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Burger brawl: Bellingham’s cheeseburgers go head-to-head

Key elements include price, simplicity and American cheese

A hamburger and fries from the Horseshoe Cafe & Bar. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Mark Saleeb CDN Contributor

The humble cheeseburger. A staple of American cuisine, and one that is endlessly customizable. But in that customization lies a problem — how do you quantify what makes a good burger? 

The foremost burger scholar of our time, George Motz, lays out a few general rules

  1. American cheese is king — end of discussion. Several restaurants were omitted due to their lack of American cheese. This is a nonstarter. I would die on this hill, but I’d rather kill upon it. 
  2. Smaller, thinner patties typically provide a better ratio of crispiness to doneness. 
  3. Too many toppings are a faux pas. The first burgers used raw onions, pickles and mustard. Keeping it down to a couple of flavorful add-ons and a fatty sauce is my ideal combination, with some allowances made for extras that are executed well. 

In my hunt to find the best burger in Bellingham, all burgers were specced to a double to bring them to parity with the Doug, from newcomer food truck Doug’s Burger, which uses solely 1/3 pound patties compared to the industry standard 1/6 pound. Fries were not tasted at this review, but an order of them alongside the burger was factored into the price (due to some options not including an a la carte burger). Finally, we kept this review to a rough “walking distance” of Bellingham’s downtown.

Oh, and one last thing: No chain restaurants. 

Get it? Got it? Good. With five burgers in front of us, two burgers lost in transit (foreshadowing) and one more burger present in spirit, a mix of CDN staff and myself dove in. The spread varied in appearance wildly, from the abused-looking Cabin Tavern cheeseburger to the picture-perfect Aslan double. But you don’t judge a burger by its looks. Curiously, cost seemingly didn’t have any correlation to flavor. 

The Cabin Tavern’s double cheeseburger, left, and Doug’s Burgers burger. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The Doug from Doug’s Burgers is a broad-shouldered 1/3 pound beast, with grilled onions, pickles and a burger sauce. The double-sized patty is more akin to a backyard burger than the rest we tried today. It was an easy eat, with all the ingredients holding fast. At $8 ($12 with fries), the Doug comes in as the cheapest cheeseburger on our list today and an impressive showing for it. 

Up next, at $9.50 ($12.50 with fries), is the Cabin Tavern’s deluxe double cheeseburger. Raw onions and lettuce are minor departures from the Doug, with the primary difference between the Cabin’s champion fighter and all the rest being the looser patties. With a more lacy edge and a propensity for pieces of the patty to calve off like ice from a glacier, this is a less photogenic cheeseburger, but a fantastic one regardless.

Next up is a new classic: the Structures Brewing Old Town double cheeseburger. At $9.50 ($13.50 with house potato chips), this burger gives you something very, very close to Dick’s, with a touch of flair. In flavor, it’s almost identical to the Cabin, probably owing to the functionally identical build. The Structures burger has a slightly more crisped pair of patties.

With us in spirit is the Accomplice double cheeseburger ($9.50, $13.50 with fries). A COVID-era stopgap for then-new Carnal, Accomplice (then called Comrade) is an upmarket take on burgers, with a simple menu and high-quality ingredients. Accomplice was closed at the time of this review due to a remodel, but as a frequent flier, I can confidently set it along the Cabin and Structures’ burgers. They use a bone marrow mayo in place of a burger sauce, but a tangier pickle picks up the missing acid you’d find in a burger sauce. 


The Horseshoe Cafe and Aslan Brewing come in next: At $15.95 for the Horseshoe’s Smash Burger and $18.00 ($15.00 for the single, +$3.00 for an extra patty) for the Aslan Classic Smash Burger, these are a step up in cost but not a substantial one. Both came with fries, and both are proper sit-down restaurants, where you’ll receive table service and an actual plate. 

The ‘shoe provided a fantastic, thin, lacy patty like the Cabin, but with a veritable salad between the buns (grilled onions, tomato and lettuce) and a unique burger sauce — I actually got notes of Mexican spice. It made me think of a Midwest taco night — ground beef, diced tomato, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Not bad, but it overwhelms the flavor of the beef. 

Meanwhile, Aslan doesn’t even use beef. Their signature bison and pork patty is … fine. I’m completely unconvinced that bison makes for a better burger, especially since it necessitates the addition of pork fat to bind and prevent drying. Either way, it’s a completely adequate cheeseburger. The inclusion of tomato and lettuce, like the Horseshoe, doesn’t do any favors to the thin patties, but with a wide menu, Aslan has enough broad appeal to be forgiven for not displaying mastery in the burger.

Aslan Brewing Company’s Classic Smash Burger and waffle fries. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Arriving late to the party is Railroad superstar Fiamma Burger. My photographer had already left, which meant that these went from delivery to mouth almost immediately, giving them an advantage over the rest of the cheeseburgers that sat for their photographs.

This was an advantage wasted on the two different cheeseburgers I ordered from Fiamma — another lead not granted to anyone else. The Fiamma Cutie, at $10.75, plus $1 for cheese (or $15 with fries) comes with two microscopic patties, raw onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard. The All American ($12.25, $16.50 with fries) uses grilled onions, pickles, ketchup and mayo. Both were uniformly disappointing. 

First off, the size. They claim they’re 3-ounce patties. This may be so. But after the complete dehydration they undergo, they finish out hilariously small and bone dry. The onion on the Cutie was so much larger than the patty and bun that it was visible around the circumference of the burger like a ring orbiting a planet. The use of ketchup on both drowns out all flavors of the beef for sweetness, which would be a sin if there was any flavor left to taste. The buns fell apart in a few bites. 

Fiamma also doesn’t provide a sit-down experience to justify the cost increase over other, larger, better, and cheaper burgers on this list.

But ending the review on such a negative note isn’t something I like to make a habit of. Part of why I set out to make this review was because of my earnest belief that less is often more when it comes to good food. I didn’t begin to imagine that the same mantra would come out to play in price as well. Divining fact from nostalgic fiction is a part of the game I try to take very seriously, and I think there was some real divining done here. Without further ado (and whinging): the crown goes narrowly to …

Doug’s Burgers, with their fabulous homage to that most American of foods. This was a hard one for me, with the Cabin Tavern, Structures and Accomplice all jockeying for the top spot. Doug’s won out due to one factor: Their quality was as good as any of the others, at a cost less than the rest.

As the days get longer and patio season approaches, take a second to contemplate the simplicity, the beauty and the all-encompassing joy that can be garnered from a simple cheeseburger.

Mark Saleeb is a frequent enjoyer of food. Find him at instagram.com/eats.often.

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