It started, like many of life’s great endeavors, with an argument.
In the summer of 2009, a mundane water-cooler conversation quickly veered into juicier terrain when someone asserted that the best burger in town was at M&O Station Grill.
Passions flared like raw patties on a flat-top, as others quickly insisted it was Kincaid’s, or Fred’s, or Dutch’s.
And before we knew it, the DFW.com Burger Battle was born.
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The only way to truly settle this beef was to stop yapping and start eating — at each place, multiple times. That way we could taste for ourselves who was consistently delivering DFW’s version of burger nirvana.
That was six years and several battles ago.
The DFW burger market has expanded a lot since then, almost as much as our waist sizes. And the humble hamburger has undergone a refrigerator full of dramatic changes. Now, we don’t even blink when jalapeño-peach marmalade appears on a burger menu. Or brie. Or bacon jam.
But one thing remains constant: The debate still rages.
And so we loosen our belts for another glorious summer of burgers.
The format should be familiar: 32 of the area’s best burger spots are pitted against each other in an NCAA bracket style. The champion will have to survive five grueling, delicious rounds.
Just like March Madness, we have our North Carolinas and Dukes — powerhouses like 2013 champ Rodeo Goat and 2009 winner Fred’s. And there are perennial contenders: Twisted Root and Tommy’s, Jakes and Love Shack. But a lot of upstarts have grilled their way into the big dance this time — Thurber Mingus and Salsa Fuego seem ready to make deep runs. So do Big John’s and Beacon Cafe.
For sure, the bracket format can be unforgiving, even flawed — there’s only room for 32 contenders, which means some solid, beloved burgers are on the outside looking in. (See the “bubble burgers” sidebar.) The fast-food chains, even the best ones like Whataburger and In-N-Out, have been banished completely this time. The one-hit wonders — places that serve one great burger but don’t stake their reputations on them — will also have to watch from the sidelines.
And there will be upsets. David will slay Goliath. Steady players will upend all-stars when they serve an overcooked patty or soggy bun.
But in the end, there are two things you can count on: Our champion will be worthy, and arguments will continue.
(1) Rodeo Goat vs. (8) Navajo Burger
(1) Rodeo Goat: Since winning our 2013 Burger Battle, Rodeo Goat has seen some changes: Chef Keith Grober has moved on, now working with Fred’s Texas Cafe; a Dallas location has opened; and one of the most popular burgers is now called the “Chaca Oaxaca” because the original name (remove the ‘h’ in Chaca) nearly created an international incident. Despite all these changes, this Goat remains a formidable animal, with an inventive menu of gourmet burgers featuring everything from goat cheese to blackberry compote. And the custom buns and freshly ground beef make it the burger joint to beat in this year’s bracket. 2836 Bledsoe St., Fort Worth, and 1926 Market Center Blvd., Dallas; www.rodeogoat.com. (Judging will take place at the Fort Worth location.)
(8) Navajo Burger: Could this little Lake Worth joint be the David to Rodeo Goat’s Goliath? Don’t underestimate Navajo, an old-school burger specialist located inside a gas station. Its big, juicy burgers — like the Junkyard — have developed a cult following. Navajo, a first-time entrant into the bracket, has waited its turn and is ready to face the champ. This won’t be a walkover for Rodeo Goat. 7028 Navajo Trail, Fort Worth.
(2) Off-Site Kitchen vs. (7) Burger Bar
(2) Off-Site Kitchen: In 2013, Off-Site, a burger joint from beloved Dallas chef Nick Badovinus (Neighborhood Services), wowed our judges with its signature “Do It Murph-Style” jalapeño-bacon relish burger. But, ultimately, it was edged out by Rodeo Goat in a second-round smackdown. Off-Site’s 2013 showing earned it a lofty No. 2 seed in this year’s bracket, and a couple of months ago, it moved from a cramped Irving Boulevard location to a bigger spot in Trinity Groves, the “dining theme park” in west Dallas. So we expect Off-Site to be on its game and ready to challenge for the title. 331 Singleton Blvd., No. 100, Dallas; oskdallas.com
(7) Burger Bar: Spiky-haired Food Network dude Guy Fieri (and a few fellow judges) declared this tiny Cleburne burger joint the winner in a “Gameday Burger Battle” last season before the Cowboys-Giants game at AT&T Stadium. Burger Bar has been in owner Katy Grantges’ family since 1949, and the 12-foot-by-12-foot building seats fewer people than some SUVs. But its old-school approach has brought fans from miles around. We can’t wait to find out if Cleburne is home to the little burger joint that could win it all. 100 N. Anglin St., Cleburne; Facebook: Burger Bar.
(3) M&O Station Grill vs. (6) Jakes Hamburgers
(3) M&O Station Grill: Hidden away on Carroll Street between West Seventh Street and White Settlement Road, M&O has endured despite all sorts of burger competition — from the arrival of the West Coast chain In-N-Out to the rise of Rodeo Goat and the local fave Fred’s, all of which are a bun’s toss from this beloved mom-and-pop spot. M&O and its big, flavorful burgers are veterans of all three previous Burger Battles, winning the Readers’ Bracket in 2009. But M&O has yet to make the Final Four with the judges. Could this finally be M&O’s year? 200 Carroll St., Fort Worth; www.bestburgerfortworth.com.
(6) Jakes Hamburgers: The Dallas institution has grown during the past few years, with some yo-yo effects: A beloved Addison location closed, and a west Fort Worth spot has come and gone, while a recently opened north Fort Worth location thrives and another one is up in booming Flower Mound. That kind of growth can affect quality, but Jakes’ poppyseed buns and Jalapeño Bottle Cap Burger — a cheeseburger with fried jalapeños — have maintained their consistency. Expect a tough matchup of two tested veterans here. Multiple locations; www.jakesuptown.com. Judging will take place at downtown Fort Worth location.
(4) Hollywood Burger vs. (5) Tommy’s Hamburger Grill
(4) Hollywood Burger: The weird thing about Hollywood Burger is that, aside from some movie-star decor, there’s not a whole lot of “Hollywood” about the place. The down-to-Earth joint does come with a bit of an unexpected twist, though: Korean-style burgers. Bulgogi, dejigogi and kimchi burgers are available, amping up the flavor profiles. But there’s also plenty here for traditional burger tastes, including a 1-pound chuck burger, for which extra napkins are a must. Three locations; judging will take place at 1200 S. Blue Mound Road, Saginaw; www.myhollywoodburger.com.
(5) Tommy’s Hamburger Grill: Tommy’s is a Fort Worth institution, around for more than 30 years, and a veteran of all our previous Burger Battles — but it has always run into another powerhouse along the way. Last time, it was two-time Final Four contender Chop House Burgers in Arlington that knocked Tommy’s out. But we’re never going to dismiss Tommy’s and its thick, hand-formed patties, especially since they’ve added some flair — a green-chile goat cheeseburger and a ghost pepper cheeseburger — to the largely tried-and-true menu. 5228 Camp Bowie Blvd. and 2455 Forest Park Blvd., Fort Worth; www.tommyshamburgergrill.com.
(1) Fred’s Texas Cafe vs. (8) Casa Burger
(1) Fred’s Texas Cafe: Once upon a time, Fred’s stood mostly alone in what is now known as the West 7th area. During the past few years, things have sprouted up all around it — bars, restaurants, a movie tavern and, most notably, rival Rodeo Goat. Yet this funky joint still thrives. “Outlaw Chef” Terry Chandler’s burger-riffic cafe has spawned two spinoffs, one in north Fort Worth and one near TCU. (Former Rodeo Goat chef Keith Grober has even been helping with haute dogs on the menu.) Though our hearts remain with the original Fred’s, which has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, it has seemed vulnerable at times: After winning the Burger Battle in 2009 and making the Final Four in 2011, it was ousted in an early round in 2013. The bracket can be cruel. Look for a Fred’s bounce-back this year. Judging will take place at 915 Currie St., Fort Worth; fredstexascafe.com.
(8) Casa Burger: One of the newest (and smallest) joints in the 2015 battle could be a sleeper. It’s located inside a convenience store, and it didn’t even have a name when it first opened. In fact, it’s still hard to see the name unless you happen to be looking at the top of the menu. But after “research” visits by a couple of judges — hey, somebody’s gotta do it — Casa Burger earned its way in with its big, juicy, meaty burgers. 5001 River Oaks Blvd., River Oaks; Facebook: Casa Burger.
(2) Kincaid’s Hamburgers vs. (7) Chuyito’s Texican Burgers & Cantina
(2) Kincaid’s Hamburgers: The original Kincaid’s began life as a grocery store in 1946. In 1964, meat cutter O.R. Gentry, who had been there almost since the beginning, began cooking burgers. And that changed everything. Gentry eventually bought the place, and Kincaid’s Hamburgers was born. Although it has grown into a small chain with six locations total in Tarrant and Parker counties, it’s the Camp Bowie Boulevard location in Fort Worth that remains the standard-bearer for its signature half-pound burgers. In an era of gourmet — and sometimes over-the-top — concoctions, Kincaid’s has stood the test of time. Judging will take place at original, 4901 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth; kincaidshamburgers.com.
(7) Chuyito’s Texican Burgers & Cantina: Related to Chuy’s — not the Austin-based megalith but the humble Fort Worth-area Tex-Mex chain — this small north-side spot has a Latino influence, with chorizo or pico de gallo mixed into many of its patties. You can get a classic burger here, too, but the emphasis is on spice (the La Mexicana) and/or size (the “No Mames” or “Exaggeration” burger). The half-pound patties are full of flavor, and should prove to be a worthy competitor for Kincaid’s in Round 1. 1521 N. Main St., Fort Worth; Facebook: Chuyito’s Texican Burgers & Cantina.
(3) Maple & Motor vs. (6) Twisted Root Burger Co.
(3) Maple & Motor: Another Burger Battle contender that has received the Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives seal of approval, Maple & Motor is known for long lines, juicy half-pound burgers and charismatic but sometimes contentious owner Jack Perkins. He has made headlines for calling out customers on social media, but Perkins stubbornly does things his way at Maple & Motor. And his perfectly-pink-inside burgers keep us coming back, year after year. Maple & Motor has never made it to the Final Four in several previous burger battles, but it has never gone down without a fight. Kinda like its owner. 4810 Maple Ave., Dallas; http://mapleandmotor.com.
(6) Twisted Root Burger Co.: One of the pioneers of the DFW burger revolution (and also featured on DDD), this Deep Ellum joint started in 2006 by chefs Jason Boso and Quincy Hart has grown to 12 locations with more coming. Some observers (ahem) get the feeling that things have slipped a little with expansion to as far away as Shreveport and Lubbock, but Twisted Root keeps winning D Magazine and Dallas Observer awards. It has struggled with consistency in previous Burger Battles, but it’s always got Final Four potential. Judging will take place at the original, 2615 Commerce St., Dallas; twistedrootburgerco.com.
(4) Thurber Mingus vs. (5) Big John’s Burgers & Beer
(4) Thurber Mingus: One of the newest places in Burger Battle 2015, Thurber Mingus — named for a freeway exit between Fort Worth and Abilene — opened early this year, with chef Coby Baumann aiming for a “West Texas cantina” feel inspired by the border-area joints he grew up with. That means a lot of tacos, but it also means an inventive burger menu that features such items as a green chile-white cheddar-pimento burger, a bacon jam and goat cheese burger, and a grilled poblano burger with Oaxacan cheese. It’s going up against another Burger Battle newcomer in what promises to be a spirited matchup. 4400 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth; www.thurbermingus.com.
(5) Big John’s Burgers & Beer: The Burger Battle goes west for this joint on the Weatherford square. It opened last year and has quickly developed a reputation as one of the best burgers in Parker County. Its half-pounders come with cool names, like the Intimidator (roasted red pepper, jalapeños, chipotle and ghost pepper sauce, and pepperjack cheese) and the Good Day Sunshine burger (with a fried egg and bacon). We’re expecting big things out of this fresh-meat matchup. 105 College Ave., Weatherford; Facebook: Big John’s Burgers & Beer.
(1) Chop House Burgers vs. (8) The Beacon Cafe & Country Store
(1) Chop House Burgers: One of the most formidable contenders in the history of the Burger Battle, Chop House in Arlington has advanced to the finals twice. But it has yet to claim the crown. Chef Kenny Mills does some great burgers (his 10 Pepper Burger was among our favorites in 2013), but Chop House has occasionally struggled with consistency. When the signature Chop House Burger, made with homemade steak sauce, is on, it is brilliant. So will this be the year that Chop House’s execution finally matches its ability? We’re drooling at the thought. 2230 W. Park Row Drive, Pantego; www.chophouseburgers.com.
(8) The Beacon Cafe & Country Store: A Burger Battle newcomer, this diner-esque joint at Hicks Airfield near Saginaw is run by Christie and Gene Bingham, who used to operate cult fave Christie’s Extreme Burgers in North Richland Hills. It’s so near a main runway that you’ll see small planes in the parking lot, but word of mouth has brought Saginaw/Haslet/north Fort Worth residents to the place to check it out. Beacon does a booming breakfast biz and has some good non-burger sandwiches, but we’re here for the burgers — and while it’s all about the basics, this place does the basics very well. This could be a sleeper. 171 Aviator Drive, Fort Worth; www.thebeaconcafe.com.
(2) Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers vs. (7) Nicky D’s
(2) Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers: The Granbury Road burger shack has been a southwest Fort Worth staple since 1992, with its flavor-packed patties and inventive burger combinations. Charley’s made our Final Four in 2011, when it also won the Readers’ Bracket, but in 2013 it was ousted by ultimate winner Rodeo Goat. But the mere thought of the Project X here, a Tabasco-infused burger that was ahead of its time when it was introduced, gets our mouths watering. 4616 Granbury Road, Fort Worth; Facebook: Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.
(7) Nicky D’s: The Crowley favorite was knocked out in 2011 by the always-potent Fred’s, with which it shares a similar funky charm. But it didn’t go down without a fight. In 2013, it was a “bubble burger,” just missing the final cut for the bracket, causing a mini-uproar, especially when KLUV/98.7 FM morning guy Jody Dean spoke up for it on his Facebook page. In 2015 it returns, and once again, it’s facing tough competition — it could be a Cinderella story, although this place would never wear a glass slipper. 1605 Highway 1187, Crowley; Facebook: Nicky D’s Crowley.
(3) Swiss Pastry Shop vs. (6) Bronson Rock Wood-Fired Grill & Bar
(3) Swiss Pastry Shop: When Hans Peter Muller started cooking burgers in 2012 at his family’s longtime Vickery Boulevard bakery/cafe, he really did change the game: He started modestly, then expanded, then started putting specialty burgers made with prime Wagyu beef front and center. That led to a victory in our 2014 “mini-battle,” which pitted eight newer burger spots against one another, and that victory guaranteed Swiss Pastry a slot here. So even though it’s a relative burger newcomer, expectations are high. Our only regret is that during the Burger Battle, we’ll probably have to pass on Swiss Pastry’s signature Black Forest cake. 3936 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth; www.swisspastryonline.com.
(6) Bronson Rock Wood-Fired Grill & Bar: One of the most popular restaurants of any kind in Keller, Bronson Rock has a biker theme (its name is biker slang), a huge patio and a margarita bar. It also offers more than a half-dozen burgers, and that’s not counting the non-beef choices. Bronson Rock lost a tough one to Burger Xtreme in 2013, all because of some underperforming bacon, but if it goes full-throttle in this battle, it could be a force to be reckoned with. 250 S. Main St., Keller; bronsonrocktx.com.
(4) Love Shack vs. (5) Salsa Fuego
(4) Love Shack: At the vanguard of the Fort Worth burger revolution a few years ago, Tim Love’s burger spot has moved more under-the-radar recently: Only the Stockyards original remains from a mini-chain that once had four locations, and Love has received more attention lately for opening a branch of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Austin than the original Love Shack has for, well, anything. But we remember how much we love the Dirty Love burger, with its delicately flavored beef, fried quail egg and “Love Sauce.” Just because there’s only one left doesn’t mean it’s not a contender. 110 E. Exchange Ave., Fort Worth; loveburgershack.com.
(5) Salsa Fuego: It’s a Tex-Mex restaurant in west Fort Worth (one of the best in Texas, according to Texas Monthly), and it has some of the best chile verde we’ve ever had. But Salsa Fuego also has an impressive burger menu that’s become so popular that owner Carlos Rodriguez is getting ready to open a burger spinoff, Fuego Burger. More than a half-dozen burgers are available here, including the namesake Fuego Burger, a green-chile cheeseburger that has been known to make chileheads weep for joy and stare in wonder at the halo of cheese surrounding it. Keep an eye on this contender; it could be en fuego. 3520 Alta Mere Drive, Fort Worth; Facebook: Salsa Fuego.
(1) Hopdoddy Burger Bar vs. (8) Tom’s Burgers & Grill
(1) Hopdoddy Burger Bar: In 2013, this place came within one stale corn chip of advancing to the finals of the Burger Battle, but we had to let the chip(s) fall where they may. Now the Austin-based mini-chain, which now has three Dallas-area locations, is back to avenge that gut-wrenching loss. The gourmet-burger philosophy hasn’t changed: The meat is ground fresh in-house, and the buns are made there, too. And the Magic Shroom burger — with pesto, goat cheese and amazing field mushrooms — remains one of the best burgers we’ve ever had, period. Judging will take place at the Dallas original, 6030 Luther Lane, No. 100; www.hopdoddy.com.
(8) Tom’s Burgers & Grill: This Arlington spot, located in an old Denny’s Diner, won the readers’ bracket in 2013. Owner Tom Jones campaigned hard, but he did so with guts, encouraging customers to also try its first-round competitor, Charley’s, and see who they thought was better. In a battle that often pits the traditional against the newfangled, Tom’s straddles the line: You can get old-fashioned flame-broiled burgers here, but check out the Buffalo blue stuffed burger, with the blue cheese crumbles cooked into the patty. It’s a winner. 1530 N. Cooper St., Arlington; www.tomsburgersandgrill.com.
(2) Johnny B’s Burgers & Shakes vs. (7) Shaw’s Patio Bar & Grill
(2) Johnny B’s Burgers & Shakes: Popular with the Southlake crowd, this modest joint made it to the Final Four in Burger Battle 2013, but was knocked out by Chop House Burgers — although there was much debate and support among the judges about both places. Johnny B’s goes for the thin-patty style (doubles are definitely recommended) with a sweet-roll-style bun, and doesn’t get too fancy — the Dragonburger, a triple cheeseburger with jalapeños and chili, is about as gourmet as it gets. But simplicity — and expertly melted cheese — carried Johnny B’s a long way. 2704 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake; www.johnnybsburgers.com.
(7) Shaw’s Patio Bar & Grill: It might not be a burger joint per se, but when we saw the “21 Burgers” part of the Shaw’s menu, we knew we had to make room for it in the bracket. Owners David and Ann Shaw were part of the Fort Worth restaurant scene before anyone was using “scene” to describe it, and closed their long-running Italian restaurant Scampi’s in 2010 and reopened it as Shaw’s Burgers and Shakes, which has evolved into the Patio Bar & Grill it is today. The vibe is as unpretentious as the burger menu is ambitious. 1051 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth, 817-926-2116; shawspatio.com.
(3) Dutch’s Legendary Hamburgers vs. (6) Burger Extreme
(3) Dutch’s Legendary Hamburgers: Another veteran, Dutch’s was part of the Fort Worth better burger revolution in the mid-2000s and is still popular in the TCU area, thanks to its big, flavorful patties sandwiched between sweet-roll-style buns. But, like the original Love Shack, Dutch’s feels like it has slipped a little under the radar, which might be the perfect place to stage a comeback year. Dutch’s has always been a consistent performer, and consistency counts for a lot in the Burger Battle. 3009 S. University Drive, Fort Worth; www.dutchshamburgers.com.
(6) Burger Extreme: In 2013, this unpretentious southwest Fort Worth joint was a giant-killer, knocking out former champ Fred’s Texas Cafe in the first round. And even though it fell to Johnny B’s in Round 2, its “extreme” burgers made a lasting impression. With its big patties and buns, plus expertly grilled bacon, Extreme should be a formidable foe for Dutch’s. (Judging will take place at Fort Worth location.) 6401 McCart Ave., Fort Worth, and 1121 W. Arkansas Lane, Arlington; Facebook: Burger Extreme.
(4) Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House vs. (5) IDC Burgers
(4) Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House: “Goodfriend is, first and foremost, a neighborhood bar,” says the website, and it feels that way, too. It also has a bunch of burgers on the menu, including a ’shroom burger that one of our judges was still dreaming about long after the 2013 battle, and something called the Annihilator, which involves signing a waiver. In 2013, it was yet another place felled by finalist Chop House, but a good meal at Goodfriend gives it a good chance of going further this time around. 1154 Peavy Road, Dallas; http://goodfrienddallas.com.
(5) IDC Burgers: This year’s most east-vs.-west matchup features this Aledo upstart that also recently opened a location in the Stockyards. The Aledo restaurant is housed in a Shell Station and offers a variety of burger toppings and house-made sauces — everything from bacon jam and teriyaki sauce to jalapeño-peach marmalade made with Parker County peaches. With nine ambitious burgers on the menu, it appears IDC has come to play in its first Burger Battle. Can it live up to the hype? 401 Farm Road S. 1187, Aledo, and 121 W. Exchange Ave., Fort Worth; www.idcburgers.com. (Judging will take place at the Aledo location.)