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A kobe-beef burger from Jimmy P's Butcher Shop and Deli in Naples.
A kobe-beef burger from Jimmy P's Butcher Shop and Deli in Naples. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com

The history of the hamburger

Hamburger meat dates back to the Mongols who purportedly stashed raw beef under their saddles as they waged their campaigns. After enough time spent between the haunches of man and beast, the beef was tender enough to eat raw. Yum.
This beef tartare spread to Russia and, later, Hamburg, Germany where they molded it into steak shape and applied heat to create something that, outside of the area, became known as Hamburg steak. There are three leading theories as to how this “steak” made its way to America and in between two buns.
Louis’ Lunch: This New Haven, Conn., burger joint claims to have invented the modern hamburger in 1900. From its website: “One day in the year 1900 a man ... asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment’s owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America’s first hamburger.”
“Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen: It’s said he started selling meatballs at the age of 15 at the summer fair in Seymour, Wis. Homeofthehamburger.org adds, “After not experiencing much success selling the meatballs, he had an idea and located some bread. He realized people could take this meal with them if he simply smashed the meat together between two pieces of bread. He called it a “hamburger” and yes, in 1885 the burger was born.”
Menches Brothers: The brothers’ descendents, who now operate a small burger chain in Ohio, claim that their great-grandfather and his brother invented the dish at an 1885 fair in Hamburg, NY. The brothers originally sold sausages but ran out and were forced to use ground beef, which at the time was considered declassé. John Menches, in a Businessweek story, says, “Faced with nothing to sell at all, they fried (the ground beef) up, but it was too bland. My grandfather decided to put coffee, brown sugar, and some other household ingredients in it and cooked up the sandwich. ... (He) didn’t really know what to call it, so he looked up and saw the banner for the Hamburg fair and said, ‘This is the hamburger.’”
- Adapted from A Hamburger Today; aht.seriouseats.com

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Burgers are a common thread.

From 99-cent paper-bag patties to the $20 foie-gras stuffed Wild Game burger at Cru in south Fort Myers, a restaurant’s menu isn’t complete these days without a burger.

So when we asked you for nominations for the #BestBurgerSWFL, the 400-plus votes that flooded in through email, Facebook and Twitter were only a slight shock. If you’d each had your ways I’d have eaten 62 different burgers in the last few weeks – from the Pine Island Moose Lodge to the white-table-clothed Veranda in downtown Fort Myers and all points between.

Instead I settled on 15; the top 10 vote recipients made the list, plus five other personal and fan favorites.

The funny thing about burgers: It’s hard to screw them up. But it’s even harder to make them exceptional. There was no single sandwich that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Here I present to you my favorites, along with the three burger places whose components wowed me the most.

The criteria

To keep a level playing field I sampled the basic, beef-based cheeseburger from each of the 15 contenders. I only considered burgers priced less than $10. I was looking for a juicy, tender, flavorful patty. Buns should be soft and not too bready. Toppings should be fresh and complement the meat without overwhelming it.

The 15 contenders

Top 10 vote recipients: BurgerQue (108 votes), The Go-Go Diner (55), Foster’s Grille (48), The Veranda (34), Firehouse Sports Grill (25), Red -n- Margie’s Family Café (23), The Red Rock Saloon (20), Square 1 Burgers & Bar (17), Fowler Street Grill (12), Five Guys Burgers and Fries (7).

My five add-ons: Babbaloo’s Sub & Pub, Ford’s Garage, Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop & Deli, Nosh Truck, and Ted’s Montana Grill

Honorable mention

• Babbaloo’s Sub & Pub (2150 W. First St., Fort Myers; 332-5200; subandpub.net): Maybe it’s the 30-year-old cast-iron skillets on which its hand-formed patties are seared, or the fresh, never-frozen beef, or the way the cheese melts seductively atop it all. It’s tough to pinpoint what makes Sub & Pub’s burgers so delicious, but delicious they are. My one complaint: the Kaiser-roll bun disintegrated into mush about halfway through one lunch.

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• Firehouse Sports Grill (13121 N. Cleveland Ave., North Fort Myers; 997-3473; firehousesportsgrill.com): The charry, beefy, well-seasoned flavor Firehouse imparts on its thick, juicy patties makes them memorable. The kitchen can have issues though – one burger was long overcooked, another lacked cheese. But when they get things right – yum.

• Five Guys (locations throughout the area; fiveguys.com): When all you make is burgers and french fries, it’s hard to get things wrong. Simple, juicy, beefy and indulgent, Five Guys remains a favorite for a quick burger fix.

• Red -n- Margie’s (4085 Hancock Bridge Pkwy., North Fort Myers; 656-0412): The kitchen here packs a healthy punch of flavor into each deceptively simple looking patty. Perfectly seasoned with a mouthwatering char-grilled flavor, my burger came topped with shreds of cheddar cheese which I found odd and a little greasy.

• The Veranda (2122 Second St., Fort Myers; 332-2065; verandarestaurant.com): A super juicy patty made from incredibly tender ground beef made this sandwich stand out. There was, dare I say, just too much gooey, stringy cheese hogging the spotlight. But, served on a proper plate with a proper fork and a weighty knife, it was the classiest burger of the bunch.

Best bang for your buck

BurgerQue

In a little more than a year, this orange-and-black drive-thru has won over many a burger-loving palate. The burgers aren’t the juiciest, and they are all cooked medium-well, but there’s something about the charry crust the kitchen develops on the beef that makes these burgers shine. A melty layer of American cheese fuses the tender patty to the soft potato roll surrounding it and together the burger becomes much more than the sum of its parts. I can think of few better ways to eat $3.

• Details: 3852 Cleveland Ave., Fort Myers; 277-5700; burgerque.com

• Cost: $3 for the cheeseburger

Best bun

The Red Rock Saloon

When I bit into my Rockstar burger, the first thing that struck me wasn’t the tender, perfectly medium-rare patty or the ruby-red tomato – it was the buttery, toasty bun. Fluffy and soft on the outside, with just a hint of crunch and a subtle butteriness on its interior edges, it’s my definition of bun perfection. This sounds like a trivial thing, but the bun is half of the burger experience. At Red Rock, it’s the best half.

• Details: 2278 First St., Fort Myers; 689-8667; redrocksaloon.com

• Cost: $7.95 for the Original Rockstar Burger with fries

Best patty

Jimmy P’s Butcher Shop & Deli

When you have an old-school butcher shop making $6 burgers from luxurious Wagyu beef ground the same day, you have a magical thing. Jimmy P’s is no magician, but the flavor it extracts from those fat, unctuous patties is otherworldly. It is ground beef redefined. Cow like you’ve never tasted it before. The bun and toppings, while fine enough, seem afterthoughts by comparison. I was tempted to remove my patty and cut into it like a rib eye. It’s just that good.

• Details: 1833 Tamiami Trail N., Naples; 643-6328; jimmypsbutchershop.com

• Cost: $6 for the 1/3-pound Wagyu burger, $8 for the 1/2-pounder, $12 for the 1-pounder

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