It’s the dead of winter, 89 days till Memorial Day, the traditional start of grilling season. What better time to assess the state of burgers. Craig LaBan and I share some of our current favorites. Also this week, I find a new Middle Eastern spot on South Street and groove on a Jersey diner tucked into a Marlton strip mall.

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Can a burger change your life?

Food conversations so often turn to burgers, and then comes the inevitable question: "Who makes the best burger in Philadelphia?"

Stop right here. The "best"? Taste is utterly subjective. Let's say "favorite."

OK, then. "Who makes your favorite burger?"

Now we're talking.

Not that I have my own list ranking burgers, but right up there these days is the double-patty creation on brioche bun at The Common, a new spot at 3601 Market St. in University City, where chef/partner Patrick Feury takes inspiration from the all-American classic, the Big Mac. He forms two 4-ounce patties from Pinelands Farms beef and tops them with caramelized onions, shredded lettuce, spicy house-made pickle chips, and good ol' special sauce. Cooper Sharp cheese oozes between the patties. You'll notice further that there is no tomato, a gutsy move but — in my opinion — a good one: Too often, tomatoes drip their juices and make the bun soggy. It's $14 and comes with a huge serving of crispy fries cut almost shoestring-thin.

That's one man's opinion, and so I turned to Inquirer critic Craig LaBan, who deems the cheeseburger his favorite food.

He keeps lists of his favorites. To his article from two years ago on his favorites in the suburbs, he adds the burgers at The Ripplewood and The Bercy in Ardmore; Charlie’s in Folsom; Autograph in Wayne; Charcoal BYOB in Yardley; Moo in New Hope; the Farm & Fisherman in Cherry Hill and Horsham; and Stove & Tap in Lansdale.

Among his favorite “fancies” served in the city, in no order, are those at Royal Boucherie in Old City; a.kitchen, Good Dog, and Butcher Bar in Rittenhouse; Pub & Kitchen in Southwest Center City; Kensington Quarter’s Fishtown location; Rex 1516 on South Street West; Bud & Marilyn’s in Washington Square West; and Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village (when they make them).

For value, he digs Josh Kim's at SpOt in Brewerytown (where you can get a plain for $7) and the vaunted $5 burger at Fountain Porter in South Philly.

What does he look for in a good burger?

Ha, he replied. "That’s like asking for a 'quick' take on the secret of life, because a great burger is both all about the details and all about the big picture, too. And there are infinite variations that sing.

"The individual elements must be thoughtfully chosen and perfectly cooked, but they also have to work together as one harmonious message of juicy, straight-from-the-grill savor, from a deeply seared patty with beefy personality (medium rare, if you ask me) to the right bun to frame it up without overwhelming the sandwich as a whole. I’m over the puffy brioche, balloons that became synonymous with fancy patties a decade ago. The less eggy “pain au lait” buns are a better soft bun artisan compromise.

""But a good old Martin’s potato roll (with lots of sesame) is just as great for a backyard-style burger, too.

"I’m a fan of the return to flat-patty burger phase we’re experiencing now because it emphasizes the good, quick sear, requires more delicacy of composition and maybe allows kitchens more easy consistency. And often with these, I think you can taste the quality of the beef more clearly.

"I traditionally don’t overdo the toppings beyond the classics (no good burger is mostly about its toppings), but cheese for me is a must, and I can do fancy all over the map here, from Vermont cheddar to Maytag blue. But a burger is also the one place I think American cheese is as noble a choice as any of them. It’s just a mood. And usually a happy one."

Any suggestions? Email me.

This Week’s Openings

District Taco | Center City

Mexican chain opens at 1140 Market St., in the East Market development, at noon Feb. 27.

Falafel Time | Southwest Center City

Takeout for halal Middle Eastern food at 2214 South St., the former Phoebe's BBQ.

Greens and Grains | Logan Square

Vegan fast-casual stand at the Comcast Center food court (1701 JFK Blvd.) selling wraps, bowls, salads, and sandwiches.

ShangHai Dimsum | Northeast Philadelphia

None-too-fancy soup dumpling specialist in a strip mall at 6439 Castor Ave.

This Week’s Closings

None to report.

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Beer-battered kielbasa at Tower Hill Brewery, 237 W. Butler Ave., Chalfont.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Beer-battered kielbasa at Tower Hill Brewery, 237 W. Butler Ave., Chalfont.

Tower Hill Brewery, 237 W. Butler Ave., Chalfont, 4-6:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.

Fancy? Nope. Chef Stan Kreft's brewpub occupies a slot in a Central Bucks strip mall on Business 202. Brewing goes on right behind the bar, where you can scope out the seven varieties on the tap list, including (as of last weekend) cherry pie cider and a lovely breakfast stout on nitro, all $6 a pint. Flights are recommended.

Happy hour brings certain apps at half-price, including French onion soup, vegetarian wings, panko-crusted mozzarella, and crunchy-crusted beer-battered kielbasa that will put your notions of bready corn dogs to shame. Pints are $2 off then, too.

It’s open Wednesday-Friday from 4 p.m., from noon Saturday, and 11 a.m. Sunday.

Where we’re eating

A patty melt from the Kettle & Grille, 230 N. Maple Ave., Marlton.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
A patty melt from the Kettle & Grille, 230 N. Maple Ave., Marlton.

The Kettle & Grille, Crispin Square Shopping Center, 230 N. Maple Ave., Marlton

Despite a rash of closings, the Jersey diner is not dead. Sometimes you just have to look off the highways. The Savvas family, which operated the Harvest Diner in Cinnaminson until its 2013 closing, is behind the Kettle & Grille, which opened several years ago in a strip center tucked off Church Road.

It's a diner, despite the somewhat lofty name, with low-key atmosphere, a wide-ranging menu (breakfast served all day, Greek specialties abound, espresso available), and waitresses who hon.

Recommended: Omelets (all under $10), the skillets (such as the Farmer's Skillet with two eggs any style, bacon, ham, sausage, American cheese, peppers and onions, $9.55), and the old-fashioned patty melt on grilled rye (there goes another burger, $8.95).

Hours: 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily.

A dajej plate (griled chicken and vegetables) with a side order of hummus at Mashwa Grill, 413 South St.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
A dajej plate (griled chicken and vegetables) with a side order of hummus at Mashwa Grill, 413 South St.

Mashwa Grill, 413 South St.

The Chaabane family got its first taste of the restaurant life nearly three years ago with Poke Bowl in Northern Liberties, one of Philly’s earliest entrants to the poke scene.

For the second eatery, the Tunisian émigrés are keeping it closer to home. Mashwa Grill took over a failed poutine shop at 413 South St., specializing in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food.

They do cooked-to-order kebabs, shawarma, wraps, and sides from a counter, so you'll probably have to wait in the spare dining room. What you see before you is the dajej plate, which is a quarter chicken, marinated, flattened, and charcoal-grilled and served with rice pilaf, roasted potatoes, a half of a grilled tomato and grilled onion, and a shishito pepper. All for $13.50.

Those who dine in get their food on real plates. Alas, with flimsy plastic cutlery. (Maybe BYO fork?)

The hummus and pita were extra.

Oh, the name. Mashwa means “grill,” so it’s Grill Grill.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.

Dining Notes

Vetri, Yin, Monk’s, and Andiario are among the Philly crop of James Beard semifinalists. That list will be winnowed down to the nominees. The awards ceremony is in May.

With online shopping and meal-kit deliveries on the rise, grocery stores like Weavers Way, Wegmans and Whole Foods are finding new ways to get customers in the door — things like live music, yoga, and beer tastings.

Craig LaBan answers your dining questions

Reader: As a resident of Cheltenham Township, I resent your depiction of Jenkintown in your recent review of Keep. It is terrifically condescending … and based on nothing but you (and your dining companions’) stereotypes about suburban life. I have eaten several times at Keep without having a “freak out” about a food presentation. I’m going to forgo reading your future columns without some sort of apology.

Craig: Thank you so much for your comment and your readership. I officially apologize! I didn’t mean to offend any Jenkintonians or Cheltenhammers, but was simply indulging the good humor of my two guests (at two separate meals) who poked some self-deprecating fun at themselves and what they perceive to be the conservative tastes of their neighborhood when it comes to restaurants. As noted in the review, they’re both locals. But I wouldn't have included their comments if I didn't think there was a kernel of truth to them.

I've often wondered why Jenkintown, Glenside, Elkins Park and Cheltenham haven't supported (or at least sustained) more ambitious restaurant scenes — their well-informed, diverse and well-educated communities have both the means and main street districts to build them. I’ve visited multiple restaurants there over the years with disappointing results (and some happy exceptions; see below). It’s hard to know whether a lack of overall traction is a reflection on what restaurateurs think the audience wants or a matter of the right restaurants simply not coming along. Not to mention, good skilled restaurant help in the suburbs can be hard to find.

Please know that I’m no city snob. I review suburban restaurants regularly. And I’ve long been fascinated by how restaurant scenes reflect our suburban communities, for better or worse. That's why I devoted my entire fall dining guide in 2017 to finding the best suburban restaurants, driving more than 4,000 miles to more than 200 places. And I found great independent restaurants in many towns, including several that absolutely defy the stereotypes of suburban dining, with trends pointing up. Jenkintown, however, has a long way to go before it catches up to other hot spots like nearby Ambler, Phoenixville and Doylestown. That remains true, even though, as noted in my review, I do like Neshaminy Creek’s Borough Brewhouse as a fun neighborhood dining option, and I really admire Dubu in neighboring Elkins Park, which I think is one of the region’s best Korean restaurants.

Keep’s Melody Lauletta did considerable marketing research on several northern suburbs before deciding there was a void in contemporary dining in Jenkintown worthy taking a gamble on. She was right about that. But based on my meals, I think they have the talent to make it work. And hopefully, fingers crossed, they’ll be the beginning of a new Jenkintown wave.

Email Craig here. ​