Burgers: they’re everywhere. The deceptively simple shtick of meat and bread might have only recently made the jump from plate to bun, but it’s a change that Icelanders have embraced wholesale. Whether gracing the table of a sophisticated establishment, or nourishing the hungry traveller in a backwater gas station, burgers are a ubiquitous feature of Icelandic menus.
It is little wonder then that our annual Best of Reykjavík burger category gets everyone riled up and on edge.
This year, we’re taking you along with us for the infamous Grapevine Burger Crawl. Buckle in, it’s going to be a doozy.
If you want to feel like you’re saving the world, sticking it to the man, and having a delicious meal while you’re at it, here is the answer — a burger joint promoting food sustainability and well-being for customers and the planet.
This might be the cutest burger joint in town. Two passionate brothers run this tight ship, sourcing ingredients ethically and sustainably. This is a burger that walks the talk, so much so that the owners have now invested in their own farm that supplies produce when in season. Talk about commitment!
SB: I’ll admit I wasn’t their biggest fan when they first opened — I felt the burgers were a bit too panini-like with their penchant for pesto. But boy have I come around. The photogenic presentation reveals a beautifully constructed burger with a wonderful ratio of fillings to bun. And the colours! The spelt sourdough buns are sturdy, the meat smoky from its turn on the grill, and the homemade condiments are topnotch. Shout out to their tangy, fresh tomato sauce! The vegan patty is hearty, toothsome and chock full of earthy goodness from the beans and grains. The burgers are light, fresh, and despite the absence of mayo-like sauces, they are far from dry. These virtuous burgers are hella tasty and they make a mean lamb burger as well.
VG: The basic burger is such a well-constructed affair that it feels like an architect drew it up and approached it as if it was a cathedral. The burger offers tasty organic beef, pickled cucumber, green kale pesto, tomato sauce and salad. The sourdough spelt bun was surprisingly fluffy and soft while still being firm. The pesto lifted the taste and gave it a fresh spirit, but it could be off-putting for some.
The special burger this time around had refried black beans and a mango and pineapple chutney. The sauce was surprisingly mild and tender while the crunchy garlic gave it an unexpected edge. This burger, like the basic one, was incredibly well constructed and as a whole, almost flawless.
There have been two distinctive shifts in the burger scene in Iceland. The first was in 1981 when Tómas Tómasson, opened his chain of ‘Tommi’s’ restaurants, offering Icelanders a taste of American style burgers for the first time. The second came in 2017, when a trio of chefs opened Le Kock, signalling the arrival of the gourmet burger.
Until Le Kock, most burger buns were a middling Myllan, or the much too rich, pastry-like brioche bun affair. Not at Le Kock though. Their buns, made with Knútur Hreiðarsson’s family-farmed potatoes, are the perfect example of the benefit of utilising local produce.
SB: These burgers have ruled the roost since they opened, and with good reason. They arrive looking like a textbook shot. Cutting in is a joy, and the bun holds its own right down to the last bite. The cheeseburger here is an ode to the OG with crisp toasted buns, perfectly melty cheddar, a juicy patty cooked just right, and pickles and slaw adding fresh crunch. The Trump tower, on the other hand, is an unapologetic double-patty American smash burger with yellow mustard, a shockingly balanced truffle ketchup and perfectly smashed patties.
Le Kock’s burgers aren’t your standard sloppy fare, nor are they gourmet to the point where they’re try-hard. No ma’am, these are obscenely tasty burgers that elicit sighs of pleasure and guilt in equal measure.
VG: It’s clear that Le Kock focuses on the details when you taste their cheeseburger. This is a straight-up triumph of simplicity. There are no compromises to be found here, and they tend to the cheeseburger with love and precision.
The Vegan Fox 2.0 is a smartly crafted vegan burger compiled with smoked barley, bean and mushrooms. There is barbeque sauce, vegan mayo and grilled oyster mushroom sprinkled with harissa. The burger offers a strong kick and the balance between the smokey taste and the freshness from the ginger is just amazing. The whole thing feels like the passionate conclusion of a scientist mastering the ideal recipe for a flawless burger. Which is the case, of course. Overall, a perfect vegan burger.
Smash burgers might seem very 2007, with their vogue confirmed by the soaring popularity of Shake Shack. However, as with most trends, Iceland tends to arrive late in the game. While Hagavagninn might have been first to introduce the smash style, the boys at Smasss ran with the name and appropriately lusty Instagram posts to accompany their arrival.
VG: I am a huge fan of this small enterprise. These are young entrepreneurs trying to make a space for themselves in the burger market and have done so in a surprisingly short amount of time. The first burger I tried was the cheeseburger, the foundation of it all. But the burger’s appearance was so shockingly different from the poster at the counter it already put me off. The bun felt greasy at the first bite, and there was an overwhelming taste of black pepper. They sure went to town with it, and the taste lingered on the whole day. The burger was far from good. It also felt quite boyish, which might reflect the aesthetic of Smasss; perhaps not entirely a bad element and shows spirit. The lack of elegance is a problem here though. It needs some serious rethinking.
The vegan burger, although much better than the cheeseburger, had similar problems. This is the youthful bachelor version of a vegan burger. The presentation was, to say the least, sloppy. Although it had tasty, crunchy pickled cucumbers, onion and tomatoes, the signature Smasss sauce was a bit much, and it was impossible to eat without everything escaping out of the bun. Overall, while the burger was tasty, it needs a lot of finessing.
This place has potential but it’s obvious that it lacks discipline. Thankfully, this doesn’t need to be a huge issue and is easy to change.
SB: The food and decor have the curious feel of belonging in a bachelor pad, albeit tidier. The burgers promise decadent, smutty goodness but sadly arrive looking limp and beat. I wanted to love this so bad, but every bite feels like being smacked in the face by pepper, drowning out all other flavours. The meat is crushed to the point it resembles lace, and the cooking style obviously lacks all discipline.
However, I really enjoyed their vegan burger! It is a lovely alternative to a fried chicken sandwich, with battered and fried oyster mushrooms piled high. Sure, it’s a cumbersome eating affair — no really, it towers so alarmingly I could barely take a bite. But once I managed to rearrange the nest of fried mushrooms, it made for a pleasant meal. If you make your peace with the fact that it isn’t really a burger, it’s quite enjoyable.
Yuzu is another gourmet burger chain that arrived on the scene in 2019 that leans on the tired but tested trope of ‘Asian’ influences in an effort to add a twist or discern themselves from otherwise standard fare. The elegant interiors thankfully don’t fall prey to overt tokenization and exudes a stripped down Scandi vibe.
When they first opened, Yuzu offered steamed bun burgers in Chinese steam baskets. They quickly abandoned these in favour of custom made buns from a local bakery. That hasn’t appeared to diminish their popularity however, [was I the only steamed bun fan? —SB] and the chain has grown to multiple locations.
SB: For all its Asian influence claims, Yuzu isn’t a bastardised burger at all. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty straightforward; well made, with Asian flourishes. It is worth pointing out that all the sauces at Yuzu are vegan and are appropriately laced with either kimchi, yuzu or chilli. I was particularly thrilled with their vegan and vegetarian burgers. The former is a portobello mushroom, whole, in lieu of a patty, while the vegetarian Beyond Meat burger basks in the warm glow of sesame oil muskiness and citrusy coriander. Perfect for newly minted vegetarian and meat lovers alike, it’s a nice departure from the standard burger, but still faithful to its roots.
We were surprised to find that we preferred their Beyond Meat cheeseburger to their meat based version. When the cheeseburger failed to impress us (we suspect an under-seasoned patty was the culprit), we tried the Yuzu Chilli. The bun was a little dry and cracked easily and we quickly had a sordid mess on our hands as it disintegrated, leaving us drenched in sauce. A surprising turnaround from when we last tested them, when they snagged the 2021 Best Burger title.
VG: The Yuzu portobello burger is a fantastic substitute for meat, with the complex taste hitting in waves. The bread for this one was perfect and the unexpected diversity of the burger was refreshing. The Beyond Meat version, on the other hand, offers a more traditional approach to the burger, but both provide a fun and playful take on the vegan/vegetarian option.
The cheeseburger was a bit of a letdown. Although there were no obvious, significant flaws, it felt too bland for the standard of the place, as well as the price. Smartly enough, Yuzu also offers Yuzu chilli, which is very similar to the vegan option and is only around 200 ISK more expensive.
Overall, Yuzu is as serious about their burgers as they are in their interior design. The foundation is strong and can only grow from here.
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