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Six great burgers that you can feel good about eating

Matthew Lee, the son of owner Denise Lee, takes a bite of the Social Burger at Social Burger in Vienna. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
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The world is changing fast, and in ways that often make us want to huddle on the couch and eat a burger. The problem, of course, is those grilled patties are part of a beef supply chain that contributes to climate change and the rising temperatures, forest fires, droughts, melting glaciers, massive hurricanes and other environmental impacts that make us want to reach for a burger in the first place.

It’s a vicious cycle: The warming planet, the fear and the comfort-food burger, which helps to keep the loop on constant repeat. The pandemic, it seems, has only intensified our craving for a double stack of smashed patties, the meat juices doing their part to drown our conscience. Is that Rome I see outside? I think as I stuff another cheeseburger into my maw, and is that someone fiddling among the wildfires?

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Forgive my hand-wringing over what is, at heart, just another list of tasty burgers to try. But as red meat increasingly becomes a target for those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I have frequently wondered how the United States, the land of the Golden Arches, would ever survive without a steady diet of hamburgers, the one food practically synonymous with America. The fact is, many Americans will never give up their burgers. You’ll have to pry that Big Mac from their cold … well, you know the rest of the cliche. .

But more to the point, no one is really asking Americans to surrender their red meat, no matter what they say on Fox Business. Activists are just asking us to reduce our beef consumption, a reasonable request given that we appear to have so little time left to alter the fate of our planet. Meat alternatives, whether the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, have become the darlings of the 21st century for their ability to reduce our beef consumption while giving us something that at least approximates the flavor of the real thing.

This is new territory for American diners and burger joint owners alike, two camps that have historically cared little about the finer points of their beef, other than its cost. But people such as Jesse Konig, co-founder of Swizzler, are working to reimagine our hamburger culture. His company, co-founded by Ben Johnson, bills itself as the “future of fast food.” Swizzler’s first burger shop, located in Navy Yard, serves meats sourced from Joyce Farms, a North Carolina-based co-op that works with farmers who specialize in regenerative agriculture to improve soil and sequester carbon.

“When you look at look at grass-fed, grass-finished, high-quality, regenerative-raised beef, a lot of these farms and farmers, they’re actually doing things that are net-positive for the environment,” Konig tells me. “It’s not, ‘Cows are bad for the environment, and they are going to cause climate change,' full stop. That’s just very untrue … because there’s a huge difference between pasture-raised and regenerative-raised animals and feedlots and all that stuff out there.”

The new wave of burger merchants understands their products are not an everyday food, unlike previous generations, which wolfed them down like chips at a Super Bowl party. “Some people, I am convinced, eat it three times a day,” chef and author James Beard wrote about the hamburger in his 1972 tome, “American Cookery.” A half-century later, folks like Konig and Nathan Anda, the chef and mastermind behind Red Apron Butchery, see red meat as part of a flexitarian diet that includes lots of vegetables.

I don’t eat red meat every day,” says Anda. “I love it. It’s just … I don’t know how to phrase it. Besides climate change, my health is the other reason why I don’t partake in it all the time.”

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So the six recommendations below, they’re not burgers that you should seek out in the next week, or even the next month. But they’re burgers that should help take the guilt out of this occasional pleasure. They’re burgers whose beef is sourced not just with flavor in mind, but also with consideration for sustainable agricultural, animal welfare and other environmental factors. They’re also inventive, delicious and, in one case, not a traditional hamburger at all.

The Social Burger at Social Burger

Denise Lee, the principal owner of Social Burger, is a trained chef. She worked as a private chef, pastry chef and even a corporate catering sales manager before she opened this Vienna shop seven years ago. Lee sources the beef for her burgers from Seven Hills Food, the slaughterhouse and processing facility that specializes in pastured Virginia beef. Two four-ounce patties are cooked in their own fat for this towering handheld beauty. The patties, each sheathed in its own translucent slice of cheese (your choice), are tucked into a potato bun from Lyon Bakery and topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato, sauteed onions, housemade pickles and a custom sauce. But the true grace note ― the thing the separates this burger from the pack — is its fried jalapeño. The pepper is pickled, sliced, breaded in rice flour and fried, resulting in a garnish that’s part tuile and part candy.

$13.50. 350 Maple Ave. West, Vienna, Va. 703-364-5420.

The Double To-Chino at Pogiboy

One way to cut down on red meat is to order a burger without any beef at all. The Double To-Chino is the brainchild of Tom Cunanan and Paolo Dungca, the chefs behind Pogiboy, who have channeled their influences into a pork-based burger that’s American in form but Philippine in flavor. The duo lifted the idea from Charles Olalia, chef of the now-closed Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles, but they have made the burger all their own. Their twin patties are built with a 50-50 blend of classic Philippine breakfast meats: a cured, sweet-and-savory pork belly known as tocino and a longanisa sausage that has a bit more bite. Even after they’re smashed and caramelized on a hot griddle, these patties still release more juice than a freshly squeezed lemon, which is part of the reason Dungca developed the eye-catching purple yam (also known as ube) buns. These elastic steamed buns, tinted lavender from ube flour, can absorb the To-Chino’s juices without disintegrating in your hands, which is perfect. You don’t want to miss a drop of this brilliant Philippine American burger, garnished with grilled pineapple, pickled vegetables and a not-so-secret sauce.

$10.95. 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, inside the Block food hall. 202-681-7516.

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The Smokehouse Burger at Red Apron

Nathan Anda is best known for his charcuterie, not his barbecue. But lately, Anda has been playing around with one of Mountain Song Barbecue’s reverse-flow smokers while the sister Neighborhood Restaurant Group concept is on hiatus, and he’s developed a deeper appreciation for those who tend fires for a living. He’s been smoking pork shoulders, with a simple salt-and-pepper rub, and pulling the meat for his latest creation: The Smokehouse Burger, available (for now) only at the Red Apron at the Roost. Anda slips a patty, pressed from beef supplied by Seven Hills, into a challah bun and tops the meat with a juicy pile of pulled pork dressed with a yellow-mustard sauce infused with drippings from those smoky shoulders. The pork is less a garnish, like bacon, and more like an equal partner in the burger, neither protein gaining the upper hand. The lily is not just gilded, but shellacked, with a final application of “magic sauce,” a combination of smoked mayonnaise and red barbecue sauce. Eat one and wait for the coma, the glorious food coma.

$18. 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, inside the Roost food hall. 202-661-0142.

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The AJ at ABC Pony

The initials stand for Armani Johnson, the executive chef at ABC Pony. He created the AJ for ABC Pony’s burger pop-up as a way to keep his crab dip on the menu. A mixture of crab, cream, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, Dijon mustard, black vinegar and Old Bay, the dip used to be the base for a dish in which Johnson piped cheddar biscuit dough over the top — for a kind of shepherd’s pie by way of the Chesapeake. Johnson decided to use the crab dip to top a six-ounce patty made with beef from either Seven Hills or Creekstone Farms, another company committed to animal welfare and better agricultural practices. It’s like a hamburger version of steak Oscar, minus the asparagus. It’s surf and turf for the common folk, and it’s perfect in its combination of flavors. “I think it’s a self-contained burger, but people will be people,” agrees Johnson. “They like to add cheese, People add bacon. People just mess my burger up in so many different ways.”

$12. 2 I St. SE. 202-913-8155.

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The Swizz Stack at Swizzler

Until Jesse Konig pointed it out, I hadn’t noticed the ingredient list for the Swizz Stack has a familiar ring: two 100 percent grass-fed beef patties, Stack sauce, arugula, cheddar cheese, dill pickle, shallots and a brioche bun. It’s as if someone took the old McDonald’s jingle and ran it through a fashion app to update the ingredients for a millennial palate. “It’s almost an elevated version of a Big Mac in some ways,” says Konig. No Big Mac in history — not even the ones I inhaled as a teenager when my taste buds didn’t know any better — has tasted as good as the Swizz Stack, and I chalk it all up to the grass-fed beef. Its flavors are concentrated, as if the meat had been dry-aged for weeks, with the funk and complexity you’d expect of a steakhouse cut. This is beef to the power of 10.

$7.35. 1259 First St. SE. 202-930-1499.

The Burger at the Eleanor

Whenever a restaurant has a bowling alley and arcade in the back, the odds are good that diner expectations will hover somewhere between Lucky Strike and Dave & Busters. Then again, most restaurants-cum-carnival-midways don’t have Adam Stein as a founding partner. He’s a trained chef with stints running numerous kitchens, including the one at Red’s Table in Reston. He created the generically titled “Burger” several years ago when he launched Bar Elena on H Street NE, and it has migrated to the menus at the Eleanor, Stein’s two-location concept dedicated to games and good quality pub grub. His burger starts with a seven-ounce patty with beef from Creekstone Farms. Stein doesn’t get all cheffy with his burger, preferring to garnish it with the basics: lettuce, red onions, pickles, special sauce and two kinds of cheese. It’s basically a steakhouse burger, cooked to your preferred temperature, in the era of well-done smash burgers, and it feels so good to sink you teeth into it.

$15. 931 Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring, Md. 240-641-4955. 100 Florida Ave. NE. 202-525-2126.

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