often prefer it as a lighter alternative to the more traditional beef patty.

Why they love it: Apparent in both versions of his Caribbean-style handheld, Executive Chef Ben Sloan isn’t afraid to get a little messy. “I love that it’s ‘elbows out’ over the plate,” he says. “The warm egg yolk’s the best part.”

What to order it with: Though Sloan tells us “a surprising number of people” add bacon to the veggie burger, he recommends something slightly greener on the side. As a beautiful contrast to the Kaya Burger’s complexity, opt for a simplistic pepita (pumpkin seed) salad, featuring a lime-cilantro vinaigrette made with jalapeños, garlic, Parmesan, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil.

Food for thought: Turns out that Sloan’s aforementioned “secret” sauce is not so secret after all. “All of our recipes are very open. It’s probably out on the Internet somewhere,” he adds with a laugh. But, just in case: “It’s Kewpie mayonnaise, regular mayo, Sriracha, and Cholula [Hot Sauce].” You’re welcome.

Kaya, 2000 Smallman St., Strip District. 412.261.6565.


Bigham Tavern #1 Bigham Burger


Translation: Maybe you should sit down first. Then, sink your teeth into two quarter-pound, aged sirloin patties; white cheddar; pulled pork; capicola; bacon; glazed and honey-baked hams; and house-made, Memphis Sweet-style barbecue sauce on a brioche bun. This is not a drill.

Why we love it: This cozy joint is one of few places where ordering two days’ worth of food in one sitting is entirely acceptable. In a guilt- and judgment-free zone, Bigham’s self-titled burger bonanza — griddled to greatness by Executive Chef Les Murphy — steals the show. What else would you expect from the first place winner of 2015's PittsBurgher Competition?

Why they love it: “Basically, any time we can add ‘pig’ to something, we do it,” says Marketing Communications Manager Sarah Wilderman. “If you’ve noticed, we do everything big around here. It doesn’t really matter how you dress [a burger] up if it doesn’t start with a good piece of meat.”

What to order it with: Pair the #1’s intensity with something lean and green, like a side salad, to put a cap on your calorie count. Alternatively, hit “refresh” with a strawberry basil lemonade. “It’s amazing, and airy enough to balance out the richness of the burger,” Wilderman adds.

Food for thought: Not everything on this Tavern’s menu is a burger built for five. For a lighter option that’s still bursting with moisture and flavor, Murphy’s Turkey Burger — freshly ground turkey, mushrooms, spinach, and feta cheese on a kaiser roll — is where it’s at.

Bigham Tavern, 321 Bigham St., Mt. Washington. 412.431.9313.


BRGR Santa Fe Hippie Burger


Translation: A burger so exotic, you might forget you’re in Pittsburgh. We’re talking falafel, black beans, roasted corn, red onion, and cilantro — and that’s just the patty itself. Stacked neatly onto a brioche bun, a combination of guacamole, melted pepper jack, cilantro-lime crème fraîche, shredded lettuce, and tomato packs the rest of the punch.

Why we love it: Seared on both sides with just a touch of butter on a special flattop grill, this enjoyably moist burger makes a serious effort to incorporate that irresistible, outer shell crunch factor, making it a solid choice for both carnivores and vegetarians alike.

Why they love it: “You don’t always see falafel built up into a vegetarian patty,” explains Executive Chef Dave Anoia. “I’m not a vegetarian myself, and this burger is something I personally love to eat.” We can see why. In combination with its black beans and homemade guac, this one will fill you up without weighing you down.

What to order it with: Contrary to popular belief, tater tots do exist outside of your local high school’s cafeteria. BRGR’s Cajun Tots not only suit the Hippie Burger’s free spirit, but boast a bite so addicting, we can’t guarantee you’ll have many left to spare.

Food for thought: For an ideal cocktail accompaniment that’s three parts cool, calm, and collected, order the “Laid Back” — gin, St. Germain, orange and grapefruit juices, and lemon — for light, late summer sipping.

BRGR, 5997 Centre Ave., East Liberty. 412.362.2333. Find additional locations at


Tessaro’s Gourmet Cheeseburger


Translation: Half a pound of premium beef — carefully blended and ground in-house every morning by Tessaro’s personal butcher — is seared on a 600ºF hardwood grill with red oak, maple, ash, and hickory timbers; then topped with bacon, sautéed mushrooms, onion, lettuce, tomato, and your favorite cheese. (As shown, Gorgonzola is strongly suggested.)

Why we love it: Crispy on the outside and incredibly tender underneath, this melt-in-your-mouth creation will crush your hunger and warm your soul with every bite. Throughout his 28 years at Tessaro’s, “Master Grill” Chef Courtney McFarlane has become “an expert at getting burgers the way you want them,” says co-owner Moira Harrington.

Why they love it: On her quest to make customers feel at home, Harrington learned that the best burgers require dedication. “It’s the butcher, it’s the way they’re cooked, it’s the fresh ingredients. Nothing is frozen, and that really makes a difference,” she says, noting the restaurant’s daily deliveries of produce and locally made buns.

What to order it with: Though you’d probably expect a patty this patriotic to accompany a heap of fries, you won’t find any here. In fact, in a bold and admirable plot twist, Tessaro’s doesn’t even own a fryer. Ask for the grilled veggie kabob instead — it’s marinated lightly enough to be eaten plain, or added to your burger for an extra flavor pop.

Food for thought: When you’re here, you’re family, and you can (literally) have whatever you like. Cooked to order by both size and temperature, Tessaro’s classic eight-ounce burgers have also been prepared in four-, six-, and even 12-ounce portions, ranging from “Pittsburgh rare” to “medium minus” to “well done.” Says Harrington, “[As a burger bar], you don’t necessarily have to be the best. But you do have to be different."

Tessaro’s, 4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412.682.6809.



Benjamins Western Avenue Burger Bar


Translation: Forget everything you thought you knew about vegan burgers. Beginning with a robust mixture of roasted, slightly charred sweet potatoes and dried chickpeas, these texture-heavy patties are baked in-house before uniting with poblano peppers, caramelized onions, fresh rosemary, and smoked paprika on a gluten-free bun.

Why we love it: Like Benjamin’s beef burgers, this zesty number keeps its composition simple with very few ingredients — yet still manages to preserve the coveted “crumble-free” density that most vegetarian burgers strive towards.

Why they love it: Crushing the notion that meatless options should be an afterthought, owner and Executive Chef Paul Tebbets, Sous Chef Katie Boatner, and Chef de Cuisine John Knowles take theirs seriously — even despite the overwhelming popularity of Benjamin’s sirloin, brisket, and short rib beef blend. “I love that [the veggie burger] takes a long time to make,” says Tebbets, “because then it’s done right every time. We get one shot to make it really beautiful.”

What to order it with: If vidalia onions are in the house, so is Benjamin’s sweet onion bisque. Grab a bowl to complement the burger’s herby notes, then pair it all with a glass of crisp white vino to show off the bisque’s creamy sweetness.

Food for thought: Right behind the bar, Benjamin’s one-stop cooking system, “Betsy,” churns out more than 1,000 burgers every week — and then some. Says Tebbets, “We make everything with this half-size convection oven, 18x22-inch griddle, and one burner. We’re learning how to jump through hoops and to be creative with our limited capacity. When this place fills up, you might have to wait a little bit for your food. But it’s always fresh, and it’s always done right.”

Benjamin’s Western Avenue Burger Bar, 900 Western Ave., North Side. 412.224.2163.


The Altius Burger


Translation: House-ground, grass-fed strip steak; thick cut bacon; locally sourced Lancaster white cheddar; beer braised onion ketchup; baby romaine; tomato; and house-brined dill pickles on a challah bun. Yes. Please.

Why we love it: In accord with the Mt. Washington spot’s “upscale casual” vibe, Executive Chef Jessica Bauer combines top-notch ingredients and a signature seasoning blend, dubbed “Altius Rub,” to create this sizzling showstopper. It’s a bar menu exclusive, but don’t let that fool you. The Altius Burger commands just as much care and attention as the restaurant’s primary dinner dishes, but with a slightly more laid-back attitude, she says. “[With the bar], we wanted to have a small, casual spot where people could still come in after work and feel comfortable.”

Why they love it: For Bauer, less is definitely not more when it comes to accessorizing. “I think contrasting flavors really make the burger. The tangy ketchup, the rich cheese, the salty bacon. I want all of my ingredients to be top-of-the-line, but I also like a lot of stuff.”

What to order it with: If craving gourmet fries alongside our beef is wrong, we don’t want to be right. Altius’ Pommes Frites are classic, savory, and paired with a fluffy truffle aioli.

Food for thought: While you’re at the bar, tap in to one of many “elevated” craft cocktails, prepared by Head Bartender Isaac Merz. During our visit, he recommends a “Reposado Old Fashioned” — Hornitos Black Barrel, amber agave, bitters, and orange — to play up the burger’s smokiness.

Altius, 1230 Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington. 412.904.4442.


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