Crabs, chicken boxes, lemon sticks, snowballs: These are some of the foods that are known as distinctly Baltimore.

Another engrained food preference I’ve discovered since moving to the city one year ago is that the citizens of Baltimore seem to prefer their burgers smashed. Or at least, that’s what the purveyors have decided. Nearly every popular burger in the city comes smashed — typically, it’s two thin, slightly charred smashed patties stacked on top of each other, with onions cooked into the meat.

At the risk of coming across as a puritan, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to my burgers. Sure, the char of a smash burger is great, but I prefer the thick, juicy patty that harks back to childhood memories. Simpler times. Before upscale fast-food chains started a craze I’m afraid has gone a bit too far.

With that in mind, I tweeted in mid-March, seeking recommendations for Baltimore’s best non-smash burgers. Before you start drafting your hate mail: I haven’t had a chance to try them all yet, and I welcome your suggestions.

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First, my ranking system: I use a one-to-10 scale. Anything above five is considered “good.” Think of a seven as, “if you’re in the area, stop by this place for a burger.” An eight indicates this is a burger worth traveling for. Ranking in the nines? You’re in the best of your class.

We’ll go from best to worst. Here’s what I’ve found in my reporting so far:

Penny Black: A damn smoky, damn fine burger (8.2)

The $21 dollar "fancy" Penny Black Burger at the old-fashioned Fells Point tavern ranks atop my list of best non-smash burgers in Baltimore.
The $21 dollar “fancy” Penny Black Burger at the old-fashioned Fells Point tavern ranks atop my list of best non-smash burgers in Baltimore. (Ben Conarck/The Baltimore Banner)

Walking into Penny Black feels a little like time traveling, which boded well in my quest for a pre-smashburger era.

The entire Upper Fells Point bar is decked out in ornate wood paneling, and despite it being early April, it was the first truly humid day of the year. The place smelled like an old museum.

Penny Black offers two burgers: a “plain” $16 cheeseless, lettuce-tomato-onion burger, or the $21 “fancy” edition, featuring smoked bacon, gruyere, pickled tomato, bourbon onion chutney and garlic aïoli. Obviously, being a gentleman, I chose the fancy option.

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Let me just get this out of the way: This burger probably isn’t for everyone. And yes, I recognize the irony of premising my entire article on finding a traditional burger, then giving my best score to a burger that isn’t exactly traditional. However, the Penny Black Burger was one of the more interesting and delicious burgers I’ve tasted in recent years, so it deserves its place atop the list.

The burger came out perfectly cooked at medium-rare, sitting atop a soft pillowy bun, dwarfed by a monstrous piece of thick, chewy bacon. The patty itself was so smoky, it almost tasted like the burger was cooked inside a chimney. But it brought a depth of flavor that was rich and satisfying.

This is a burger that will challenge your taste buds. It is memorable and enjoyable without distracting from the flavor of the meat. We’re not here to review fries, but the fries were also very good.

1800 Thames St.

The Brewer’s Art: A straight-up, quality cheeseburger that hits the spot (7.9)

The Brewer’s Cheeseburger was a straightforward and well-executed rendition in a cool atmosphere. It ranked second on my list. (Ben Conarck/Ben Conarck)

My trip to the Brewer’s Art in Midtown came early for burger hours: around 4:05 p.m. just as they were opening. I had picked up my brother at the train station and needed to check another burger off the list. A bartender told me that he had just woken up — but nonetheless, I felt the Brewer’s Art was ready for me.

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Coming in at $18, the Brewer’s Cheeseburger uses black Angus from Creekstone Farms, garlic mustard aïoli, shredded lettuce, Tillamook cheddar and a house pickle.

The burger came out quickly and was cooked to perfection at medium-rare. It’s a smaller patty, which I personally don’t have a huge problem with, as long as it’s cooked and seasoned right. And this one certainly was. I’d describe it as a straightforward seasoning that really brought out the flavor of what was clearly good-quality meat.

While nothing revolutionary, this was a very satisfying, traditional burger. I shaved some points off for the bun, which was a little bulky and slightly on the stale side. Once again: We’re not here to review fries, but these were coincidentally the second-best fries behind Penny Black.

1106 N. Charles St.

Patterson Public House: A spicy neighborhood sleeper that packs a punch (7.8)

A slightly scaled-down version of the Patterson Public House’s Spicy AF Burger landed number three on my list. (Ben Conarck/Ben Conarck)

The Patterson Public House sits unassumingly at the northeast corner of Patterson Park and is a true neighborhood gem.

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The pub also advertises Creekstone Farms meat and offers two options, the first being a traditional Public House Burger that comes with tomato jam, pickled red onion, little gem lettuce, beef fat mayo and white cheddar on a brioche bun.

As you all know by now, I am a burger traditionalist, but I also love spicy food, so I opted for the Spicy AF Burger, which has Spicy AF mayo and habanero cheddar, and adds pickled chili peppers.

I was slightly concerned about the pickled chili peppers taking away from the flavor of the burger, so the bartender suggested holding them, which I did. The result was a moderately spicy burger that didn’t distract from what was a really well-seasoned patty, which was cooked a little too rare, but still quite good.

The burger came on a very soft bun as a vessel, though the juiciness of the patty did a number on the bottom half. I would suggest putting the mayo and lettuce underneath the patty to help protect against this. The tomato jam over sliced tomato was a nice touch.

Overall this is a burger that is worth coming back for, and an apparent sleeper in the Baltimore burger scene, since only one person recommended it. It was better than at least one big-name burger.

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2901 E. Baltimore St.

The Abbey Burger Bistro: A Baltimore favorite, build-your-own burger (7.4)

The Baltimore favorite for custom-made burgers did not disappoint, but it also didn’t particularly stand out. It ranked fourth on my list. (Ben Conarck/Ben Conarck)

The Abbey Burger Bistro is perhaps the best-known burger spot in the city, with a storied bar in the Federal Hill neighborhood and a newer offshoot in Fells Point.

That newer location happens to be closer to where I live, so that’s where I went to sample the goods.

I enjoyed and appreciated the option to construct your own burger using a piece of paper listing preferences and a tiny branded pencil that brought back memories of mini golf.

However, I did feel like there were perhaps too many options to choose from: I could opt for Kobe or smoked beef rather than a normal patty, but I didn’t. I could have chosen waffle fries for an extra dollar, but I didn’t.

My mindset is that a restaurant should avoid overwhelming the customer with so many choices. But that’s just me. I decided to get a fairly straightforward burger, cooked medium-rare, with sautéed onions and swiss cheese.

The Abbey’s burger came out perfectly cooked and nicely sized, easily the thickest patty of the bunch. Immediately, I was impressed and pleased with the product. It’s not easy to cook a patty that thick to a perfect medium-rare.

The meat, however, seemed lackluster compared to the prior three burgers. Perhaps I should have opted for a different patty. I liked this burger just fine, and would go back there for another one if I was in the area, but is it really the best burger in Baltimore? Not on my list.

1041 Marshall St. or 811 S. Broadway

Hudson Street Stackhouse: Every burger story needs a villain (3.2)

The cheeseburger at Hudson Street Stackhouse is advertised as “flame-broiled,” but came out flame-charred. (Ben Conarck/Ben Conarck)

Look, I didn’t get into the burger-review business to make friends, but I also don’t want to make any enemies. However, my ultimate obligation is to the truth, and the truth is that Hudson Street Stackhouse just didn’t stack up.

Like the Brewer’s Art and Patterson Public House, Hudson Street Stackhouse advertises Creekstone Farms black Angus beef, but it was hard to tell.

The burger, which was also advertised as “flame-broiled,” came out as if it was cooked by Lucifer himself, completely charred, tasting burnt and way too well-done, despite the fact that I ordered it medium-rare. Maybe I caught them on an off day, but the cheese was also what you might call a red flag.

I ordered cheddar, and the burger came out with a yellow, heavily processed slice of cheese on top that seemed like it was perhaps microwaved after the fact. Even before realizing how burnt it was, I didn’t have a good feeling about this one.

The burger also came with less-than-impressive vegetables (the tomatoes were awfully pale) and decent fries. I’m sure they can do better than this, but if I ever find myself back in the Stackhouse, I won’t be risking the burger again. With all of that said, the Stackhouse has a really nice tap list, so you should stop by if you’re in the mood for a beer.

2626 Hudson St.

Was this list completely wrong? Did I miss the mark? Where else should I go?

Try me:

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

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