By Glen Macnow
There’s a burger at the best diner in Cherry Hill that I’ve ordered more than a dozen times. It’s got cheddar cheese, crispy bacon, sautéed onions and mushrooms and comes with a terrific honey BBQ sauce. They put it on grilled sourdough bread, which far surpasses your typical burger bun.
It’s an amazing burger. I should know. I designed it.
The “Prof Burger” at Ponzio’s on Route 70 is my take on what a great hamburger should be. I’d put it up against any burger in any contest.
Except this one. Because I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair.
I don’t claim to be the world’s most-discerning food critic, but I know what I like. And I’ve tried enough burgers over the years that I think I’m a pretty fair judge.
I’ve also been on the radio for 20 years, and my reputation for being a lover of Guy Food means that I’ve been asked to become a spokesman for a few places that would otherwise contend in this contest. Three, to be exact:
• Ponzio’s Diner, Bakery and Bar in Cherry Hill.
• Fat Jack’s Barbecue in Philadelphia and Jenkintown.
• Five Guys Burgers and Fries, with multiple Locations.
In addition, one of my favorite places in the city – with an exceptional hamburger – is the Kennett Restaurant in Queen Village. I’ve been there often enough that I became friends with the owner, and then partners with him on another business venture, a brewery in Conshohocken.
Here’s the thing: I would not read commercials for a business– any business– if I didn’t totally believe in their excellence. That’s a policy I’ve always maintained at WIP. At the same time, I can’t hold a burger competition and award a prize to a place with which I have or used to have a partnership. You, my audience, would be rightly skeptical.
So four terrific burger joints don’t get to compete.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you about them, and maybe persuade you to give them a try.
PONZIO’S is exactly what I always envisioned a New Jersey diner would be before I moved to this area. Everything there is outstanding – from the breakfast omelets to the chili to the crab cakes to the lobster rolls, which are as good as any I’ve had on Cape Cod. Their famous Chicken pot pie and the peach pie (alas, on the menu only in the summer) are two items I would gladly have as my final meal.
So when they invited me to design a burger, I knew they’d do it right. Now you may or may not like all the extras I chose for it. But trust me on this: The Brothers Fifis know how to cook a burger. And, like everything at Ponzio’s, they’ll make sure you get more than your money’s worth. My advice: Bring a mini-cooler because you’re going to wind up taking some of it home.
FAT JACK’S won the second food hunt I held at WIP, which was my search for the Delaware Valley’s best ribs. I’d never heard of Fat Jack’s at the time, but the owner, Glenn Gross, was so eager for me to try his cooking that he showed up unannounced at the WIP studios one evening with a greasy bag containing heaven on the bone. Since then, I’ve scarfed down about 400,000 calories at Fat Jack’s, particularly enjoying their pulled pork. I use them each year to cater my Super Bowl party – I’ve even served his amazing brisket for Passover. Gross is a great showman, who’s earned his way onto national cooking show competitions. He also won last year’s Philly Burger Brawl with this concoction: Angus chuck brisket and ribeye, topped with BBQ sauce, cheddar-jack cheese, hickory-smoked brisket, Carolina pulled pork, sautéed onions, Kentucky slaw & Memphis Dry Rub., served on a buttered, toasted Le Bus onion brioche roll with a pickle on top. Understated, for sure.
So while Fat Jack’s can’t win here, you can see there are medals on the wall there. You should go. I recommend . . . well, everything.
I discovered FIVE GUYS BURGERS AND FRIES when I did my first burger hunt nine years ago. They had just opened their first local restaurant – out in Glen Mills, and I stopped by not knowing what to expect. What I wrote then included this: “The food is delicious, and you get a lot of bang for the buck . .
It looks and tastes more like something you’d get at the neighborhood barbecue than from an inexpensive franchise joint that hands you your meal in a paper bag. . . This is a bare-bones, no-frills, in-and-out restaurant. The burger may not quite measure up to a fancy steakhouse, but it defines the genre of great fast food. Go soon, because as folks learn about this new place, it’s gonna get packed.”
I was correct about this: Five Guys filled up, and expanded. From that one local shop, there are now more than 100 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. And it’s still the best burger for the buck you’ll find.
My friend Johnny Della Polla started the KENNETT RESTAURANT, at 2nd and Christian, four years ago, providing a comfortable Queen Village pub that pays homage to local ingredients and craft beer. He’s succeeded in that – and more. The Kennett has a small menu, and everything on it makes you want to come back for more – from the wood-burnt pizza to the imaginative salads to the best damned lamb burger I’ve ever had. Another buddy of ours even swears by the black bean veggie burger, although I’m not touching that nonsense. Anyway, Johnny’s got a bit of a healthy food fetish, but he’s willing to bend when it comes to the burger, which is blended with bone marrow, all the more to make it addictive. The beer list is superlative and some nights you can find WIP producer Silent Bro behind the bar, telling all the inside stories he’s not allowed to say on the air.
Johnny – one of the original guys at Yards Brewing – knows so much about beer that I’m delighted he’s joined me and some other guys in launching Conshohocken Brewing Co. That makes him ineligible to win this contest, but you’ll do yourself a favor by checking out the Kennett.