Burger Battle 2017 has had quite a Sweet 16 round. Two top seeds, both former Burger Battle champs, have fallen. Davids took on Goliaths in matches so close that it took us days to decide who won. Yes, there have been misfires, but there have been many more bull’s-eyes. Almost everything was close.
Here are the results of the second round in in our multiple-burger journey. And don’t forget to vote in the reader’s bracket at dfw.com, where there’s even more David-vs.-Goliath going on, and the Goliaths had better duck.
(1) Dutch’s vs. (5) Swiss Pastry Shop
This matchup is right along the lines of Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, the professional boxers who duked it out in a high-profile match a couple of weeks ago.
Like Mayweather, Dutch’s is a previous champ that is almost methodical — putting out quality, great-tasting burgers. Swiss Pastry Shop, like McGregor, was a champ in another arena — its mouth-watering Black Forest cake — but owner Hans Peter Muller was ready to enter the ring with a proven Fort Worth burger knockout artist.
Dutch’s came out strong with its bacon/bleu-cheese burger and Vaquero burger. The perfectly seasoned patties sit on buns that have a subtle sweetness. But the flavor combinations of the bacon bleu cheese (with its tangy bleu cheese and chipotle mayo) and the Vaquero (piled high with fried onion and jalapeño strips, bacon, shredded cheddar and barbecue sauce) would have most burgers down for the count. In this fight however, Dutch’s stumbled with patties that were a little on the dry side and bacon that was a little chewy, leaving an opening for Swiss Pastry Shop.
Swiss Pastry Shop answered Dutch’s with its green-chile bacon burger and its own bacon/bleu-cheese burger. These burgers were flashy. They sat on the plate like works of art. The pepper jack on the green-chile burger perfectly melted down the side, holding everything together nicely, while the bleu cheese on the bacon burger had a nice bite that complemented the perfectly cooked strips of applewood-smoked bacon. Both burgers had crispy strips of deliciousness that almost melted in your mouth. The patties, made from Texas Akaushi beef, were perfectly seasoned and moist even though they were cooked a tad past medium. All of this was placed in a fresh-baked bun that held the beautiful mess perfectly without a hint of bun failure.
It was a tough fight between two of the city’s finest burger spots. The two heavyweights continuously traded shots to our taste buds. But in the end, Swiss Pastry Shop provided some of the best burgers our party has eaten this year, and therefore delivered a knockout blow to the defending champ.
Winner: Swiss Pastry Shop
(3) Chop House Burgers vs. (2) Fuego Burger
This was the burger equivalent of a buzzer-beater. A down-to-the-wire instant classic. If you played this one 100 times, you might get 50 wins for each burger.
But on this given Tuesday, someone had to win.
Both Fuego Burger’s namesake offering and the one at Pantego’s Chop House Burger (not the chain establishment, though it’s also pretty good) are unique without going over the top. This publication has several times lauded the Fuego as one of the best green chile cheeseburgers we’ve ever had. It’s a one-third-pound chuck patty that’s neither too thick nor too thin, with fire-roasted green chiles and about 8 ounces of shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack that ends up forming an orbiting ring as recognizable as Saturn’s, only more delicious.
Owner Carlos Rodriguez calls it “cheese bacon,” and it’s every bit as valuable to the sandwich as its porcine cousin is to a bacon cheeseburger. It has the same sometimes-crunchy, other-times-chewy consistency. You can tear it off and stick it in the burger or enjoy it on the side, like a cheese fry.
The Fuego Burger arrives at the table scorching hot in temperature and with the perfect modicum of spice brought on by the chiles. No sauce or vegetables necessary. Bun integrity already comes at a premium with this beast, and sauce would only cause a (bigger) mess.
The Chop House Burger is thicker than the Fuego and subs one institution’s specialty (brisket mixed with the patty) for another (no chiles on this one). It’s another truly great cheeseburger whose smoked cheddar runs down all sides of the burger. The brisket juice combines with the burger grease to make bun integrity once again a concern, but you’ll manage.
The applewood smoked bacon endows this Pantego stalwart with a holy triumvirate of meaty flavor.
Where Fuego separates itself is in the cohesive taste of all the elements coming together. Somehow, it seems that the brisket and the ground-beef patty work against each other on the Chop House. They exist on different planes of the palate, as if you have taken separate bites of a burger and a finely smoked brisket.
None of that is a bad thing. The Chop House is better than 98 percent of the burgers you’re likely to eat in DFW, and would likely beat half of the eight burgers that move on to the next round of the 2017 Burger Battle. We had to pick nits to pick a winner here, but here it is.
Winner: Fuego Burger
(1) Charley’s vs. (4) M&O Station Grill
It’s been rumored for years that some cars traversing Granbury Road in southwest Fort Worth are fueled only by fumes from Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers’ Project X burger.
Completely kidding. But this burger is legendary for its subtle-yet-deceptive heat thanks to a patty bathed in Tabasco sauce and garnished with grilled jalapeños.
A recent experience had it sporting a liberal heaping of green-leaf lettuce, which nearly obscured the meat. Shredded cheddar, diced grilled onions and a thick slice of tomato topped the half-pound serving of char-grilled beef, which was well spiced but yielded nicely to the salty tang of the hot sauce. After two bites, the top-heavy concoction, waylaid by accouterments, began to break up midflight to the mouth. Soon enough, the disrupted onions and jalapeños coalesced with the excellent fries, forming an unexpected garnish.
The cheeseburger was comparatively a more monkish affair. Straightforward toppings — lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and mayo — complemented the meat, a skinnier patty cooked a shade less than the Project X’s medium. As the burgers took hold, we sunk a bit heavier into the picnic table’s bench. Pardon us if we swooned.
Meanwhile, across town at M&O Station Grill, the Supreme Tijuana ($12) awaited, a double-decker flat-topped creation that featured an inordinately ridiculous mound of garlic cream cheese — slightly melted on top of each patty. A nondescript bun, smeared with flavorless chipotle mayo, anchored a couple of slices each of avocado and roasted jalapeños and poblanos. Underneath, shredded lettuce added a touch of crunch.
There was no easy way to eat this burger, at least our version, which had the patties unevenly stacked. Add all of that cream cheese and those veggies, and it was problematic, with a potential for disintegration in more naive hands. Too bad the cheese overpowered the meat, which tasted flavorful enough when pieced off, away from the dairy overload. The peppers registered perhaps a –24 on the Scoville scale. We had to make sure they were on the burger a few times, they contributed so little heat.
The Bleu Cow ($12) also suffered from overpowering cheese — the blue cheese here was disturbingly tangy, and the advertised bacon was in short supply, the small slices burrowed into the bun like they were a little ashamed to be there.
It may be too early in the battle to say that Charley’s is on a hot streak, but it did bring the heat for a Sweet 16 victory.
Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, 4616 Granbury Road, @CharleysOldFashionedHamburgers on Facebook; M&O Station Grill, 200 Carroll St., Fort Worth, www.bestburgerfortworth.com
(3) Hopdoddy vs. (2) Nicky D’s
Although it was founded in 2002, Nicky D’s looks old-school. We’ve often noted that the bathrooms are outside, with foot-pump sinks for hand-washing. We recall a screen door, and were disappointed to find a glass one (were we just having some fake romantic memory)? Among the things lining the walls are 45-rpm vinyl records. And people line up for burgers.
Austin-based Hopdoddy, now up to 20 locations, including a recently opened Fort Worth one, is a new-school burger behemoth, all sleekness and trendy exposed brick. Among the things lining the walls of the Fort Worth location are poster-size photos of Texas musicians in performance. And people line up for burgers. The kind some people call “gourmet.” And even “hipster.”
But are appearances deceiving? When you first peruse the above-the-register menu at Nicky D’s, you see some fairly straightforward burgers, but then you get to the ones topped with onion rings, and the photos of specialty burgers lining the wall, such as the Barnyard, which has chicken and pork as well as beef, and the Bubba, a monster that looks like it might eat you if you don’t eat it first.
Hopdoddy, on the other hand, isn’t as far out as some might think. Sure, there’s the Primetime, with its Kobe beef and brie and truffle aioli, and one of the burgers has basil pesto on it, and there’s that “Impossible” thing with a grain patty that tastes like beef. But although it might not be for purists, Hopdoddy doesn’t go as far as, say, Rodeo Goat, with its Sugar burger and its whiskey burger with blackberry compote on it.
And boy, did these two battle. How close was it? The decision is being made as we write this. Two judges, four burgers: straightforward bacon-cheddar at Nicky D’s vs. a bacon-cheese variation of Hopdoddy’s “classic burger” and Nicky D’s cheese-jalapeño-grilled-onion-stuffed-patty burger vs. Hopdoddy’s poblano-topped Llano Poblano.
All patties were requested medium. Both places pulled it off, an impressive feat on the stuffed patty at Nicky D’s, but while there was some slight disagreement among the judges here, Hopdoddy wins the patty battle on juiciness alone, with puddles on the butcher paper as evidence. Nicky D’s is one of those places where you notice the cheese on a cheeseburger, all melty goodness; Hopdoddy pulled that off on the bacon-cheddar but the pepper jack was in hiding on the Llano Poblano. Cheese point to Nicky D’s.
No disagreement on the bun, which Hopdoddy won easily with a bun toasted dark but not burnt. The buns at both places held up to multiple toppings. Between the bacon-cheeseburgers, Nicky D’s had the better, crispier bacon (and lots of it); bacon textures were uneven at Hopdoddy.
The jalapeños on the Nicky D’s burger brought the heat without being palate-burning; although poblanos are milder, Hopdoddy’s Llano Poblano also had respectable heat, thanks to some chipotle mayo. Otherwise, Hopdoddy’s fresher, more colorful vegetables easily won that part of the battle.
In the end, and there was debate on this, Hopdoddy edged Nicky D’s out on patty juiciness and fresher veggies. But if you haven’t been to Nicky D’s, please go. The burgers there are great, the people are friendly and it has a lot of charm. In this David vs. Goliath battle, Goliath won, but didn’t walk away without staggering.
(1) Fred’s vs. (4) Bronson Rock
Fred’s Texas Cafe is famous for its Fred burger, “Diablo” and serrano burgers. But how good is the rest of the burger menu?
Just to make sure Fred’s truly stands the test, we skipped the top burgers and went deep into the menu for a trouble-prone option: the BBQ bacon-cheddar burger.
Hickory-barbecue burgers are the downfall of many a burger grill. The sauce can be overpowering, or the toppings can be poorly matched. Barbecue sauce works better on a broiler burger than on one from the grill.
No such problem for Fred’s, where the BBQ burger was a complete surprise: a classic half-pound Fred burger, but with bacon, lots of cheddar and house “Outlaw Chef” barbecue sauce.
The sweet sauce was brushed on the soft, juicy beef itself, not on the bun. The sturdy bun held the first-rate Fred burger basics: an absolutely perfect combination of mustard, dill-pickle slices and diced white onion, all three applied in just the right amount. Matched with the barbecue sauce, the combination was something like a really good Angelo’s or Railhead sandwich, except with a thick patty of flavorful beef.
At Bronson Rock, the bacon-cheddar burger is the house specialty. So to dig deeper into the menu, we tried an “old-timer” with bacon and pepper jack.
The half-pound burger was smaller than Fred’s half-pound, but the beef had a fresh flavor that tasted of a well-seasoned grill.
But then Bronson Rock’s second-round game started falling apart: The excellent, leafy lettuce could not make up for average tomatoes and flavorless pickle chips that seemed more suited for a deli sandwich than a burger. After Fred’s happy symphony of mustard-pickle-onion, Bronson Rock’s toppings seemed like an off-key chord.
Head-to-head, Bronson Rock’s beef was good, but Fred’s tasted better and fresher. That gave Fred’s an early edge, but the toppings cemented the victory.
This was a test of backup burgers, and Fred’s showed it has superior depth.
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; Bronson Rock, 250 S. Main St. (U.S. 377), Keller, http://bronsonrocktx.com
(3) Johnny B’s vs. (7) Liberty Burger
Another David vs. Goliath matchup, although in this case, Goliath is shorter: Southlake mainstay Johnny B’s, where the fanciest thing on the menu is the chili-jalapeño Dragonburger, going up against Dallas-based mini-chain Liberty, which skews more “gourmet.” But, like Hopdoddy, Liberty also has a “classic” burger, and we put it and a fancier burger up against two Johnny B’s burgers.
Liberty Burger’s namesake burger, gussied up with bacon and cheese, had its highs and lows. The highs included the bacon, which was nice and crisp, and the patty. Liberty is one of those places that asks if you want your patties “red, pink or no pink”; our request for pink was apparently interpreted as “very little pink.” But the outside had a nice sear, while the inside retained its juiciness even if was on the border of “no pink.”
The lows included the bun, which was dry almost to the point of crumbly, and the cheese, which was hard to notice. Vegetables — leaf lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions — were fresh and had rich color, but still kind of faded into the background.
Our fancier choice at Liberty was the South of the Burger — imagine a burger marrying a taco salad. The medium-cooked patty had plenty of flavor, but the toppings of pico de gallo, shredded tortilla chips, avocado, refried beans, lettuce and cheese put this one waaay over the top when it came to taste. It was a splendid stack of spicy crunchiness, surrounded by the meat and a slightly sweet bun.
Nobody has ever said that the cheese at Johnny B’s is hard to notice. A bacon-cheeseburger, ordered double-meat because Johnny B’s uses thin patties, had melty slices of American on each patty, and Johnny B’s sweet-sourdough buns, slightly toasted, easily topped the Liberty buns. The patties and bacon had good flavor, and the humbler vegetables at Johnny B’s actually spoke up for themselves.
The other selection here was the Dragonburger, taken from the mascot of Southlake Carroll High athletic teams. This triple cheeseburger topped with chili and sitting on a pile of jalapeños definitely fans the food flames. A kick in very bite.
This was a close one, but textural problems led to Johnny B’s downfall: The patties on the bacon-cheeseburger were a little tough, and the bacon an uneven mix of perfectly crispy and a little too chewy. They were worthy opponents, but the South of the Burger and the more consistent patties at Liberty gave it the win.
Winner: Liberty Burger
Johnny B’s Burgers & Shakes, 2704 E. Southlake Blvd., www.johnnybsburgersshakes.com; Liberty Burger, 8917 N. Fwy Service Road E., No. 119, Fort Worth, http://givemelibertyburger.com
(1) Rodeo Goat vs. (5) Ted E’s
Part of being good in this battle is being consistent, and that’s where Ted E’s in Bedford showed its claws in round 2, delivering not one but two stellar burgers. Which it needed to do, considering that it was going up against one of Fort Worth’s best burger joints.
Both of Ted E’s were real knockouts. The Whiskey Glaze burger consisted of a 6-ounce patty dressed in bacon, Swiss, a house mayo and the requisite LTO. Shredded lettuce and colorless tomato were forgettable but the whiskey glaze that coated the patty made a big impression, with a nice, smoky flavor. The bacon was expertly cooked, finding the perfect groove between soft and crisp.
The Santa Fe burger — with avocado, pepper jack, green chiles and spicy mayo — was impressive, too, not too spicy and not too timid. Sliced avocado often creates a slip-and-slide factor that typically spells doom for the buns, then the burgers; we were blown away by the fact that these buns held strong.
On the Whiskey Glaze burger, the thin patty was cooked a touch beyond our medium-rare request. On the Santa Fe, it was perfectly cooked, nice and pink through and through — no easy task with a thin patty.
At Rodeo Goat, we went with an old standby, the Terlingua burger — basically a Frito pie burger — and the newish Bad Hombre, a towering monster formed out of caramelized onions, two types of cheese (Gouda and Swiss), cream cheese, mango pico, maple bacon and hot sauce.
Right off the bat, the Bad Hombre lived up to its name, and not in a good way. We ordered it medium rare but it was so undercooked that parts of the meat fell from the buns even before our first bites. And those bites were not good ones: Ingredients had been unevenly distributed, so one bite was all caramelized onions, another was nothing but hot sauce, etc. The bacon, too, was undercooked — way too gummy. Because the onions were on top and because there were so many, the top bun didn’t last and the whole thing crumbled like Los Angeles in a bad disaster movie.
The Terlingua burger was better but was missing a key component: the corn chips — you know, the thing that makes this unique burger a unique burger. Someone forgot to put them on. Direct quote from dining companion: “What is this — interns’ day?”
Our onetime champion went down, down, down and an underdog heads to round 3.
Winner: Ted E’s Kitchen
Rodeo Goat, 2836 Bledsoe St., Fort Worth (also 1926 Market Center Blvd. in Dallas), www.rodeogoat.com; Ted E’s Kitchen, 2208 Central Drive, Bedford, www.tedeskitchen.com
(3) Tom’s vs. (2) Kincaid’s
In this burger matchup, it’s old-school burgers with a few new twists.
Going to the original Kincaid’s location on Camp Bowie Boulevard is like eating a burger in a 1946 time capsule, which is when Kincaid’s opened as a grocery store. The burgers themselves still have that same grocery-store burger vibe.
The classic cheeseburger has been making a comeback, so we thought it would be only fitting to order one here. Then, for good measure, we also checked out the Cowtown Deluxe burger, just to see how far they had pushed the burger envelope into this century. We were excited to try something on the “burger extreme” side from such an old-school burger institution, so we started with the Cowtown Deluxe.
The Deluxe features homemade pimento cheese atop the patty, along with grilled onions, bacon and grilled jalapeños. At first glance, the burger looked loaded with toppings, with the grilled onions and bacon overhanging the front side of the burger. On further inspection, it was just a sloppy burger assembly. Most of the toppings were just hanging out on one side of the burger with the other side left empty of everything but the cheese.
Shouldn’t there be a patty in there somewhere? All we could see was pimento cheese until we did a little digging to find the beef. We were expecting the cheese to be more melted than what it was. After a little redistribution of the toppings, we gave it a try. The bacon was crispy, and the jalapeños had a nice kick, but pimento cheese dominated everything else. Two bites in, we started tasting the patty, but still, the proportion of beef to toppings seemed way off, more like a spicy pimento cheese sandwich than a burger.
Next, we tried the cheeseburger. This time you could see the beef! The cheese on top was nicely melted, and there was a nice-looking slice of tomato peeking out. Things were looking great until we took a bite. The patty was extremely dry, the lettuce was not as green as we liked and the bun was smashed pretty flat.
Tom’s Burgers & Grill in Arlington is another time-capsule burger experience, this time a shiny silver and neon classic ’50s-style diner, complete with soda-fountain bar stools and black-and-white checkered tiles. This round we decided to try its mushroom Swiss cheeseburger and an old-fashioned cheeseburger.
Out of the gate, the mushroom Swiss cheeseburger looked impressive with a large patty topped with melted Swiss cheese, bright green lettuce, red tomato and a nice-looking brioche bun. The the only thing that seemed to be missing was the mushrooms. A couple of bites in and still no mushrooms. At first, we thought the cook might have forgotten to add them, but on further examination, there were a few thin slices of mushrooms in the same ratio you would expect to find pickles.
But burger still tasted great, with a nice wood char-grilled flavor from the patty, a juicy tomato, and fresh-tasting lettuce. The patty was well seasoned, but a little undercooked for medium. Being on the medium-rare side is not a problem for us when it is good-quality beef, but a lot of people would have sent it back for more grill time.
The old-fashioned cheeseburger was pretty much on the same level: large patty, nicely melted cheese, attractive tomatoes and lettuce, slightly undercooked patty. We were a little concerned that the cheeseburger patty might have been even more undercooked than the mushroom Swiss. The top of the patty was pretty pale, but the underside had more of a char on it. Next time we will order medium-well.
So these throwback experiences were both mixed, with toppings in hiding and patties uneven. But Tom’s was a little more consistent, while Kincaid’s Cowtown Deluxe had problems with balance. In time-capsule terms, Tom’s has a future in round three.
Winner: Tom’s Burgers & Grill
Jason Hoskins of McClatchy News Service, as well as correspondents Anna Caplan and Malcolm Mayhew, contributed to this report.