How do our hometown patties match up against the influx of trendy national chains?
By Melanie Haupt, Rachel Feit, Claudia Alarcón, Wes Marshall, Anna Toon, Jessi Cape, Gracie Salem, and Mick Vann, Fri., March 7, 2014
Science has proven that Austin is known primarily for two types of food: barbecue and Tex-Mex, forever and ever, amen. Of course, what science doesn't know is that we've also been quietly enjoying a diverse complement of burgers from venerated purveyors for generations now, from the legendary variations at Hut's Downtown to the delightfully greasy UT-area stalwarts at Dirty Martin's, Players, and Burger Tex to the fancier, spendier burgers at Contigo, Hopfields, and ALC Steaks. In addition to the sentimental favorites, Austin has also hatched a handful of local chains – think the nostalgic mom-and-pop duo of Fran's and Dan's, the greasy delights of Hill-Bert's, the grass-fed goodness of Wholly Cow, and the fresh simplicity of Mighty Fine Burgers, Fries & Shakes. Most notably, P. Terry's has distinguished itself through its dedication to fast-food counter-programming in the form of responsibly sourced meats, hand-cut fries, and locally sourced produce. Simply put, Austinites are not without options when it comes to hometown burgers.
It's not just beef we're pressing between slabs of bread (or wrapping in lettuce leaves for the grain-free folks). You name it, we'll eat it in burger form, from Ahi tuna to buffalo, poultry to pork belly, and lamb to kangaroo (seriously – check out Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill in Elroy). And we haven't even touched on the veggie-burger genre! (See sidebar.)
Despite this embarrassment of bun-clad riches, more and more iconic fast-casual national burger chains with cultish followings – namely, In-N-Out, Smashburger, and Shake Shack – are entering the Austin market with a vengeance. With that in mind, we figured that it's time to take a look at the local burger landscape. As more and more national chains vie for Austinites' burger dollars, how do local operations stay relevant? Sure, Smashburger and Five Guys have belly-busting sandwiches accompanied by deeply satisfying fries, but can they compete with the half-pound classic and side of crinkle-cuts from Mighty Fine? Folks have been flocking to In-N-Out for the double-double "animal style" (two mustard-fried patties with pickles and grilled onions), swathed in special sauce and wrapped in Bible-verse-emblazoned paper, but can they hold up to the Longhorn Special (a double-meat patty with special sauce) from Top Notch, a much-loved family-owned joint that boasts a cameo in Richard Linklater's Austin roman à clef, Dazed and Confused? What follows is a collection of Chronicle food writers' favorite local burgers, which we argue are reflective of Austin's diverse collective palate and keep-it-marginally-weird ethos. – Melanie Haupt
From Country to Uptown Class
Ever wonder what it was like to wander into a club during the era dubbed by the sainted Steven Fromholz as Austin's Great Progressive Country Music Scare? You may have to drive a little to still experience it, but out on Highway 71, nine miles past Bee Cave, there's a club called Poodie's Hilltop Roadhouse (22308 Hwy. 71 W., www.poodies.net). Originally owned by Willie's roadie, the late Poodie Locke, the place still maintains its Tex-centric values with an amiable bar crowd downing long necks and chomping on the Famous Poodie Burger, a hand-formed patty topped with green chiles, grilled onions, and pepper jack cheese. Order a double-double, and it's still less than $10. Nothing fancy, just really good bar food and well worth the drive.
At the other end of the spectrum is Trio at the Four Seasons (98 San Jacinto, www.triorestaurantaustin.com), a place that embodies the best of what Downtown Austin eating has become – casually fancy food with gourmet foundations. At $19, the Prime Burger had better be good, and it is. A handmade patty of prime beef topped with farm-fresh vegetables and bacon jam all add up to delicious diversion. Let your friends order the fancy stuff. When they see your burger, they'll be envious.
– Wes Marshall
I love a good burger like few other things on Earth. While sometimes any ol' burger will do, I am usually quite picky about my choices. The Framed Burger at Ranch 616 (616 Nueces, www.theranch616.com) has been a favorite for years – I believe it was the first "stuffed" burger I ever ate. The 8-ounce Texas Black Angus beef patty "frames" a variety of changing ingredients, from bleu cheese to sautéed mushrooms, roasted jalapeños, or crumbled bacon, depending on whatever inspiration comes to chef Antonio Vidal. One thing you can bet on: It is always fresh, juicy, and cooked to order.
I also enjoy Opal Divine's (multiple locations, www.opaldivines.com) extensive burger menu, all made with hormone- and antibiotic-free natural beef and as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Standouts include the Divine Patty Melt, my favorite rendition of this diner standby in the whole city. But, since I love a spicy burger all that much more, I almost always go for the Urban Bubba, which puts a Texas spin on the popular "buffalo" burger by adding grilled onions, grilled jalapeños, and chipotle mayo to the classic bleu cheese and wing sauce toppings for a fabulous extra kick.
– Claudia Alarcón
In a town full of terrific burgers, it's hard to believe that anyone would actually stand outside in Austin's epic summer heat for one. But the burgers at Hopdoddy Burger Bar (two locations, www.hopdoddy.com) regularly draw crowds willing to brave the elements as they wait upward of half an hour for a coveted seat. So what's the secret? For starters, Hopdoddy controls product by grinding their own hormone-free meat, cutting their own fries, and baking brioche buns in-house. Of all the great burgers at Hopdoddy, the Buffalo Bill is the one that stands out for me. This droolworthy burger is made with bison meat, which is typically leaner than beef. Far from dry, however, the Buffalo Bill is a sloppy mess of grilled ground meat, bleu cheese, bacon, and spicy hot sauce.
Another burger I love is different from the fat, juicy patties that tend to make others purr wistfully. The thin-patty Big Hats at Hat Creek Burger Company (multiple locations, www.hatcreekburgers.com) are the comfy old sweatpants of burgers. Two spiced patties are flame-grilled and served on buttered, toasted buns. Like Hopdoddy, Hat Creek makes their burgers from hormone-free meat, grinds their own beef, and cuts their fries in-house, and it shows in the quality of your lunch. – Rachel Feit
Bawk Bawk Burger
Though chicken burgers often get a bad rap, what with the whole not being "real burgers" thing, the Counter Chicken Burger from Counter Cafe (626 N. Lamar, www.countercafe.com) brings local ingredients together in perfect harmony. Crowd into this Old West Austin haunt and belly up to the bar for the hand-ground, curry-seasoned, never-dry chicken patty, served with organic Bibb lettuce, tomatoes, and red onion on a wheat bun. For the ultimate in cosmic reciprocity, add bacon, jalapeños, and goat cheese.
Moving from sunny respectability to the dark side of Dirty Sixth – while Casino el Camino (517 E. Sixth, www.casinoelcamino.net) is famous for its attitude and legendary jukebox, the burgers are as straightforward and delicious as a shot of whiskey. Luckily, the burger joint/bar serves both. My personal favorite, the Amarillo, is served with roasted serrano chiles, jalapeño jack cheese, and cilantro mayonnaise. Perfectly juicy, spicy, and good enough to make a West Texas girl proud. – Anna Toon
Everything's Bigger in Texas
As with anything, sometimes bigger really is just better. And two of our town's burgers are not only big – like, really big – but also come with a cheeky, catchy name: Big Ass. It's fun to slide into a swanky booth at the posh Roaring Fork (two Austin locations, www.roaringfork.com) and tell your polished waiter that you want the Big Ass burger for lunch. He might size you up and suggest the Half-Ass burger instead: Scoff and tell him you came for the Big Ass. This three-quarter-pound patty will be worth the wait. Served with a daunting (and much-needed) steak knife and a little black kettle of crispy fries, this nearly-impossible-to-eat burger is delicious topped with roasted poblano peppers and thick, peppery bacon.
Monday nights, otherwise known as Big Ass Burger Night at popular Downtown bistro Swift's Attic (315 Congress, www.swiftsattic.com), get guests in the competitive spirit, as only 12 burgers are made. There is a new manifestation of huge and delicious every week. Guests can consult Swift's Facebook page on Mondays to see what form that night's Big Ass might take; one recent night was Italian-themed, with arrabbiata sauce, roasted peppers, onions, Italian sausage, and crimini mushrooms. As always, Swift's keeps it creative.
– Gracie Salem
Burgers in Unlikely Places
Leticia and Celio Najera started Mi Ranchito in 2006 at the northwest corner of William Cannon and Pleasant Valley (5200 E. William Cannon), opening a much-needed, much-larger location in Manchaca (1105 FM 1626) about five years later. Thank God they did, or we couldn't easily access their superb and mystical Mexican Burger, an 8-ounce patty topped with griddled chorizo and ham; I get them to add a smear of refried beans and white cheese, then ladle on the spicy green sauce and pico de gallo. Side fries are great, especially dipped in ketchup mixed with the roasted red salsa. Want to add carnitas, barbacoa, carne asada, or al pastor pork? Just ask.
Head northeast to the hip Eastside and seek out Ray Tatum's 3 Little Pigs trailer (1209 Rosewood, www.3littlepigsaustin.com). Tatum's AusTex chef-cred dates back to the Seventies, and he has consistently put out some of the finest food in these parts. A great example is his pork belly slider, which starts with slabs of natural, local pork belly that is slow-braised for five hours. The unctuous belly gets sliced and griddled to crunchy perfection with a soy-maple glaze, then paired with tart apple slices and aromatic crisp-fried shallots, before nestling inside a yeasty mini Kaiser bun. Its running mate is a mound of crisp sesame slaw, making the whole package an exceptionally fine bite.
– Mick Vann