What makes a great burger? Its a question I've ironically pondered far more often than I actually eat burgers these days, and one that I've thought a lot about in the lead up to writing about a burger joint as famous as Alfred's Kitchen. The burger is a dish so globally ubiquitous that it feels like there really must be a Platonic Form of what the ideal burger should be, and yet its something that is so apparently easy to put together high school students can be paid a pittance to make it. Compare that to the hours of work that goes into making a great tonkotsu ramen, and the burger seems almost too easy. In spite of all this, three star Michelin chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal have had a go at making their ultimate burger, suggesting that the quest for the perfect burger is indeed a noble goal, and one more difficult that the fast food production line would suggest. While I certainly have neither the culinary knowledge of the Michelin starred, nor do I claim to have the same level of connoisseurship in regards to burgers that I would claim in regards to ramen, I am intrigued by the idea that there is a burger out there so perfect it transcends its limits - must like how Banh Mi is greater than the sum of its sandwich parts.
Alfred's Kitchen in Guildford is widely considered home to one of Perth's best burgers, lauded almost unquestioningly by residents of Perth's North-Eastern Suburbs and famously praised as Australia's best by food critic and Masterchef judge Matt Preston. In operation since 1946, the canteen-like building with its famous outdoor firepit is a veritable Perth institution, and we arrived to find the place packed in spite of arriving relatively early. Alfred's claim to serve 40 different burgers, but in reality most of their burgers are a variations on three main archetypes - the classic hamburger, a bacon burger and a steak burger or some combination of the three, with vegetarian and lentil patty options alongside a few other odds and ends.
Almost as famous as their burgers is their Pea and Ham Soup that can be seen bubbling away in massive pots on top of an ancient looking cast-iron oven. I'm not big on Pea and Ham Soup and the burgers were enough for us, so we skipped this part of their menu.
In spite of the large crowd, our order was taken in a relatively short amount of time, and we were given a ticket with our order number. Still, it was inevitable with a crowd this large that some wait time would be involved and there was quite a bit of standing around in anticipation to be done before our number was eventually called.
As I'm quite pedantic about food being served at the right temperature, I ended up standing by the collection area for fear I would miss out hearing our number called. For those more relaxed than I, the benches out the front of Alfred's encircle its iconic warm fire pit. There is a great melting pot cross-section of society standing out the front at any given time, from bikies and bogans to tourists and the well-heeled all united as one nation under the burger. Its utterly unpretentious and filled with the kind of old school authenticity that cannot be faked.
After listening to a stream of numbers called in a sequence that defied the kind of logic that would enable one to say 'oh, 97 was just called so I must be next', our order was eventually handed over in a classic brown paper bag.
I'm not particularly keen on steak in a burger or burgers that are overly huge, so Alfred's massive Cram Burger was not for me. Instead I went with the Hamburger with Cheese 'n' Bacon; a relatively classic choice with some delicious fried cured swine thrown in for good measure; as a kid the Bacon Deluxe was my favourite Hungry Jack's burger so old habits die hard. The presentation was nice if rustic; certainly a lot less sloppy looking than the Mini Burger I ate at the Merrywell Dude Food on Wheels food truck. Unfortunately the Merrywell comparison went the other way from a flavour standpoint. Alfred's traditional fast food-style bun was nicely toasted and perfectly fine, but the pillowy almost bao-like softness of the Merrywell's ugly Mini Burgers had them outclassed. Likewise, while I felt like the Alfred's Kitchen patty was cooked perfectly with that nice, slightly bitter taste of being lovingly charred, the actual composition of the meat in the burger didn't have the umami explosion I was hoping for, and had a slightly meatloafy texture that suggested either (gasp!) filler or the use of less flavoursome cuts of beef (I can't be sure, and I'd like to think the latter is more likely). Perhaps the steak of the Cram covers up some of the patty's shortcomings, but in this context it felt fairly obvious to me. Its a real shame, as for me the patty is the element that makes or breaks a burger, and as perfect as everything else was I just wished it tasted more like the juicy patty of the Merrywell's Mini Burger.
The Alfred Special actually fared a bit better, in spite of the use of toasted sandwich slices meaning it would fail some definitions of what a burger is (although Louis' Lunch, purportedly the home of the original burger, features a similar use of sliced bread). Otherwise, everything about the Alfred Special was much the same as my burger - including the patty - with the egg being the most obvious difference. The egg added additional flavour and textural interest, but the real coup for me was the gherkin spread used. I didn't know what it was as the time, but looking at the photo of the menu it seems clear to me that that was the secret ingredient that made the Alfred Special taste as good as it did. This was not a burger masterpiece either, but something about the ratios of everything included seemed more balanced compared to my order. While I still felt the patty could have been better, there was something about the Alfred Special that just worked.
As a side we had a serve of their Chips,which were fairly ordinary, (likely) frozen mass productions that were a bit overpriced for $4.80, especially considering a small Pea and Ham can be purchased for less.
The Verdict: Very Good
The burgers at Alfred's Kitchen were very good, but were they the best in Perth, or the best I've ever eaten? I have a lot of friends who would probably considered it heresy for me to say this, but I'd be lying if I said yes to either question. Some of the better lunch bar or fast food burgers I've had would compare favourably to what I ate at Alfred's Kitchen, and while ugly the Merrywell Mini Burger was for me much more satisfying compared to Alfred's - and the signature Merrywell burger at the Crown Casino looks to be even better (albeit expensive at around $25). Even if I were to discount all the 'gourmet' burger joints and only compare it to the old school, I would have to say Danny's Burgers in Melbourne is better than Alfred's.
All that said, Alfred's Kitchen makes for one of the best burger dining experiences you're likely to encounter - like Hopetoun Tea Rooms in Melbourne, there's something to be said for the maintenance of historic institutions and while I felt improvements could be made to the burger, I hope they never change their unpretentious and authentically old school vibe that is so not on-trend that it ends up being all the better for it. The diversity of people across a broad spectrum of Australia huddled around the warmth of the fire pit and the shared camaraderie of those patiently waiting for their number to be called out is something you just don't find that often in Perth (or Australia for that matter). While I think calling it the best burger in Australia or even Perth is hyperbolic and overblown, I can say at least that the fun experience of dining at Alfred's Kitchen was well worth it. You won't get it anywhere else, and it's that aspect that I thoroughly recommend.