The 2017 Burger Battle wound up with a good Final Four: Two Fort Worth favorites (Fred’s and Charley’s) facing two comeback kids (Ted E’s Kitchen, which closed three years ago in Fort Worth and came back this summer in Bedford; and Fuego Burger, which rose from the ashes of the 2015 Burger Battle runner-up, the now-closed Salsa Fuego in Fort Worth). But the judges didn’t have it easy, and the readers spoke up in their bracket.
Ted E’s has been an impressive underdog. Fuego Burger has been impressive, period. Could they take down Burger Battle perennials? Joined by guest judge Nick Nickelson, aka Dr. Nick, we set out to find the answers.
(1) Fred’s Texas Cafe (Pickle Region champ) vs. (5) Ted E’s Kitchen (Mustard Region champ)
Ted E’s has been a model of consistency during Burger Battle 2017. Burgers have ranged from good to great, the latter applying especially to the third-round Ranch Burger and Hot & Spicy Burger, with their perfectly cooked patties.
Fred’s, the only former Burger Battle winner still in the hunt, has been a tad more erratic. A fantastic Diablo Burger in round one, but a merely good one in round three, where Fred’s got by with a superb enchilada burger (as in enchilada-topped patty) and a not-quite-up-to-usual-standards performance by Liberty Burger.
Fred’s looked vulnerable; Ted E’s rolled in to the Final Four not just on its own consistency, but on its opponents’ inconsistencies: a disappointing Dirty Love Burger at Love Shack, an off night for Rodeo Goat, a lack of seasoning on the patties at the usually dependable Tom’s Burgers & Grill.
But this time, it was Ted E’s that had consistency problems.
At Fred’s, guest judge Nickelson went for a Fred Burger with cheese, which is one slice above the most basic burger at Fred’s. He found the half-pound patty to be very tasty and well-cooked, the bun to have a nice buttery taste. The only disappointment was the pale lettuce and tomatoes, “but it could just be that time of year.” It was the only one of his Final Four burgers that earned his unreserved praise for its patty.
The Verde Burger, a green-chile cheeseburger, brought impressive heat with its chiles — not tongue-frying, but you knew that the chiles were there. The patty was cooked the desired medium, the cheese melting as we watched, the buns holding up to all the stuff inside. Once again, the vegetables — forgettable iceberg lettuce, pinkish tomatoes, floppy pickle slices — disappointed. But when the green chile and the patty are this good, who cares about the other vegetables?
The bacon-mushroom burger came with a well-seasoned but slightly overcooked patty and a standard bun, but the bacon, Swiss cheese and portobello mushrooms were all excellent. Vegetables once again had problems.
At Ted E’s, Nickelson found the “signature sauce” on his traditional cheddar cheeseburger to be too sweet and the patty to be overworked — a problem on all our Ted E’s patties, which were overworked and a little on the chewy side.
This was an aberration: Although you have to remember to request your burgers to order — this is not a place that asks you how you want your burgers cooked — it delivered on all of our previous requests, even the beautiful medium rare on that round-three Ranch Burger
Ted E’s Santa Fe Burger seemed like a good answer burger to Fred’s Verde: green chiles, pepper jack, avocado, “southwest” mayo, lettuce-tomatoes-onion. But it was like a trip to burger bizarro world: the vegetables were all great, except for the green chiles, which didn’t make their presence known at all. But the biggest problem, once again, was the patty. Aside from the lettuce, which was about even, all the vegetables at Ted E’s were better than the ones at Fred’s.
The Ultimate Burger — a double-patty monster with hickory-smoked bacon, sauteed onions, bell pepper, mushrooms, American and Swiss cheeses, sliced jalapeños, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, pickles and “Signature Sauce” — had similar virtues (the toppings shined, except for the bell pepper, which didn’t really work) and flaws (the patty was dry).
This matchup was a little snakebit: Two other judges scheduled for the round had to drop out at the last minute, when it was too late to reschedule. But we don’t think their presence would have changed anything, because the good and the bad at both places was consistent throughout. Fred’s won on the strength of its patties, as well as the bacon, mushrooms and green chiles. But it wasn’t a perfect win, and it is going to have some tough competition going into the finale.
Winner: Fred’s Texas Cafe
Fred’s Texas Cafe (judging took place at original location, 915 Currie St., Fort Worth; locations also on Bluebonnet Circle near TCU and in far north Fort Worth), fredstexascafe.com; Ted E’s Kitchen, 2208 Central Drive, Bedford, www.tedeskitchen.com
(1) Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers (Ketchup Region champ) vs. (2) Fuego Burger (Bacon Region champ)
Every restaurant has a story, and certain types of places — bakeries, BBQ joints, burger spots etc. — seem to have deeper stories than others. And since the 2015 Burger Battle, both Charley’s and Fuego Burger have added chapters to their stories.
Charley’s chapter is a sad one: Charley Bell, the former truck driver who founded the Granbury Road burger shack in 1992, died last November. His legacy continues at a place that started so slow that he initially kept his truck-driving job, till an Eats Beat column by Bud Kennedy in August 1992 brought attention to Charley’s. Things took off, and Charley’s has had a loyal following for more than 25 years.
Fuego Burger rose from what was once Salsa Fuego, which made the Burger Battle finals in 2015. It was close: We kept hearing reports that Salsa Fuego had closed, but every time the judges stopped by to judge a round, it was open. Later that year, it did close, later resurfacing in the back of a Rendon convenience store as 5ive Spice Kitchen, later changing its name to Fuego Burger.
Fuego Burger is not a big place. A half-dozen judges, including guest judge Nick Nickelson, showed up for this round, and we were wondering whether they all would fit.
Turned out that they all did — as well as a slew of other people who came in to the place about 7 p.m. on a Monday. Sure, this is a joint so small that you have to go to the convenience store to get your drinks, but people will come for Fuego Burger’s signature burger and its other specialty burgers (and there’s an expanding non-burger menu as well).
The “specialty burger” portion of the menu includes five burgers, but Nickelson once again went with a traditional cheeseburger. He found the bun to be too sweet and overpowering — throughout the battle, there has been division among the judges over places like Fuego Burger that use sweeter buns — and the patty to be fresh but a little undercooked (“Another 30 seconds and it would have been spot-on”). He also thought the patty was a little overseasoned, and too salty when sampled separately. American cheese was nicely melted; tomato and lettuce just OK.
The Fuego Burger patty was also cooked a little unevenly and strongly seasoned — but it was harder to mind. At its best, this green-chile cheeseburger is surrounded by a fried-cheese ring that seems to hover around the burger as if it were caught in the patty’s orbit. This one came with some extra gravity that had the cheese ring settled into the basket. Many people choose to knife-and-fork this burger or at least break up the cheese ring; we opted to pick it up and, unsurprisingly, it fell apart.
But the cheese ring was still good, a crispy cheddar-Monterey Jack blend that we eventually folded up and placed atop the patty. Green chiles had respectable heat, but we’ve gotten more fire from them in the past. The strongly seasoned patty and sweet buns worked well with the other components, and the buns held up even though the burger was kind of a mess.
At Charley’s, Nickelson stayed true to his traditional cheeseburger love. The buns on all of the burgers we ordered were beautifully toasted and the vegetables fresh and colorful, but Nickelson said his patty got lost — and he had the simplest burger. When he found the patty, it was too greasy for his tastes and a little overcooked. Plus the cheese wasn’t melted and there was too much mayo — and he’s a mayo guy.
Charley’s star burger, the Project X — a Tabasco-soaked patty topped with jalapeños, cheddar cheese and lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles — was presented beautifully, although we quickly realized that the beauty came from the vegetables and not the marquee ingredients. Break apart some of the patty, and you can taste the Tabasco; eat it as a whole and the strongest component was, oddly, the pickles, standing out among the hotter ingredients. The whole of this usually excellent burger was less than the sum of its parts.
The trends continued. Fuego’s brisket-topped Cowtown Burger would have been exceptional had it not fallen apart. Charley’s Bar-B-Que Burger suffered from an underseasoned patty and a too-sweet sauce that even overpowered the bacon.
Fuego’s Big Tex — a double-patty bacon-cheeseburger — came with both patties a perfect medium; thick, smoky bacon; and good, melty cheese. Charley’s Great Burger — a double patty with American and Swiss cheeses, bacon and Canadian bacon — was one of the rare instances of overseasoned patties at Charley’s, but the Canadian bacon still fought the patties instead of working with them. Our judge still liked it, but he liked his Big Tex more. (And we’re still wondering how he ate both.)
The patty on Fuego’s bacon-mushroom-Swiss had more balance to its seasoning, and our judge said the toppings (crisp bacon, good mushrooms, masterfully melted cheese) were the best he’d had during the 2017 battle. He’s vot a sweet-bun fan, but everything else worked. His Charley’s bleu cheese burger was underseasoned, and the blue cheese was underwhelming (“If Velveeta made a blue cheese, this would be it”). The bun and the other components worked better, but this was another vote for Fuego.
Fuego Burger has been on a roll: The Final Four nitpicks may be the most critical the judges have made during the competition. And it has won some close battles. As Salsa Fuego, it nearly went all the way in 2015. Is this its year? Or will Fred’s put a stop to its momentum?
Winner: Fuego Burger
Additional judges: Star-Telegram contributors Anna Caplan and Malcolm Mayhew.