How tough are our Burger Battles? They’re not MLB-playoffs tough — poor Astros, up 2-0 and then seeing the Yankees win three straight games — but you can still be a power player in our beef bracket and have a bad inning or play your best game and get beat by the meat equivalent of a walk-off home run.
The bracket format, and the somewhat nutty way Star-Telegram judges go about it, makes it harder. To reiterate: Judges go to one place, have a burger or burgers, then proceed as soon as they can to the next place and repeat the process there. Then we decide who won. In the first round, judges go individually; as things proceed, the judges go out in teams of increasing size, to try several burgers at each place.
We have, during recent weeks, had things resembling a playoff “sweep” — three burgers at one joint, for instance, all being superior to the three burgers at the other joint in the match.
But the finale wasn’t like that.
The finale pitted Fred’s Texas Cafe, which won the first Burger Battle in 2009, against Fuego Burger, which in its former incarnation as Salsa Fuego was the runner-up in 2015.
We were joined, for the first time, by a celebrity guest judge: Jody Dean, host of the “Jody Dean & The Morning Team” show on KLUV/98.7 FM and longtime DFW radio/TV personality. Like our Final Four guest judge, Nick Nickelson, Dean — who grew up in Fort Worth — opted for the near-purist route: A simple cheeseburger at both places, because if they can’t do that right, who cares about the fancier stuff?
We started at Fuego, which came out strong. “The only criticisms I might have? [The patty could have had] a little more crunch to the char, and a little more evenly cooked,” Dean wrote in an email later. “Other than that, it was nearly flawless.” Dean loved the juicy vegetables, in perfect ratio to the patty; the fluffy sweet-sourdough buns; and although atmosphere doesn’t count in Burger Battle, he dug the ambience (or lack of such) at tiny Fuego Burger, which is in the back of a Rendon convenience store: “Any place where you have to get your drinks next door is my kind of place,” Dean says. “That’s what a great burger place is supposed to be.”
But Fred’s, which is pretty down to earth itself, put up a fight on the simple-cheeseburger match. “To me, a Fredburger with cheese is about as close to heaven as a burger gets,” Dean says. “Not too much seasoning, which is great, because I love less-is-more.” The meat was cooked a little past medium, but everything else worked well for him. It was practically a tie for Dean — but the thickness of the veggies at Fuego gave it the edge.
If Fuego has one sure winner, it’s usually the namesake Fuego Burger. This green-chile-cheeseburger is what made Fuego famous, not so much for the chiles as for the stunning blanket of melted cheese that surrounds it, like a giant nacho with a burger on top.
But the cheese gods were not smiling on Fuego this day. The bun was sliced off-center, and the thin bottom bun couldn’t contain Fuego’s near-perfect beef and mounds of cheese. Even if the bun hadn’t buckled like an umbrella in a high wind, the peppers were still lost beneath the billowing clouds of cheddar-jack.
On the other side, Fred’s delivered a verde burger with all three primary ingredients in correct proportion: chiles, cheese and soft, fresh beef.
Fred’s green chiles weren’t tough to find. There was a fist-sized helping of them atop the burger. Every bite was full of chile and beef flavor, with the cheese and other toppings relegated to the correct supporting role.
The vaunted Fuego Burger had an unusual off-day, and it happened to be in the finals. But on this day, the matchup of hot-pepper burgers went decisively to Fred’s.
But Fuego came back in a duel of bacon-mushroom burgers. In this case, Fuego’s version featured an exquisitely cooked, perfectly medium patty, with added juice and heat from sauteed mushrooms and onions. Seasoning was once again spot-on and the bacon was salty, fatty, crispy and a fabulous complement to everything going on.
Fred’s lacked balance — if Fuego had a perfect vegetable-to-patty balance on Jody Dean’s cheeseburger, Fred’s had a vegetable overload (and especially a mustard one) on its bacon-mushroom burger. The ingredients didn’t mesh well with the melted Swiss, bacon and mushrooms, and the bun and the patty were merely serviceable.
So far, Fuego had the edge. But then Fred’s started to rally.
Fuego Burger’s Big Tex, an aptly named double-patty BBQ bacon cheeseburger, suffered from unevenly cooked patties, with spots that were nearly medium rare and others that were medium well. The BBQ sauce was a little too sweet, but the pound of patty power kept the sauce from overwhelming the burger.
On the other hand, the bacon was once again excellent, and the sweetness of the bun provided nice contrast, although the bottom bun did start to tear before we were finished. As for other toppings, there’s not much going on here but nicely melted cheddar and grilled onions, which were very good. A separate bite of grilled onions with bacon made us think a bacon-grilled onion sandwich would do well there.
The Badlands BBQ burger, the closest thing to a Big Tex counterpart at Fred’s, had a consistently cooked patty — past medium, but well-seasoned and a little juicy. The bacon was stellar, but not as good as Fuego’s. The BBQ sauce carried a little more spice and a little less sweetness than Fuego’s, so Fred’s got the edge there.
Buns were buttered with a sheen on the outside, but were a little too dry on the inside. Fred’s cheese game was on a level with Fuego’s on this burger, where the pickles stood out the most among the vegetables. This was a really close call, because neither of these burgers was at its peak. Fred’s squeaked by on the strength of its patty — not perfectly cooked, but more evenly cooked.
Fuego shot back with the Cowtown Burger, another BBQ burger — as in a patty topped with brisket. But it also suffered from an uneven patty and the sweet BBQ sauce, which in this case overpowered everything. The only ingredient that stood out was the bacon. Fuego Burger is very, very good with bacon.
Fred’s response was one of its signature burgers, the chipotle-topped Diablo Burger, which like many of our other Fred’s patties was cooked past medium but at least cooked consistently, and the chipotles worked well with the beef rather than fighting it. Fred’s lettuce and tomatoes could be better, but the marquee ingredients were good and earned Fred’s another judge’s vote in the finale.
But Fuego wasn’t giving up easily. Our judge started salivating over the bacon bleu burger before meat and cheese were even involved: Using a giant squeeze bottle, one of the cook/owners put enough butter on the bun to make a cardiologist cringe. The patty was beautifully seasoned and seared, but once again, coooked unevenly. Bacon (stop us if you’ve heard this) was excellent and went well with the blue cheese; the thinly sliced, generously sauteed grilled onions even made a believer out of this ordinarily onion-averting judge.
It was a great burger, but it ran into one of the hits of Burger Battle 2017: Fred’s enchilada burger. Because if you can top a patty with brisket, who says you can’t top one with an enchilada? The enchilada’s spices had echoes of Rodeo Goat’s chorizo-laced Chaca Oaxaca; the cheese inside the enchilada was creamy, as were the avocado slices lining the burger. But this isn’t the enchilada battle, it’s the burger battle — and in this case, Fred’s came up with a truly medium patty that could stand on its own.
It was a real tug of war, and there were things at Fuego — the bacon, the veggies — that were definitely better than at Fred’s. But when the judges were polled, it came down to a 4-2 victory for Fred’s, which, in this case, had the better-cooked patties. Fuego, however, has proved itself a worthy contender in two Burger Battles. So maybe next time ...
... but for now, the winner of the 2017 Battle of the Burgers — and the first repeat winner — is Fred’s.
Staff writer Bud Kennedy contributed to this report.
Additional judges for the finals were Denise Harris, Steve Wilson, Anna Caplan and guest judge Jody Dean.