Every Burger Battle involves tough matchups. Some are tougher than others: Ones that are so close that we wind up gritting our teeth when we eliminate a place with a burger we really loved because we like the other joint’s burger even more. Or places that advance on the strength of a terrific burger, only to falter in the next round. And sometimes, there’s a burger that we just wish we had tried.
Therefore, a Burger Battle tradition: The Burgers That Got Away. None of these places wound up winning, but their burgers will stay close to our hearts and taste buds.
Bronson Burger, Bronson Rock: To be honest, I didn’t have my hopes up at Bronson Rock, the first place I visited in the 2017 battle. It had closed in late 2016 but re-opened five months later, with a renewed focus on both food and live entertainment. But I’d had a burger there before the battle, and while it was good, it wasn’t transcendent. My first bite in Burger Battle 2017, however, made me a believer: The patty was a perfect medium, with a slight pepperiness to its seasoning; the cheese rich and sharp; the bacon a best-of-both-worlds combo of smoky crispness and fatty, salty tips that added new dimensions of taste and texture. The vegetables were beauties and the bun delicately toasted and buttered. A strong start to Burger Battle — and then, in round two, Bronson Rock lost in a squeaker to eventual champ Fred’s. But the burger game is once again strong here. — Robert Philpot
Terlingua Burger, Hopdoddy Burger Bar: If a restaurant ever needed a Burger Battle do-over, it was Hopdoddy Burger Bar four years ago. The first Dallas location of the vaunted Austin burger chain was on its way to victory over Rodeo Goat, but delivered a chili-cheeseburger with stale Fritos, and the Goat won. Maybe that’s why the Terlingua isn’t even on the Fort Worth Hopdoddy menu, but that’s a mistake. Hopdoddy’s other specialty burgers were up against Charley’s in a quarterfinal, and the menu didn’t have the depth to match up. Hopdoddy’s El Diablo was stellar, but a Magic Shroom was too salty, and with fewer options judges settled for a mismatched Classic on a wheat bun that proved to be Hopdoddy’s downfall. As it turns out, the Terlingua is a “secret menu” item in Fort Worth, and one this week was better than ever, with fresh Fritos and just enough chili to add plenty of flavor without the mess. If the Terlingua had been on the menu, Hopdoddy might have challenged Fuego for a spot in the final. — Bud Kennedy
BIG Bacon Cheeseburger, Nicky D’s: Easily the chunkiest patty of any burger I tested during the contest. Apparently the half-pound of meat is pressed right onto the grill, which makes for a coarsely textured patty that was packed with well-seasoned flavor in every bite. The meat extends beyond the fresh bun, so one can bite off a chunk or two of the patty and still have plenty of burger left. Get past the extra bits, and the real food fun begins because there’s thick, smoky bacon trapped in melted cheese and it’s all topped with sliced onions, tomatoes and chopped lettuce. Nicky D’s got to the second round in the judges’ bracket and narrowly lost to Hopdoddy, but this burger deserved to advance at least to the quarterfinals. –– Eric Zarate
El Diablo cheeseburger, Hopdoddy Burger Bar: One of the best burgers I had in this year’s battle was Hopdoddy’s El Diablo cheeseburger. Dare I say it might have been the best individual burger in the bracket? Fresh serrano slices, habanero slivers, and caramelized onions sat atop melted pepperjack cheese. The beefy patty was cooked to perfection, sitting on top of tomato, lettuce, and chipotle mayo. Add the toasted, fresh-baked bun, and we are talking ‘winner’! So what went wrong? Unfortunately for the El Diablo, it was paired up with two other burgers from Hopdoddy that did not hold their own, and in a three-vs.-three burger battle, Charley’s beat Hopdoddy 2-to-1. —Steve Wilson
Mexican Burger, J’s Casa Burger: The optimal time to eat a burger is on a lazy weekend afternoon, and the best place to eat it is on a patio. It adds to the flavor, really. The weather and the modest patio at J’s Casa Burger in River Oaks helped bring the Mexican Burger to a ultimate burger experience. The late afternoon sun glistened off the locally made brioche bun, thoughtfully buttered and toasted. The Mexican Burger has everything you’d expect; a juicy beef patty topped with white cheese, plenty of smashed avocado, bacon and grilled jalapeños. Service was great and fast so I felt in no rush to finish my chili cheese tots and strawberry handmade shake. Life should be enjoyed and enjoyed often. But service and atmosphere don’t count in Burger Battle — only burgers do, and the perfectly cooked patty at Tom’s in Arlington gave it the teensiest edge over J’s Casa Burger, where we’ll return some lazy weekend afternoon. — Denise Harris
Cheeseburger with fried onions, Hookers Grill: If atmosphere were a category in the judging, Hookers Grill would have won hands down. The small outdoor venue along the brick-lined streets of the Stockyards added to the overall experience of this great classic burger joint. And to be honest, the burger could have won on its own. The thick-ish Hereford beef patties had tremendous flavor and the fried onions that are pressed into the patty just added a whole other level of flavor. This burger looked like a champ as well with perfectly melted American cheese and the imperfect patty that just screamed good old-fashioned burger. If it weren’t for missing bacon, Hookers would have easily moved on. The Hookers burger may be new to the Fort Worth burger scene, but it has staying power to be one of the greats. — Jason Hoskins