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From left: Joel Gehringer, Jeff Korbelik and L. Kent Wolgamott scarf down burgers in a Journal Star conference room as they ponder their picks for Lincoln's primo patties. (Eric Gregory) ERIC GREGORY

Who has the best burger in Lincoln? For a couple of years, we’ve bandied that question about in our Ground Zero team meetings. Last month, we decided to see if we could figure out the answer.

Acknowledging that it would be impossible to eat at every place in town that served a burger, we compiled a list of close to 40 eateries that were known for their burgers, divided that list into thirds and we each took a bunch of places.

Our rules: We ordered only the basic hamburger or cheeseburger. That, we figured, was the best way to compare offerings. After all, a bleu cheese burger at one place and a bacon-covered offering at another are just too different to make a fair judgment.

Once we’d eaten at all the places on our individual lists, we each chose a winner in three categories — restaurant, bar & grill and fast food.

Last week, we sat down in the newsroom’s conference room with nine burgers. We divided them into quarters — we had to feed photographer Eric Gregory, too. That was just enough of a sampling of each to get the basic flavor and idea.

We voted on the burgers by secret ballot — using the same method we’ve perfected doing the judging at Ribfest every summer.

Here’s what we found. Call it Ground Zero’s best burgers in Lincoln 2006:

Restaurant

1. Tam O’Shanter

2. Skeeter Barnes

3. Misty’s

Joel’s comments: When I initially checked out Tam O’Shanter’s burger, it didn’t take long to rate it. One or two bites in, it blew my other top restaurant burgers out of the water. Tam’s is a fancy, sharp lookin’ burger, and with its freshly grilled taste and mouth-watering juices I could’ve sworn I was eating steak instead of ground beef.

It was the kind of burger that would have gone great with either Heinz Ketchup or Heinz 57.

And it was a burger I knew deserved Top 3 placement, and though it faced some tough patty-to-patty competition from places like Skeeter Barnes and Misty’s, I was pretty confident it would top those burgers, too.

That said, I need to give a nod to the Steak House. It felt a little strange walking into a fancy-schmancy place, scanning the impressive menu and ordering a cheeseburger, but like most anything in the Steak House, the burger was sublime and definitely warrants a mention.

Jeff’s comments: I normally wouldn’t order a burger at a restaurant, but that will change after this meaty endeavor.

I found Lincoln restaurants take as much pride in preparing a burger as they do their steaks. I especially was impressed by those restaurants — Misty’s, Ruby Tuesday, etc. — asking me how I wanted my burger cooked. I tend to like mine on the pink side.

We ranked burgers from Tam O’Shanter and Skeeter Barnes pretty much dead even. I liked Skeeter’s wood-fire taste, and the Tam easily had the juiciest one of the bunch.

Regular readers know I’m not a fan of corporate restaurants, but the burger I had from Ruby Tuesday was pretty darn good (and big).

Kent’s comments:

From the truth-in-ranking department, Tam O’ Shanter and Skeeter Barnes tied for first in our voting. Tam O’Shanter, however, got more first place votes, so we put it at number one on the list.

I was particularly impressed by Skeeter Barnes’ cheeseburger on my visit there. Not only was it smoky and flavorful, it was cooked medium, i.e. pink in the middle. Most of the burgers I sampled, regardless of the kind of restaurant, were overcooked, even those where the menu said “medium” or when I was asked how I wanted the burger cooked. Medium, to me, means pink, not gray.

You can’t go wrong with any of the three top burgers on this list, and I’ll add Dish’s cheeseburger to the honorable mentions along with Joel’s inclusion of The Steak House.

Bar and grill

1. Parkway Pub

2. Barry’s

3. 1st Avenue

Joel’s comments: Put a Parkway burger next to burgers from Barry’s and 1st Avenue and you’d never guess it packs such a punch to the tastebuds. It’s not a looker like most of the other bar burgers I ate. There’s no humongous sourdough bun or gimmicky “flame roasted” or “char-grilled” signature production.

But you can’t judge a burger by its basket.

Parkway Lanes was one of the last joints I hit on my burger odyssey. At that point, the last thing I wanted was more ground beef. I wasn’t even that hungry when I walked into the Pub.

But not only did I devour the Parkway burger in record time, I wanted more when it was gone. Eating that patty just wasn’t work like some of the other bar and grill burgers. And no good meal should ever be about work. It should be about taste, and that’s why Parkway’s quaint, plain-looking burger wins.

Jeff’s comments: Not surprisingly, Fred and Ruby’s burger at Parkway Lanes topped our list. I wrote in a column last fall that Parkway’s burger was my favorite, and nothing has changed. Fred uses the recipe from King’s, the once-and-mighty local burger chain. He hand pats each burger and applies just the right amount of spices.

Burgers from Barry’s and 1st Avenue were in the running. And for good reason. Barry’s is known as the place to be on Nebraska football game days. It’s also becoming known for its burgers. As for 1st Avenue, Walt’s special sauce is a must. It adds a little something extra to a third- or half-pounder.

Kent’s comments:

Barry’s burger was nice and pink and juicy. I eat there often — it’s across the street from the paper — but rarely order burgers. That will change now.

My honorable mention, which ran a close second to Barry’s on my list, was P.O. Pears. Pears is also one of those places where the plain cheeseburger is just a starter. They’ve got a wide array of combinations for their burgers, which has made the place a local institution for 26 years.

Once again, it’s telling that none of these winners come from large corporate chains. In the restaurant world, in my view, local or at least regional is almost always better.

Fast food

1. Runza

2. Culver’s

3. King Kong

Joel’s comments: The fast food burgers were, by far, the easiest to call.

In honesty, I thought this contest would be less about naming the “best” burger and more about finding the “least worst.”

For a while, that held true. The usual golden arches, have-it-my-way fare was lackluster and hardly fit for royalty.

But leave it to the locals to change my jaded mind about this category.

I’d had Runza burgers before, and I knew they’d pull through.

And King Kong, famous for their gyros (not ji-roes, hee-roes), offered easily the biggest burger in all the land. In fact, I only had the ½ pounder — a single King Kong burger. They also offer Double and Triple Kong Burgers. After all these patties, my stomach hurts just thinking about it.

Jeff’s comments: I tend to avoid fast food because most of it isn’t very good for you. However, I was extremely impressed with the burgers from Runza (our winner) and Culver’s (our runner-up).

Runza does a really nice job with its Legends burger. In fact, it was better than some of the burgers we tried at the bars and restaurants. The same goes for Culver’s hand-pattied butter burgers.

The burgers at both places made me reconsider my stance on fast food.

Kent’s comments: I’ve always been a fan of Runza’s burgers and I like the use of ranch dressing on the Legend. Culver’s burgers are also excellent, for fast food. And I’d throw in Don & Millie’s Don burger as an honorable mention, especially if you’re really hungry.

Once again, the same theme emerges from our picks. All of the winners here are either local or regional fast food chains/restaurants.

What do you think?

We’ve made our picks, and now we want to know what you think is the best burger in Lincoln.

Drop us a line at Ground Zero, Lincoln Journal Star, 926 P St., Lincoln, NE 68508 or, preferably, you can e-mail us at groundzero@journalstar.com or join in the discussion on the GZO blog at www.journalstar.com/blog/gzo.php.

We’ll report back on Ground Zero’s dining page in a couple of weeks.

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