Upscale, Sit-Down Burgers
Relish the variety and savor the flavors of Austin's burger bounty
It is no secret that Austin is a great incubator for talent, whether we're talking guitar players, video games, independent films, or viable restaurant concepts. One of the hottest emerging trends is the development of top-quality, local hamburger restaurants. Some are simple and straightforward, seemingly aimed at families and quality-minded shoppers, and others geared more toward the casual, fine-dining market with designer burgers, craft beers, and, in some cases, cocktails. The thing they all have in common is a focus on quality ingredients. You'll find lots of all-natural Angus beef, some house-made buns, mostly excellent side dishes, luxurious shakes made with in-house ice creams or reliable Blue Bell, fresh-squeezed lemonades, and local sodas and craft beers. Some of these new burger restaurants already have multiple outlets, which speaks not only to their local popularity but also their viability as far as building successful chains is concerned. Try any of the eateries in this story and we're betting you won't be disappointed. So many good burgers, so little time.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar1400 S. Congress, 243-7505
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm
About five minutes into my first visit to swank Hopdoddy on the SoCo strip, I sensed it had to be the prototype for an upscale burger-bar chain, and why not? It's a great concept in a perfect location: counter service for quality hamburgers and fries, plus voluptuous milkshakes, craft brews, and custom cocktails. Although the owners were initially cagey about their long-term plans, there are now several more Hopdoddys on the drawing board. The second local outlet is scheduled to open on Anderson Lane in April, and others will follow in Dallas and Houston in the coming year.
I'm not crazy about Hopdoddy's reliance on mostly wobbly barstool seating at the original restaurant, and I'm hoping version 2.0 on Anderson offers more regular tables and chairs. I am, however, an unabashed fan of the food. My favorite burger here remains the Llano Poblano ($8.75) with pepper-jack cheese and roasted poblano peppers and a side of Kennebec fries with the house chile-cheese dip ($5.50). To put the meal completely over the top, add a Maine Root root beer float ($4) or a milkshake made with a decadent in-house ice cream ($5). There are plenty of worthy burger choices – even made from bison, lamb, and tuna. Chili lovers will want to try the Terlingua ($7) topped with chili, cheddar cheese, and Fritos; and vegetarian friends swear by the Janis Joplin ($7.50), made with a very tasty and nutritious hemp patty. Due to the original Hopdoddy's popularity and prime SoCo location, perhaps the most useful thing I can tell you at this point is to be prepared to stand in line. It's worth it. – V.B.W.
Your Mom's Burger Bar5001 Airport, 454-6667
When I began the serious research (eating plenty of burgers) for this story, tantalizing tidbits about an East Austin burger joint kept popping up. I eventually found the original location of Your Mom's Burger Bar tucked behind Las Cazuelas mexican restaurant at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Chalmers. The space is tiny, with a row of old-style stools at the counter and a few tables inside and out. Don't be fooled. The physical space may be small but the flavors are mighty. So mighty, in fact, that the debut of a second outlet on Airport Boulevard's emerging restaurant row is one of the most eagerly anticipated openings of the year. With any luck, the transformation of the old convenience store will be completed this week and the new restaurant should be open, according to owner Ryan Blackmore. It will be strictly BYOB for now, but immediate plans include adding a license to serve beer from a wall of beer taps, with local craft brews kept icy cold in the huge former convenience store walk-in. Beer and burger lovers all over central East Austin are chomping at the bit.
Your Mom's celebrity-themed stuffed burger collection is first-rate. Made with fresh, all-natural Angus beef, the burgers are stuffed and dressed with a mouthwatering array of toppers (meats and cheeses) and bling (vegetables, sauces, and condiments). I'm currently torn between the Frida Kahlo ($7.95) and the Marie Laveau ($7.75). The burger homage to Frida offers chorizo, jack cheese, guacamole, and a fried egg with a smear of chipotle-lime sauce; the legendary voodoo queen's burger is stuffed with boudin and pepper-jack cheese, blackened Cajun-style, and sauced with tangy remoulade. Both ladies should be proud. The DeNiro gets you marinara with provolone and parmesan, and the Foghorn Leghorn is made with a crispy fried chicken breast. My go-to side dish here is the hand-battered onion rings, impossibly crisp and lacy in a tempuralike batter. The alluring scent of cinnamon grabbed my attention when an order of sweet-potato fries with caramel drizzle went by one day, but I've yet to try them. Stop by here, Your Mom's will make sure you don't go home hungry. – V.B.W.
Big Daddy's Burgers & Bar9070 Research #100, 614-0252
Big Daddy's is a comfortable sit-down burger joint with a definite sports bar vibe brought to you by restaurateur Mike Farr, the man who returned the Nutty Brown Cafe in Dripping Springs to popular roadside attraction status. Known to his friends as Big Daddy, Farr developed the new spot in a strip center at one of the busiest intersections in town with an eye toward expansion. His basic formula is very sound: The signature burgers and sides are very good, and the bar turns out an inviting assortment of frozen drinks and grown-up milkshakes next to local craft brews on tap, and there are plenty of big-screen TVs for sports enthusiasts. The place has only been open a year, and local alumni clubs already claim the private room for game-watching parties.
While many of Big Daddy's signature burgers may ultimately require the use of a knife and fork (the enchilada burger and Basil's Chili Burger, for sure), everything we've tried has been delicious. When ordering burgers, you can choose from the menu or customize your own if the list doesn't include your personal preference. For openers, you can't go wrong with the house queso with sides of fresh hot sauce, Basil's Chili, and chunky guacamole ($8.95) served with thin, crunchy house-made tortilla chips or the house-cured tempura pickles ($5.95) with some creamy ranch dressing. I'm especially partial to the classic bacon cheeseburger ($8.95) with crisp bacon slices, my choice of cheese, and the house Bloody Mary ketchup. I pair this with my absolutely favorite thing on the menu – hand-battered rings of onion and poblano peppers!
Competitive eaters will want to take note of Big Daddy's ongoing Monster Burger Challenge: people who can eat a platter piled high with three pounds of burger patties, three sauces, and a pound of fried onion and poblano rings within 33 minutes get their meals paid for and their pictures on Big Daddy's wall of fame. The manager tells us an average of three to five guests attempt it every week, but very few are successful. It's not so much the amount of food that does them in, it's the time constraint. There are fewer than ten photos on that wall. – V.B.W.
Wholly Cow Burgers619 Congress, 425-0811
Monday-Thursday, 10am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-11:30pm; Sunday, 11am-8:30pm
Wholly Cow Burgers won a "Best of Austin" Critics Pick last year for "Best Eco-Ambitious Burger Counter" for its first location on South Lamar, and it's opened a new store smack in the heart of Downtown Austin – right next door to the Hideout on Congress; right where you need such an eatery to be if you're a budget-conscious carnivore who prefers meat not from some megafactory and not loaded with antibiotics and so on. Jeff Woodard's the main man with the plan for this endeavor, but we spoke with co-owner Garth Miller, who was working behind the counter the night we happened to stop in and see what's up.
"The whole idea behind the restaurant was to have simple kinds of comfort food," says Miller, "to offer burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, Reubens, but to make it all a little healthier. People have said it's more of a gourmet burger. Our beef is 97% lean, and the cows are grass-fed from start to finish; the only other thing they're given is apple-cider vinegar. They come from Fredericksburg, just 70 miles away, from Rocky Hill Orchards."
So, among the other items, you can get a damned good burger for around $8, the kind of burger – actually a little better, in our estimation – that you might get at a much fancier sit-down place. But here it's in a fast-food setup, in the former Pita Pit. And on South Lamar, it's in a former convenience store. "I think there's merit to starting smaller and growing as opposed to getting into a place where you're over your head," says Miller. "Like how people will work out of a trailer for a while – because Austin's such a scene for good food. And a trailer breaks those boundaries of people thinking you have to go to a brick-and-mortar to get excellent cuisine. Not that brick-and-mortars aren't kind of everybody's ultimate goal, but you get a lot of cool businesses starting out in trailers. I think this city really thrives on stuff like that, and you don't really find it anywhere else."
And why Downtown?
"We'd been looking for something in this area," says Miller, "because South Congress has, like, a flood of everything down there, but Downtown was needing something like that. And people seem to be pretty excited about a place like this – this week is only our soft opening, and we've been packed every day." – Wayne Alan Brenner
Stack Burger Bar208 W. Fourth, 457-8225
Monday-Tuesday, 11am-11pm; Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-2am
Open since October in the former Saba/M-2 space in the Warehouse District, Stack Burger Bar has filled a gap in the Downtown hamburger landscape with its diverse array of custom burgers and adventuresome accoutrements. The space is crisp and spacious, blending mid-century modern furniture with a cheeky ranch motif complete with a hay wall. Our first visit, an early Friday lunch, was agreeable enough. We began our meal with an order of fried pickle slices (to my mind, you can tell a lot about a restaurant based on its treatment of fried pickles). The house-made pickles ($5) were thickly cut and clad in a slightly greasy, tempuralike batter that helped us keep our portions in check. Two of us decided to order from the designer Stack Burger menu, and a third stuck with a reliable Le Roial With Cheese ($7.50), and I chose the Green Gobbler ($9), a tasty but forgettable turkey burger dressed with mozzarella, pesto mayo, and the standard burger salad. For $2, I upgraded my regular fries to sweet-potato fries, which were thinly cut, perfectly crisp, and salty-sweet. My friend's Triple B ($9.50), a beef patty topped with jack cheese, bourbon-bacon jam, and crispy onion petals, was smoky-sweet and made for a very rich midday meal. We left satisfied but not rhapsodic.
My next visit was on a Tuesday night for a quiet family outing. Unfortunately, this visit was marred by disinterested and negligent service. We ordered the baked macaroni and cheese ($7) as a starter, and 20 minutes later received a lukewarm heap of cavatappi noodles bathed in béchamel sauce and cheese and topped with bread crumbs; our entrees followed closely. I will say my Morning Glory ($10) was hands down the best hamburger I have ever had. The hormone-free beef was cooked to a gentle medium pink then topped with cheddar, bacon, a Parmesan crisp, tomato, lettuce, onions, and a fried egg. This is a once-in-a-lifetime burger, and it more than made up for the fact that my sweet-potato fries were overcooked. My husband was pleased with his bacon burger ($8), saying the burger itself was perfect. Meanwhile, however, our long-drained water glasses languished on the table for the duration of our meal. In fact, after our server delivered our food, we didn't see him again until he delivered my credit card slip much later. It's a pity that at an otherwise pleasant restaurant, where so much thought and effort has gone into the decor and the menu, the service falls so short of the mark. – Melanie Haupt
Flat Top Burger Shop1900 Manor Rd., 366-5154
Flat Top Burger Shop is related to the El Chile, El Chilito, and Red House family and is situated nearby all of the above in that magic triangle twixt Manor Road, Chicon Street, and Dean Keeton Street. It's located in an old gas station; the two eastern lube bays contain mostly picnic tables, with a couple more out front under the canopy, 14 in all. You order at the window, and a runner/expediter brings you the order in a paper bag. Flat Top takes credit cards, but you cannot add a tip (an annoying little feature that should be fixed). Until it gets a liquor license, it's BYOB. Although it's a throwback-quality burger concept, "flat top" here refers to the cooking equipment and not the Fifties hairdo.
Flat Top starts with a quarter-pound, freshly ground chuck patty, 80/20, either all-natural regular ($3.69 junior, $5.19 double) or grass-fed ($4.99, $6.49), on a buttered and grilled Buttercrust-style bun. Then comes mayo and mustard, dill pickle chips, tomato slices, and chopped iceberg lettuce. The hook here is chopped, grilled onions smashed into the surface of the meat and a few grilled onions on the inside. We tried both meats and found the "regular" to be juicier and better-tasting. The grass-fed beef should be preferable, but Flat Top cooks the patties with a weight on top, squeezing out valuable flavor and overcooking the meat (to my taste anyway). Add cheddar and it's a buck extra; bacon adds 89 cents, and jalapeños another 39 cents. There are chicken ($4.89, $6.39) and Liberty Brand veggie patty options ($5.69, $7.19) as well.
Fries ($1.99) are unpeeled, hand-cut (medium-thick), blanch-fried, and flash finished like a standard Belgian pomme frites. But the taste was a little on the starchy side, as if they hadn't been rinsed and soaked the required amount of time to extract the starch; they were crispy and golden brown. Onion rings ($2.49) are of the hand-battered, thin-ring style. They have good flavor, but with that stringy-thin style, it's hard to grab just a ring or two. They tend to interlock into wads and cool down faster, and the onion-to-batter ratio is headed the wrong way. Freshly squeezed lemonade ($2.09) is a treat, as is a straw-strangling, thick Blue Bell milkshake ($3.99).
Flat Top seems to be a hit with the Cherrywood and Delwood neighborhood crowd and relishes being an old-school hybrid, but the price point slightly tips the value scale in the opposite direction for my wallet. – Mick Vann
Sputnik1300 E. Sixth, 628-1250
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-12mid
Randall and Donya Stockton, the owners of Sputnik (they also have a hand in the Legendary White Swan, Live Oak Barbecue, Beerland, Shangri-La, Liberty, and the Grackle) took their gastropub, the Good Knight, and converted it into a funky and rock-solid burger, hot dog, beer, and cocktail joint. It seats 45 people or so in a dark space decorated with luscious, scantily clad vintage pinup girls; oversize booths predominate, while a bar runs the length of the east side. A few tables are on the sidewalk out front, where you can sit and watch East Austin groove on by. The jukebox is one of the better we've heard recently, with Lou Reed, Forties bottleneck blues, the Beatles, Big Momma Thornton, and Sinatra doing a bossa nova version of "Baubles and Bangles" as our dining background music.
Chef Aaron Zeilsdorf does a stellar job with the burgers, using a quarter-pound 80/20 Angus chuck patty ground in-house and a delectable brioche bun baked in town by HearthStone Baking Company, to produce a burger that's a comfort food lover's dream. Burgers start with the most basic, the Eisenhower ($4.75; romaine, tomato, onion, pickles) and range upward to the Altered Beast ($7; a gooey cheddar cheeseburger loaded with grilled onions, chopped pickles, romaine, and tomato) – it's Sputnik's nod to In-N-Out's "Animal Style." Add an extra patty to any burger for a buck; add its fantastic house-made, applewood-smoked, thick-sliced bacon for $1.50; jalapeños or grilled onions for 50 cents; or cheese or a fried egg for 75 cents.
The unpeeled fries ($1.50) are hand-cut, blanched, and fried golden brown, and quite good. The thick-cut, hand-breaded onion rings are encased in a light-as-air chipotle and Fireman's 4 beer batter; imagine sweet-spicy, oniony clouds that melt in your mouth. Sputnik also offers sweet-potato fries for $2, and you can get cheese or chili-cheese fries as well ($2.25, $3.75). The all-beef kosher hot dogs start at $3 and go up to $6.75; don't miss Sputnik's version of a Sonoran dog – the Laika, a bacon-wrapped dog ($4.50; get it with chili, cheese, onions, and jalapeños for $7.25). There are rumors that fried chicken on the menu isn't far behind. Happy hour is daily from 3 to 7pm, and Sputnik offer sliders (two for $5, three for $7.50, in three different styles) during these hours only.
Sputnik should be locked into your East Austin orbit when you crave a well-crafted, high-quality burger done right. Roll your sleeves up and get ready, because it's gonna be a delicious and juicy splashdown. – M.V.
P. Terry's Burger StandFive Austin area locations: 404 S. Lamar; 3303 N. Lamar; 4228 William Cannon; 204 W. Ben White;
3311 RR 620 S.
P. Terry's Burger Stand has multiplied to five current Austin locations and has won the "Best Fast Food" award in the Chronicle Restaurant Poll every year since 2007. The secret to its success is simple: excellent, quality ingredients; relatively low prices; and consistently high volume. The all-natural Angus beef used for its burgers is vegetarian-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free, and 5-Step Animal Welfare rated (hamburger $2, double cheeseburger $3.45).
P. Terry's also makes its own freshly ground chicken burgers ($3.80), made entirely of breast meat, and mixes up its own veggie burgers ($3.80) from a recipe developed with chef Andrew Brooks. P. Terry's slices real potatoes for its french fries ($1.45, fried in 100% Canola oil), conjures milkshakes out of milk and ice cream ($1.85), and stirs up lemonade fresh every day from actual lemons ($1.85). P. Terry's also serves breakfast, offering an egg burger (scrambled eggs and cheese, $1.50, or add ham or sausage), breakfast potatoes ($1.25), and banana bread ($1.25). It is sobering to think that fast food in America has gotten so far away from food that it is a pioneering and remarkable selling point to make fast food out of recognizable, unprocessed ingredients; P. Terry's was among the first in Austin to take fast food back to its roots, with a huge subsequent improvement in flavor and value.
Mighty FineFour Austin area locations: 5601 Brodie Ln.; 10515 N. MoPac; 201 University Oaks Blvd., Round Rock;
1335 E. Whitestone Blvd., Cedar Park
Sunday-Thursday, 10:30am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 10:30am-10pm
Mighty Fine locations are positioned in staunchly suburban areas that ring the city, and are very popular with parents looking to feed their kids a better-quality burger, as well as every other sentient being in their vicinity headed out for lunch. Mighty Fine's motto is "quality is everything," and it is taken very seriously. Hamburger meat is ground in-house daily from all-natural, vegetarian-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free chuck (hamburger $5.19, cheeseburger $6.19). Crinkle-cut fries are cut from fresh potatoes and fried in trans-fat-free peanut oil ($1.99). The milkshakes are sublime creations made with premium Blue Bell ice cream ($3.99), and fresh lemonade is taken a step further with the addition of real strawberries ($2.09). The burgers are big and hold together nicely without undue smashing and slipping. Excellent bacon and jalapeños can be added for a small charge. (The one glaring omission from the menu is a veggie burger – there just isn't one, nor any other vegetarian option.) Mighty Fine's commitment to quality extends to cleanliness as well. The restaurants are spotless and each takes great pride in sparkling restrooms,
which feature "hand jacuzzis" that make washing your hands a delightful experience (especially for children). – Kate Thornberry