Burgers, Burgers Everywhere
The Chronicle Guide to Hamburgers in Austin
Cover photography by Todd V. Wolfson; special thanks to Steve Wertheimer
No matter what food trends Americans explore, we always return to the familiar: grilled beefsteak on a round bun. In the Seventies, when concerns over cholesterol and fat content first made headlines, various burger substitutes (all-vegetable soy disks, chicken breast fillets) began to surface on restaurant menus and our collective culinary radar. Later, as "New American food" celebrated the diversity of our national cuisines, it was only a matter of time before upscale versions of the lowly hamburg appeared.
Hamburgers also reign as the Great American Default food, a standby for every restaurant in the country regardless of specialty. Since every other table will contain a kid (or adult) who will opt for known quantity over house specials, chefs have learned the lesson of the burger's universal appeal.
This fact means that in Austin -- heavily populated with restaurants, cafes, and lunch counters -- there are at least a million burgers in the city. Over the past few weeks, the Chronicle food staff -- Virginia B. Wood, Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Meredith Phillips, and myself -- sampled more than its share of hamburger baskets for this summer's Hamburger Guide. We present, for your dining and arguing pleasure, our round-up of nearly 40 hamburgers from various joints, historic drive-ins, and purveyors of fast food.
We've tried to keep the playing field relatively even and the comparisons clean. Given the countless possible toppings that currently make it between the buns -- bacon, guacamole, salad dressings, jalapeños, exotic cheeses, sautéed chiles, and mushrooms, to name a few -- each of the writers chose a simple burger version that most every place could make.
We also resisted the urge to label our burger excursions as a competition, since it's difficult to declare "the best" without attempting a complete sample -- none of us have that much time or slack in our belts. Readers looking for a clear "best in town" designation will have to do their own burger tour and fight it out amongst themselves.
So without further ado, we present the Chronicle's Summer Burger Guide. With a slightly greasy slap on the collective back and a handful of napkins, we wish you happy eating.... -- Pableaux Johnson
Dirty Martin's Place
2808 Guadalupe, 477-3173
Juicy, simple, and perfect -- Dirty's defines the Austin dive burger. Generations of UT students know the white frame drive-in for its simple menu of griddle-fried burgers, Russet fries, and hand-breaded onion rings. Any seat at the counter gives you a perfect view of the burgers frying and buns grilling alongside -- a basic recipe for burger perfection. -- P.J.
Waterloo Ice House
Sixth & Lamar, 472-5400;
1106 W. 38th, 451-5245;
8600 Burnet, 450-0480
Waterloo has been the home of our burger of choice for many years. No pre-fab taste here, the burgers are fresh, juicy, and kinda messy to eat, just the way we like them. My only recent complaint was a couple of thin, wimpy slices of flaccid bacon on an otherwise respectable burger. We are also exceedingly partial to the homemade Waterloo onion rings, piping hot mounds of lacy, hand-breaded wonders. Yum-yum. -- V.B.W.
Nau Enfield Drug
1115 West Lynn, 476-1221
A personal favorite. Choose either a small ($1.95) or large ($2.75), cooked on a griddle and dressed with lettuce, tomato, and white onion. Each is sweet with mayo and sticky with a single piece of cheese seemingly designed for burger use. And they have some of the cheapest milk shakes in town. Don't go with anyone you're worried about impressing -- trying to stay clean during the drippy splendor of a Nau's burger simply wouldn't be worth it. -- M.P.
5325 Airport, 452-3136;
2425 Exposition, 478-2652
Exposition: 6:30am-9:30pm daily
Flame-kissed and floppy, Holiday House's signature cheeseburger stands up to its reputation as an old-fashioned burger of the drugstore variety. Larger in diameter than most others about town (although only as thick as a couple of stacked pancakes), the patty comes topped with a mound of grated Cheddar, a slew of diced white onion, and the requisite tomato and pickle rounds wedged between frisbee-sized, Wonder Bread-soft buns. -- R.C.
Dart Bowl Cafe
5700 Grover, 459-5181
Last year's relocation from the Burnet Road lanes hasn't taken a toll on the Dart Bowl's burgers, since the cafe's old griddle survived the move intact. A bit on the thin side, Dart Bowl burgers work best in double-patty configurations where you can choose your condiments of choice (including the painfully good jalepeño cheeseburger). All burgers come with a side of the freshest-cut fries imaginable. Yes, fresher than your grammaw's.... -- P.J.
534 E. Oltorf, 442-2799
Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm; Fri, 10am-9pm
Everything about Danny Young's South Austin joint is so definitively Austin, right down to the music posters on the ceiling, the political bumper stickers, and the historic Virginia's Cafe sign across the lunch counter. Our favorite little cheeseburger here comes on a soft rectangular roll with subtly flavored dill pickles and fresh leaf lettuce. A side order of crisp waffle-cut fries with a little queso to round out the meal. Add one of their giant glasses full of Coke and we're ready to conquer the world. -- V.B.W.
Sandy's Frozen Custard & Root Beer
603 Barton Springs Rd., 478-6322
The Thursday and Saturday special is a burger, fries, and a drink for $1.99, but it would be a blunder not to budget another 60cents for a frozen custard. Sandy's stand is the closest you'll get to beach food within the city limits, so work up an appetite at Barton Springs then stop in for a big, flat, mustardy saucer of burger, replete with pickles. Then go back to the springs and rinse off your face. -- M.P.
Texas Chili Parlour
1409 Lavaca, 472-2828
Fri & Sat, 11am-2am; Sun, noon-midnight
This venerable Capitol-area joint makes it clear from the git-go what they will and won't do: no draft beer, no foo-foo drinks, and no fried anything. What they do have is several varieties of very respectable burgers. Seeing as how it's a chili joint, a chili burger would be good choice, but my advice would be to go the one X route because the XX and XXX versions taste as though raw chili powder has been stirred into them after cooking. The Bacon Cheeseburger here is mighty good: meat cooked to order, big slices of crisp bacon, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, plenty of bun. All burgers are half-price every Tuesday night. -- V.B.W.
Hyde Park Bar & Grill
4206 Duval, 458-3168
The burgers here are of the two-fisted variety, big thick patties on substantial toasted buns. They'll dress them up or down, just as you choose: Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, mushrooms, onion, bacon, avocado slices, lettuce, tomatoes. Plenty of napkins are a must because these babies are juicy! A burger meal here wouldn't be complete without a big old mess of the house specialty Hyde Park fries (see sidebar), complete with the dipping sauce, though our last order was just a little underdone and floury tasting. Wouldn't want success to spoil a good thing. -- V.B.W.
5420 Airport, 453-8772
Though they've been getting recent press for Korean specialties, Burger Tex still keeps its priorities squarely on the griddle. Patties are substantial and not overcooked; buns are baked on the premises daily. The condiment bar can be hit-or-miss, but the quality of the burger itself stands on its own. -- P.J.
Shoal Creek Saloon
909 N. Lamar, 474-0805
The big draw at Shoal Creek isn't the burgers -- which tend toward the lackluster side -- but several of the side attractions that snap the neck back. Fried potatoes aren't the typical quasi-steak or curly-cue varieties, but now-endangered crinkle-cut fries -- haven't seen them in years. Lovers of the low-end American lager can choose from Pearl on tap or Milwaukee's Best in cans. -- P.J.
618 W. Sixth, 472-2037
The prosaic term "patty melt" implies a subtler sandwich than this ($5.95 includes burger and fries) -- all flavors, even that of the salty, savory, 1/2 lb burger, yielded to the blast of caraway seeds in the lightly buttered rye toast. In this situation, ordinary condiments proved superfluous: The flavor was already big enough and the slice of American cheese on each side of the meat ensured moisture. A dill pickle wedge, spicy grilled onions, and sautéed button mushrooms rounded out the platter. -- M.P.
3303 N. Lamar, 452-2317;
5340 Cameron, 371-3717
Sat & Sun, 10am-10pm
On a long stretch of North Lamar with an absence of available drive-thru food, Hill-Bert's is still a trusty burger oasis. We don't just love the convenience, however, because the burgers here are consistently superior and popularly priced. Whole grain buns hold thick, juicy beef patties, the leaf lettuce is fresh, the bacon crisp. Mmmmm, a few bites of burger heaven. Fresh-cut fries and lacy, hand-breaded onion rings fulfill our craving for the authentic pre-McDonald's burger experience. Don't even get me started on the milk shakes. -- V.B.W.
Babes Old Fashioned Hamburgers
208 E. Sixth, 473-2262
A cheeseburger ordered medium arrived well-seasoned but also well-done, and had a fast-food quality that I attributed to the ketchup, mayo, and pickles smushed into the floppy sesame seed bun. A friend suspected that the mound of shredded iceberg shrouding the patty was the culprit. The burger is an average buy at $3.89 but becomes a great value on Mondays nights, when Don Walser is yodeling at no extra cost. -- M.P.
1400 Barton Springs Rd., 479-0485
Burgers, like most things, are better with cheese. I didn't order any, so I'll accept partial blame for the fact that even with mayo on it, the thin, grilled, barbecue-bunned burger ($3.79) was dry. However, there's no excuse for grit on the green leaf lettuce. Fried okra kept me cheery, but next time I'll take my beef chopped rather than ground.
4024 S. Lamar, 444-8202;
2700 W. Anderson, 458-6268
It's often said that the key to any good sandwich is the bread on which it's made, and this chain prides itself on doing everything from scratch. The buns are baked in-house and are substantial, always fresh and soft. The beef is ground and formed into patties on the premises and cooked precisely to order. Every manner of fixin' imaginable is prepared and ready for the customer to add: lettuce, tomatoes, dill pickles, sweet relish, chopped onions, sliced onions, pico de gallo, hot sauce, melted cheese, jalapeño cheese, BBQ sauce. Plus, steak-cut fries, fried onion rings, and grilled onions, on request. The atmosphere may be a little bright and sterile, but this is the place to go if you really want to have it your way. -- V.B.W.
3223 E. Seventh, 385-8898
Mon-Thu, 6am-8pm; Fri-Sat, 6am-9pm
The Eastside's bilingual home of weekend Salvadoran specials also cooks up a mean burger basket most workdays. Flavorful and well-executed, if a little short on the patty, Chubby's burgers clock in as a good lunchtime value with a $1.99 burger/fries combination. Maybe less than you crave, but just the right amount to get you back to work without a beef-induced coma. -- P.J.
7525 Burnet, 452-2181
Other than the curbside service, the "special sauce" was the most noteworthy aspect of the Top Notch experience. They one-up the fast-food competition by smearing thousand island (instead of russian) dressing on both sides of a plain, non-toasted roll. Good quality lettuce and tomato enhanced the large, hand-formed, charcoal-broiled patty, and the dill slices in concert with the sweet relish of the thousand island eased the fact that all I get to eat anymore is burgers. ($2.19) -- M.P.
Kerbey Lane Cafe
3704 Kerbey Ln., 451-1436;
12602 Research, 258-7757;
2700 S. Lamar, 445-4451
The "don't judge a book by its cover" maxim applied to my cheeseburger experience at this popular cafe. The all-natural beef patty, topped with romaine, red onion, and tomato, arrived at the table looking a little, well, tired, like it had been subject to a heat light for too long. But as it turned out, the burger was alive with flavor -- good and beefy, juicy and tender. In fact, so tasty was Kerbey Lane's burger, that I suspect the cafe's patties might not be of the pre-formed, frozen variety, but freshly ground on the premises. -- R.C.
East Side Cafe
2113 Manor Rd., 476-5858
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat & Sun, 10am-11pm
Even though it's served on a real plate instead of paper, the East Side cheeseburger weighs a full half-pound and can't be easily dismissed as a boutique burger. The flame-seared behemoth comes with a plate full of the cafe's signature garden greens cleverly disguised as condiments -- including a substantial slab of tangy blood tomato. Let your dining companions opt for salads; this burger is serious contender for serious appetites. -- P.J.
3918 N. Lamar, 302-1800
Visiting this place one afternoon, I was greeted by a trio of slack-jawed, dull-eyed teenagers behind the counter who delivered another letter-perfect rendition of "Austin slacker-style service." The cook must have more on the ball because the burgers were very good. The Bacon & Cheddar burger was cooked exactly as I'd ordered with a sizable portion of crisp bacon, fresh condiments, and a tangy mayo/mustard combo. The most interesting choice here is their famous Beanburger, made with a beef patty, Cheddar cheese, black beans, a sprinkling of Fritos, onions, picante sauce, and optional guacamole. It's quite a taste experience but almost more burger and fixin's than one bun can hold. -- V.B.W.
512 W. 24th, 477-3647
Some people take burgers more seriously than others: before cooking the beef, the Wheeler's staff anoints it in "Phil's sauce," a decadent wash that includes garlic and butter. I chose the Cheddar Cheesy ($3.60), a flame-kissed patty dressed only in Cheddar and a large, toasted roll. Sometimes simpler is better. -- M.P.
922 W. 12th, 474-7496
Mon-Fri, 11am -2am;
Sat & Sun, 8am-2am
This mid-town Austin landmark has been serving burgers and beer to college students since air-conditioning was a novelty, but my most recent Tavern burger was a real disappointment. I blame it on the person who orders the cheese. It was a perfectly serviceable burger, a little light in the bacon department but ultimately ruined by a covering of bright yellow processed cheese food that looked and tasted like melted plastic. The cheese fries suffered a similar fate, although their greasy yellow plastic coating was festooned with little slices of jalapeño, sort of nacho-like. Steer clear of anything with the faux cheese and things should be fine. -- V.B.W.
Coach's B-B-Q & Burgers
13215 Research, 331-8531
Sat & Sun, noon-10:30pm
Football pennants, dart boards, Astroturf carpet, and a crockpot full of barbecue sauce evoked a fear response in this sportophobe, but the charbroiled, 1/3lb "Rookie" ($3.79) turned out better than anticipated. Blanketed with a "special blend" of Monterey Jack and Cheddar, the burger was juicy and rare. Though lettuce, tomato, white onions, and dill slices on a sesame seed bun were condiments enough, the proximity of barbecue sauce is always reassuring. -- M.P.
8800 Burnet, 454-1474;
4141 S. Capital of Texas Hwy, 326-9899
Mon-Thu, 7am-midnight; Fri, 7am-2am; Sat, 8am-2am; Sun, 8am-midnight
The thing to remember about eating burgers at Trudy's is not to fill up on hot chips and their award-winning hot sauces while you're waiting. The beautiful open-faced burgers are so big and so pleasing, you just can't do them justice if you're already full. The substantial buns (regular, whole grain, or onion roll) are buttered and grilled, the better to hold the 1/2lb burger patty, cooked to exact specifications. Fresh fixin's, chipotle mayo, and/or stone ground mustard, plenty of thick, crisp bacon. Don't be ashamed to ask for extra napkins. This is just the way burgers should be. -- V.B.W.
806 W. Sixth, 472-0693
Hut's menu starts off with the phrase "Hamburgers Are Our Specialty" and proceeds to list 20 variations on the burger theme, each based on a well-prepared foundation. The burgers come cooked a happy medium, thick and flavorful enough to stand up to whatever toppings strike your fancy (pineapple?). Wednesday dinner specials (two burgers for the price of one) and buffalo variations make experimenting that much simpler. -- P.J.
The Frisco Shop
5819 Burnet, 459-6279
We realize it's sacrilege to dis this Fifties-era diner, but the unvarnished truth is our burger experience could charitably be described as underwhelming. The patty was thin and tasteless, the shredded iceberg lettuce kinda soggy, the bun unremarkable white bread. Our fries were spongy, and the usually great homemade onion rings were oozing grease. It's still high on our list for breakfast and blissfully good homemade pies anytime, however. -- V.B.W.
2900 Duval, 477-2111 or 476-7677
Mon-Sat, 11am-2am; Sun, noon-2am
This campus haunt turns out cheeseburgers in paradise for lovers of sport and sun who crowd around the big screen TV or lounge at picnic tables on the streetfront patio. The Posse's rendition of the all-American classic comes in two sizes, the hefty 1/3 lb-er or mammoth 2/3 lb-er, both layered generously with fat shreds of iceberg, thin rounds of tomato, American cheese, and the requisite shavings of pungent onion. The burger is a winner -- juicy and perfectly pink in the center with a plump, bread-y bun, and the added bonus that you can smell it while it's cooking. In fact, as I tucked into the meaty sandwich, I was sure I'd returned to the backyard cookouts of my suburban childhood. The fries, however, were never this good at home. -- R.C.
Crown & Anchor Pub
2911 San Jacinto, 322-9168
Mon-Sat, 11am-2am; Sun, noon-2am
The burger basket lives at this casual eatery and pool hall. Order a cheeseburger and what exits the kitchen nestled alongside a mess of skinny french fries is a perfectly round, mayonnaise-accented beef patty iced thickly with cheese and piled high with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, and pickle -- all of it speared with a fancy toothpick. The burger is solid in the flavor department, with just the right amount of residual grease -- enough to remind you that you are, after all, indulging in a high-fat pleasure. -- R.C.
Hwy290 E (in Manor),
An advertised "toasted sesame bun" had nary a seed upon it, nor was it toasted. And what was supposed to be Monterey Jack turned out to be a major-brand, processed single. No matter though, Cafe 290's still a smart place to go (especially if you don't mind a little sidestream smoke) and they fix a thin, 1/3 lb, well-done, soundly condimented, green-chile cheeseburger ($3.25). If you want a foofy burger, stay home, and make it yourself . -- M.P.
2828 Rio Grande, 476-8696;
701 N. Capital of Texas Hwy, 347-1039;
9898 Great Hills Trail, 349-9944
Sat & Sun, 11am-10:30pm
The HangTown outlet we usually frequent must have experienced one of those alien takeovers we've encountered at other consistently reliable restaurants. The invaders replaced the friendly helpful staff with more rude, sullen teenagers behind the counter than there were customers in the restaurant. Our order was almost a total disaster, but a glass of dreamy cream soda mollified us somewhat. The bacon cheeseburger we ordered didn't make it into the bag and the two green-chile cheeseburgers had a wealth of juicy fixin's but not enough bun to hold everything together. The huge serving of crisp, curly fries with a substantial portion of spicy cheese on the side to avoid sogginess was the major saving grace. -- V.B.W.
2304 Lake Austin Blvd., 478-8645
Putting a healthy spin on a burger ($4.95 for a burger and side) just didn't work. Mine was a bland, overcooked, all-natural beef patty on a sweaty, if hearty, dry-toasted whole wheat bun. The amplitude and freshness of lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onion were canceled out by the yellowing, glassy film atop the tiny container of mayonnaise. -- M.P.
4308 Manchaca, 443-6131;
5602 N. Lamar, 459-3239;
844 Airport, 385-2262
When the owners of Dan's got divorced a few years back and split the company into Dan's and Fran's, there was some concern among burger fans that quality might slip. No need to worry, the burgers at Dan's are still the same tasty, reliable stand-by we've come to depend on over the years. My most recent medium bacon cheeseburger came dressed with plenty of crisp bacon, melted cheese, a thick slice of ripe tomato, and a mound of shredded lettuce. Warm and juicy, it hit the spot. -- V.B.W.
34th Street Cafe
1005 W. 34th, 371-3400
I hesitate to promote the delicious burger and fries at this pleasant little mid-town spot too heartily because I wouldn't want it to be overrun with too many burger lovers. My suspicion is that they're so good because each burger and order of fries is hand-crafted just for you, almost as if Mom was in the kitchen: thick, perfectly cooked patties on a fresh seeded bun, real cheese, crisp bacon, a ruffle of leaf lettuce, a tangy spear of your favorite dill pickle on the side. Wonderful fries are of the hand-cut variety. Don't tell anybody. -- V.B.W.
1822 S. Congress, 444-5738
Fri & Sat, 10am-11pm;
South Austin's strongest drive-in contender, Fran's offers burgers in three sizes (small, medium, and large) to fit any appetite. Griddle-toasted buns and flavorful patties make for a drippingly good experience -- you'll be grateful for the wax paper wrappers. -- P.J.
The Filling Station
801 Barton Springs Rd.,
Fri & Sat, 11am-2am;
If I had known how good the burgers are in this friendly neighborhood restaurant/bar, I wouldn't have been driving right by it all these years without stopping. That mistake has now been corrected and I am a devoted fan of the Ethyl Hamburger, 3/4lb of pure ground beef, prepared to order that can be dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, bacon, cheese, chili, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, hickory sauce, or jalapeños. Less robust appetites can opt for the Regular Burger, a mere 6oz of beef with all the same options. The fries are fresh cut, and the onion rings are big and crisp. When my burger appetite returns, this is the first place I'll go. -- V.B.W.
G-M Steakhouse Breakfast Luncheonette
626 N. Lamar, 472-2172
Mon-Fri, 7am-4pm; Sat & Sun, 7am-3pm
The 11th burger, I'm not even hungry, and the elusive GM is closed. Grrr. They let us in anyhow and throw a skinny frozen one down on the griddle. Chopped white onions nestled on a warm glob of mayo, a molten orange single fused to the seared patty, and ketchup and mustard swirled resplendantly on the top half of a floppy sesame seed bun prove once and for all that life is all about atmosphere and condiments. Mmm, burger. ($3.75) -- M.P.