Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The No. 1 seeds fought off tough challenges in the opening round but couldn’t keep that run going in Round 2. Upsets abounded.
Meanwhile, two plucky No. 7 seeds have wowed our judges and secured spots in the Elite Eight. The balance of power has definitely shifted in Burger Battle 2015.
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(1) Hopdoddy vs. (4) Goodfriend
When the waiter at Goodfriend Beer Garden & Burger House recommended their best burger, the Arnold & Elsie, we wondered if Arnold and Elsie were the names of the owners. The burger consists of a beef patty topped with Crispin Cider-braised pork belly, smoked cheddar and sweet horseradish pickles. The sandwich that arrived was in two parts — clearly, the assembled burger would have been too precarious and tall to be carried safely across the room. At the top of one stack were three half-inch-thick rounds of pork; the other stack was topped with extra-thick-cut pickle rounds. We started with a pickle, catching “sweet,” though not “horseradish” heat. But a nibble of pork put us in hog heaven.
We put the sandwich together and pressed down, watching juice run out of the slightly pink-centered burger patty. A nibble revealed a moist beef with a distinct char flavor. The cheese was thin and a little rubbery, but everything else about this sandwich was fat and fine, with the pig dominating over the cow.
Oh, Arnold and Elsie — we get it now.
The young man taking the order for the Llano Poblano burger at Hopdoddy’s said that burger is best with avocado added to it, so, sure, add the avocado. The burger begins with a generous slather of pink across the toasted bottom bun — chipotle mayo, with a pleasant heat that wouldn’t scare off anyone. Add to that an anemic leaf of lettuce and slim slice of white onion. The burger patty was cooked through, without any pink, but nevertheless remained juicy. The lovely poblano pepper was a long, inch-wide strip that was laid across one half of the patty, then folded back to cover the other half.
The pepperjack cheese was thicker and softer than the cheese on its Goodfriend rival. Three half-strips of bacon were slightly undercooked. Sliced avocado was sloppily placed across just one side of the sandwich. The overall combination of flavors was good, but not great — a bit of a shocker from Hopdoddy, the Austin-based chain that advanced to the Final Four of our 2013 Burger Battle.
Goodfriend, with its standout burger patty and memorable meat duo, took full advantage, moving comfortably into the Elite Eight round.
(2) Johnny B’s vs. (3) Dutch’s
The spirit of football is alive and well at both of these burger establishments. Johnny B’s Burgers and Shakes in Southlake is a veritable shrine to that most Texan of pastimes, high school games played under Friday night lights, while Dutch’s, situated just across the street from the TCU campus, is a purple-painted showcase to the Horned Frog and legendary coach Dutch Meyer.
It’s fitting, then, that these two would face off for a good old-fashioned, smash-mouth match-up in the second round, having advanced on the strength of their patties. Tucked away in a shopping center, Johnny B’s no-frills cheeseburger — a thin patty, adorned with lettuce, tomato, onion and Thousand Island dressing — is an obvious homage to the California cool of In-N-Out Burger, and, admittedly, one that gets pretty close to re-creating that singular taste. On our recent visit, the cheeseburger was messy, but tasty, with its gooey cheese melted atop a patty that was, for our taste, just a little too well-done. (The crisp, toasty bun sort of made up for it.) It was close to a picture-perfect cheeseburger, but one lacking the vivid meatiness we crave.
Dutch’s namesake burger wasn’t about to let Johnny B’s tackle it this deep into the game. Much like its competitor, the Dutch burger is stripped down to the essence of what we’re looking for. A juicy, beefy patty, topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle (mustard and mayo are also slathered on, but we held the mayo), the Dutch wowed us from the first bite, which, simply put, just tasted better and more satisfying than Johnny B’s. Each burger packed plenty of fresh ingredients and a pleasingly crispy bun, but this face-off is less about what’s around the patties than the meat itself.
On that count, Dutch’s took it to the house and scored a touchdown.
Johnny B’s Burgers & Shakes ($3.79-$7.99): 2704 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake, www.johnnybsburgers.com. Dutch’s Legendary Hamburgers ($7.25-$10.95): 3009 S. University Drive, Fort Worth, www.dutchshamburgers.com.
(1) Fred’s Texas Cafe vs. (4) Thurber Mingus
Fred’s, home of Fort Worth’s original outlaw chef Terry Chandler, has been shooing away challengers and would-be proteges for more than a decade now. So we knew it would be ready for a second-round run-in with Thurber Mingus, the 6-month-old burger and taco joint on White Settlement Road, and chef Coby Baumann’s ode to West Texas.
Fred’s indelible Diablo burger came out swinging. The first bite of chipotles sent a lovely inferno racing into our nostrils, followed by a beautiful blast of vinegar from the mustard and assertive pickles. The half-pound patty was cooked gracefully — tender meat was slightly pink in the middle. Finally, the buttery and mild Swiss cheese, working with a ripe but sturdy tomato, cooled things down nicely. The bun stayed strong despite all the fireworks within its borders.
A second burger, with meaty mushrooms, Swiss cheese, grilled onions and thick but slightly chewy bacon strips reinforced that Fred’s remains as vital as ever.
But Thurber Mingus, named for an I-20 exit west of Weatherford, builds burgers with such sophistication and subtlety they can challenge even a Cowtown icon. The green chile, white cheddar pimento burger was a Rubik’s Cube of flavors. Rich and tightly packed beef, charred on the outside but pink in the middle, was topped by a delicate mix of white cheddar pieces, pimentos and green chiles. The sweet heat, crossed with the salt-and-peppery meat was addictive. A pillowy bun kept the whole delicious affair in check, save for some overexuberant, garden-fresh lettuce.
TM took things a step further with its specialty burger, topped with candied jalapeños, goat cheese, cilantro mayo and a fried egg. Once again, the blending of flavors was spot on. Sweetness from the jalapeños, creaminess from the cheese, salt from the egg and freshness from the veggies. They all danced around the bodacious beef like backup dancers in a hit Broadway show. We didn’t really detect the cilantro mayo, and we could have done without a thick stem of lettuce, but that didn’t detract from a fascinating burger.
To be fair, without Fred’s, there might never have been a Thurber Mingus in Fort Worth. But disciples don’t have to bow down to masters in the Burger Battle.
Winner: Thurber Mingus
(2) Kincaid’s vs. (3) Maple & Motor
Dallas’ Maple & Motor may be newer on the DFW scene than Fort Worth’s legacy burger Kincaid’s, but this was an intriguing matchup of similar styles: Each place specializes in unapologetically old-school burgers delivered with extra finesse.
At Maple & Motor, if you want to get fancy, you can add chili, bacon, jalapeños, a fried egg and/or grilled onions to the hamburger or cheeseburger, but the menu remains stubbornly basic. Patties are cooked two ways: pink and not pink. We got fancy enough to order a cheddar cheeseburger with bacon, pink.
First impression: Maple & Motor needs to start a bacon school for burger joints. This was easily the best, smokiest, crunchiest bacon we’ve had so far in this battle. The patty was nicely pink inside and well-seasoned, and the top bun was well-toasted. Among the condiments, the mustard and pickle relish stood out nicely.
The burger’s virtues almost made up for its flaws: a slightly cold bottom bun, cheese that we had to hunt for, and, several bites in, a bun breach that happened simultaneously with the patty crumbling. These were minor considering the burger’s overall strengths, and we walked out smiling, wondering how Kincaid’s would pick up the gauntlet that M&M had thrown down.
But Kincaid’s had already gone to bacon school.
Its bacon cheesburger, yet another half-pound patty, didn’t look as pretty as the M&M burger, and the bacon wasn’t quite as pretty — but looks can be deceiving. The bacon was also salty, porky and crispy, and it complimented juicy and nicely seasoned beef. Still, this might have been a push if it weren’t for the cheese, which was more generous on the Kincaid’s burger without overwhelming it. And while the Kincaid’s burger was perpetually at risk of a bun breach, somehow, everything stayed together, with condiments performing nicely in support.
We’ll dream about both these burgers, but Kincaid’s left us with an even bigger smile. During the first two rounds, the Fort Worth mainstay has been bringing it. Can’t wait to see if that streak will continue.
(1) Rodeo Goat vs. (5) Tommy’s
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Tommy’s, in business for 30 years in Cowtown, is the wise old grillmaster in this matchup. And Rodeo Goat, concocting gourmet creations for less than three years, is the ambitious young turk.
But forget about the typecasting.
Tommy’s 15-burger menu includes a roster of adventurous ingredients like green chiles, goat cheese and ghost peppers. Rodeo Goat, best known for wild experimentation, displays a deep commitment to the core burger ingredients — prime beef, ultra-fresh veggies and beautiful buns.
The game was on when we ordered the green chile goat cheeseburger at Tommy’s, one of their most popular offerings. The half-pound patty, juicy and expertly seasoned, refused to be outshined by a generous dollop of slightly gritty goat cheese. A few bites in, we were wishing for more green chiles to balance things out a bit. The multigrain bun, not listed on the menu, was an unwelcome guest. But make no mistake, this was a solid burger. A mushroom Swiss burger, with blue cheese subbing for the Swiss, also showed off Tommy’s versatility and variety.
Rodeo Goat’s Telluride is a big burger with big flavors, too. Green-chile chutney, roasted poblano goat cheese spread and Hatch chiles all adorn the thick patty which, like Tommy’s, was cooked past the requested medium — no pink inside. Rodeo Goat’s beef wasn’t seasoned as aggressively as Tommy’s, but its rich burger flavor came through loud and clear.
The Telluride’s veggies were voluptuous: emerald green lettuce, powerful purple onions and that tomato, well, it was a thing of beauty. We’ve nicknamed it Big Red. The goat cheese served as a nice, creamy sidekick to the heat coming from a generous batch of chiles.
Taken all together, the Telluride added up to a mountain of flavor.
Winner: Rodeo Goat
(3) M&O Station Grill vs. (7) Burger Bar
First up was Burger Bar, a ridiculously small, 65-year-old burger shack in Cleburne, and its simple bacon cheeseburger. If you’re from Texas, this was the burger you ate at Friday-night football games or at Saturday-afternoon barbecues, made with a thin patty, scarred with lots of char and cooked well-done, topped with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, crinkle-cut pickles and served on white buns from Mrs Baird’s.
Crowned with crisp bacon and a slice of melted American cheese that lovingly hugged the patty, this burger was as delicious as it was familiar. Smoke from the owner’s 100-year-old grill billowed throughout the shoebox of a building, ensuring that each bite had a smoky taste. Heck, that much smoke in that small a place, we probably tasted a little smoky, too.
Reader’s fave M&O Station Grill, a West Seventh-area, cafe-style joint that specializes in gourmet-inspired burgers, bravely fought back with the Supreme Tijuana Burger, decorated with green-chile sauce, three slices of avocado, housemade chipotle mayo, cream cheese, shredded lettuce and sliced tomato.
Did you see the part about the cream cheese? Odd, maybe, but its garlicky flavor was irresistible, making it one of this burger’s many dazzlers. The two thin patties were cooked well-done, with black and crusty edges, which we loved. We also dug the lightly spicy green-chile sauce and zesty chipotle mayo. But a mix of roasted poblano and jalapeño peppers often resulted in fiery bites that were overpowering, and with this many toppings, that’s saying a lot.
Also, about halfway through, the grilled white buns gave way and it took a fork to finish.
This was a really close match, but ultimately Burger Bar delivered a more even-keeled burger. This pindot-size burger joint is heading to Round 3.
Winner: Burger Bar
(1) Chop House Burgers vs. (5) Salsa Fuego
A two-time burger battle runner-up, Pantego’s Chop House was expected to deliver its usual fatal blow to battle newcomer Salsa Fugeo. Instead, the Arlington burger joint surprised us with a burger that, while very good, was below its usual competition-dominating quality.
We went with the signature Chop House burger, topped with veggies, cheddar, bacon, pickle chips and a housemade steak sauce. It was served open-faced and we immediately noticed the cheese had already hardened onto the patty, leading us to believe it may have been sitting around the kitchen for a bit.
The thick, half-pound patty was a real beauty — well-seasoned and cooked to a precise medium, with a crusty char on the outside and pink and juicy inside. As usual, the steak sauce was smoky and robust and the white buns were still warm from being on the grill — a touch we always love. But there was barely any bacon and what little we found was limp. The shredded iceberg lettuce lived up to its name; it was very cold.
At Salsa Fuego, a west Fort Worth Mex-Mex joint with a side menu of fantastic burgers, we marveled at the Big Tex: a beautiful tower stacked with two patties, grilled onions and double American cheese that was putting on a melting exhibition.
Generous cross-strips of bacon poked out from the bun. Our server warned us the patties would be cooked all the way through, which is usually the case with thin patties. A bit of black crust and peppery seasoning gave them some personality. We loved that the cheese was still in the process of melting.
Unlike Chop House’s burger, this one had plenty of bacon, and the many tangles of it were nice and crisp. A sweet chipotle BBQ sauce tempered the saltiness of the bacon, and we love a burger swabbed in good ol’-fashioned yellow mustard. Good buns, too, soft and sweet.
Even though Chop House nailed the patty, Salsa Fuego delivered an overall better burger, landing this somewhat unlikely contender a spot in the next round.
Winner: Salsa Fuego
(6) Bronson Rock vs. (7) Nicky D’s
When you pull up to Nicky D’s in Crowley or Bronson Rock in Keller, there’s no mistaking their outsized personalities.
Nicky D’s is an unabashed burger shack, with a tin roof, LPs on the wall, bathrooms outside and big hunks of delicious meat sizzling on the grill. Bronson Rock is a shiny shrine to bikers, beer, live music and muscle burgers.
Both places upended higher seeds in Round 1, and neither was giving an inch in Round 2.
At Nicky D’s, our Bubba Burger was a juicy half-pound patty cooked to the requested medium. It was topped with creamy avocado slices, thick and smoky bacon strips, a hood of expertly melted cheddar, plus a layer of pepper jack, too. The bun, liberally buttered and toasted, managed to contain all that heft.
But it was the mushroom Swiss burger that really stole the show. The Michelangelo of melting must’ve been working the grill that day, because we’ve never seen or tasted such a masterful swirl of Swiss. Set against the earthy mushrooms and nicely seasoned, piping hot beef, this was an artful burger, indeed.
The veggies, served mercifully on the side, paled by comparison. Leave them off. Why mess with success?
But Bronson Rock wasn’t backing down from this fight, and its namesake burger landed an early haymaker with a thick, powerful 7-ounce patty that was perfectly cook to medium. The wood-fired flavor added extra dimension. The cheddar cheese, while ample, couldn’t hold a candle to the Swiss at Nicky D’s, but jalapeños and the poppy seed bun provided even more polish to a finely crafted burger.
Our waitress suggested amping up the heat in the Spicy Keller, so we added jalapeños and chipotle mayo to the thick-cut bacon, cheddar, onion rings and spicy barbecue sauce. This was another impressive creation, with a luscious patty and nice blend of heat and sweet, but the orange chipotle mayo became a little cloying and turned the onion rings to mush. The veggies, diced up pico-style, failed to leave much of an impression.
A long, heated discussion on the ride home determined there wasn’t much separating these two, but Nicky D’s deliciously divey burger just felt more authentic. And, oh, that heavenly Swiss cheese. It stands alone.
Winner: Nicky D’s