There's Got To Be A Better Potato Roll Than Martin's

Martin's is widely used by burger joints across the country. Is it really the best we have?

Martin's Potato Rolls have had a viselike grip on the hamburger bun conversation for years. Search "best burger buns" and you'll see Serious Eats and Epicurious both crown the central Pennsylvania product the undisputed heavyweight champ. Martin's isn't just the best bun you can buy for your grilled burgers at home, it's what's being used at some of the best burger joints in the country; it's the bun of choice for the illustrious Shake Shack burger and has been since day one.

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Martin's rolls are virtually everywhere on the east coast, but they're also imported by smash burger vendors across Los Angeles—to be taken seriously by customers and peers in such a saturated market, you almost have to go with Martin's. Even at dive bars around town, I see packages of Martin's peeking out from high up on a shelf as the aluminum doors to the kitchen swing open and closed. It's not a secret—Martin's is the "it" burger bun. But is it really the only potato bun worth using? Why isn't there a better one?

Why are Martin’s Potato Rolls so good?

A Martin's roll is soft, squishy, sweet, and buttery. "Squish" is a word you'll hear quite often in discussions about the ideal burger bun. How does Martin's achieve this wonderful consistency? Well, potato buns are made from potato flour. Because of this, the bun is dense, and that density lends the unique ability to absorb a lot of juices from the burger—yet somehow, the bread remains light. You know how some wheat burger buns can kind of tear and break off into little crumbs? You don't have that problem with a potato bun, and you definitely don't have that problem with Martin's.

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In fact, Martin's rolls are reminiscent of soft and sweet Wonder Bread, whose condensed texture means a slice can easily be rolled up into a ball. What Martin's does better than other potato buns is nail that exquisite, soft-yet-compact texture. Other potato buns often feel... clunky.

The best potato buns don't just excel at holding holding juicy ground meat; I use potato buns for lots of other sandwiches, too. They're a great vehicle for egg salad, chicken salad, barbecued ham, and breakfast sandwiches with dripping yolks.

Okay, so why not just stick with Martin’s Potato Rolls, then?

I started to look at different potato roll brands when news broke that Martin's was financially backing far-right candidate Doug Mastriano's run for governor of Pennsylvania. Now, I'm not going to launch into a whole sermon about boycotting companies that don't align with my personal political beliefs. But Pennsylvania is my home state, which certainly played a role in my decision to seek alternatives.

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I don't think it makes you a bad person to buy Martin's rolls, nor do I consider chefs at fault for continuing to use them. But the whole Doug Mastriano thing is what sparked my curiosity in the first place: There's got to be something else comparable to Martin's, right? Or do we all have to keep using the unrivaled rolls?

Out west, Martin's rolls can be expensive, too. They run between $8-10 per pack online, and I see them being sold for the full $10 at a few premium grocery stores in Los Angeles. They can be found at that steep price at the bougie McCall's Butcher Shop in Los Feliz, the type of place that sources whichever ingredients people with New York Times subscriptions love to talk about. All reasons to look outside of Martin's.

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What are the best potato rolls beyond Martin’s?

Another east coast potato bun, Arnold's, shares many of the same features as Martin's. This product has a wonderful squish and a deliciously buttery, golden exterior. Arnold's potato buns are soft, flavorful, and will certainly do the job. I have found Arnold's to be the closest thing to a Martin's—but folks, it's just not the same.

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Martin's has a certain flavor and texture that's hard to match, and I'm not sure how the company does it. I've also recently tried Sunbeam, Oroweat's Country Potato Buns, Signature Select, and Pepperidge Farm. They're all perfectly fine potato buns, and you would think they could be used interchangeably. But there's just something special about Martin's.

Hangaburs, a popular El Sereno smash burger spot, and Chef Alvin Cailin of Eggslut both stopped using Martin's last year in protest of the company's political agenda. Alvin, I believe, uses brioche buns, and the folks at Hangaburs told me they switched to a Portuguese bun. But not everybody feels so comfortable making the switch.

"We use Martin's, but honestly there is no comparison out there," said Matt McIvor of Proudly Serving, who makes of my favorite burgers anywhere. "I know Ralph's or Vons has potato buns, but they suck."

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That seems to be the consensus among chefs and cooks, people who taste test dozens of hamburger buns to find the perfect one. Anonymously, among chefs and friends, I heard various responses expressing the same sentiment. "Proud Martin's fan," said one chef in Chicago. "There's really no beating it," said another cook here in LA.

"It's wild with how popular it is that no one has tried to recreate it," says McIvor. Maybe the controversy will inspire somebody to chase that squish, but it hasn't happened yet.

The difference in quality between Martin's and the slew of second best potato buns is noticeable, to put it mildly. I wonder if there will ever be a bun that challenges the MVP, or if we're all doomed to oblige its confounding greatness.

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