The degree of doneness is an important and often neglected factor in determining quality. A burger that is cooked too long will disappoint, no matter what goes into it. However, I have discovered during the course of this survey that the tastiest burger is one that is cooked a bit more than a good steak. While I generally prefer a steak closer to medium rare, I find that a burger is better at medium, that is, with no more than a pink center. Unfortunately, interpretations of these callibrations are grossly inconsistent and I often find that I must ask for medium rare, or even rare, to get what I want. Much of the blame for this belongs to the USDA, which, in its zeal to protect us from foodborne disease, insists that ground beef be cooked to a greyish-brown 160° F., which pretty much kills any flavor. Why then is the USDA happy with whole red meat at 145°? It seems that when intestines are inadvertently severed during slaughtering and their contents exposed, the bacteria are normally confined to the surface of the meat and therefore readily killed during cooking. But when the meat is ground, the pathogens are blended in and it becomes necessary, dare I say, to cook the shit out of it.
When given the choice, I usually opt for a cheeseburger, but the cheese rarely receives the attention that it deserves. Too often, a thin slice of tasteless orange "cheddar" is slapped on as an afterthought. (Of course, the orange dye does nothing to detract from the flavor, but it is not a good sign. Such dye is banned from European cheddar by the EU and even in this country, good cheddar is always pale yellow or off-white.) The best cheeseburger is made with a flavorful cheese, generously applied and thoroughly melted. Excellent results may be achieved with an aged cheddar or gruyère, a creamy brie or camembert, or a pungent gorgonzola. I will confess, however, to a weakness for a thick melted slice of plain old American. Not to mention Velveeta. I'm not proud of my fondness for this "Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product", but nor do I deny it. Although (contrary to popular lore) it turns out to be ineffective as a spermicidal lubricant, Velveeta can make a pretty good cheeseburger when contraposed, for example, with some sliced jalapeños.
A pitfall to be avoided by those who aspire to create the perfect burger is the temptation to exceed natural boundaries. This may result in a dish that technically conforms to our criteria but violates the spirit of the exercise. The principal player in a true hamburger is the meat patty. A burger topped with a slice of foie gras is no more a great burger than an oyster containing a pearl is a great oyster. A patty on a bun accompanied by chunks of pork belly, duck confit, and pancetta is an incongruous pile of meat.
With these guidelines in mind, I've begun compiling a list of local burgers, derived from my own experience and presentiments, recommendations from friends, and published reviews. Further input is always welcome. As my list continues to evolve, I endeavor to sample each entry and mark it according to the following key:
Perhaps the most striking difference between a $3 and a $15 burger is that one comes with fries and the other with pommes frites. In fact, I've found that it's difficult to predict quality on any rational basis and I'm open to trying anything within reason (although I'm likely to steer clear, for example, of an establishment that advertises, "Bring the whole family and enjoy our playscape").
It is not my intention to embarrass purveyors of inferior products, but as an aid to the reader who wonders whether I have consciously rejected a particular burger or simply have not yet discovered it, a listing of the former category (including most national chains) is provided here.
This is a work in progress, and so it will remain as my experience expands, new burgers arrive on the scene, old ones fade away, and my judgments are revisited. Much work lies ahead.
** Cafe at the Four Seasons (98 San Jacinto Boulevard): Prime Beef ($18.00)
A nice crusty burger with Bibb lettuce, tomato, crisp pickles, bacon jam (sorry—I looked but couldn't find it), and choice of cheese (bleu for me) on a toasted brioche bun, serverd with the "Best Dang Steak Fries You'll Ever Have". The burger was a bit overcooked (I should have asked for medium rare); the fries were indeed pretty dang good. Somewhere out there is a ligitimate $18.00 burger, but I haven't found it.
? Judges' Hill Restaurant and Bar (1900 Rio Grande Street): Signature Kobe Burger ($15.50)
** Bartlett's (2408 West Anderson Lane): Cheeseburger ($15.00)
A wood-grilled burger topped with melted cheddar, chopped onion, shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise; bottomed with cole slaw and mustard; served on a soft toasted sesame seed bun. Nothing really unusual, but nicely flame-grilled and an interesting blend of flavors.
** Peché (208 West 4th Street): Burger du Jour ($15.00)
On the night I was there (a Monday, when prices are halved), it was chimichurri, manchego, and red onion, garnished with cornichons and a bleu-stuffed olive. Very good, but not quite as exciting as it sounds. Good fries as well, flavored with rosemary and coarse salt. Peché is a fascinating pre-prohibition-style bar that features twelve varieties of absinthe and, much to its credit, eschews vodka.
? III Forks (111 Lavaca Street): Prime Burger ($14.95)
** 24 Diner (600 North Lamar): Lamb Burger ($14.95)
With goat cheese, cucumber, arugula, and a roasted pepper tapenade, on a challah bun. Comes with a choice of sides, among which is a very decent macaroni and cheese. This is the best use of lamb that I've found in an Austin burger, but it could still use a bit more spice
** Fino Restaurant and Patio Bar (2905 San Gabriel Street): Fino Burger and Frites ($14.00)
(See what I mean about frites?) With shishito relish (these little Japanese peppers are all the rage these days), aioli, some very tasty fresh pickles on the side, and for an extra buck, a slice of manchego. Nicely cooked to medium rare by default. In principle, one could actually crank the price to an even double sawbuck with bacon and a fried egg—on a meager 5-ounce burger at that. But there 's no denying that this one is damn good, especially the roasted pepper relish. (They say that a random one out of ten shishitos is far hotter than the rest, and I think I got lucky.) In fact, a third star might be in order if only the sauce were a bit bolder. It's true that "aioli" has a more impressive ring than "mayonnaise; what eludes a lot of cooks is that it also has a superior flavor when properly made, i.e., with an abundance of garlic.
*** Haddingtons (601 West 6th Street): Haddingtons Burger ($14.00)
Two patties interleaved with a challah bun cut into three slices. I asked for medium rare and got it. Served with "mushroom ketchup, pickled relish, blue fondue", and fries. The relish was quite interesting and tasty: crisp minced haricots verts, carrot, and onion. No trace of mushroom, however. I also find it interesting that neither the name of the establishment nor that of the burger appears to be in the genitive case.
? Mulberry (360 Nueces Street): Hamburger, Pancetta, Gruyere, Tomato, Egg ($14.00)
* Max's Wine Dive (207 San Jacinto Boulevard): Twin County Ranch Lamb Burger ($14.00)
Feta and sautéed spinach. Great concept, but the result is disappointing. A little salt and a squeeze of lemon helped it along, but this one really needs some serious spice.
** Bess Bistro on Pecan (500 West 6th Street): Wagyu Burger ($14.00)
Kobe-style beef (see above) on a challah bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, avocado, and in-house mayonnaise. An egg over easy is offered as a $2 add-on, but no thanks. Impeccable quality, but nothing extraordinary.
** Brick House Tavern + Tap (11680 A Research Boulevard): the Kobe ($14.00)
1/2 pound of Wagyu beef topped with nicely melted brie, sautéed onions, a lightly grilled slice of tomato, assorted greens, and a flavorful roasted red pepper aioli. One or more extra patties can be had for $3 apiece ("stack up your burger brick by brick" is the house metaphor), but this would only spoil the balance of the composition.
* Perry's Steakhouse and Grille (114 West 7th Street): Kobe Burger ($13.95)
Yet another abuse of the Japanese tradition, and nothing special, but a nice experience during the happy hour (4:00 PM to 6:30 PM), when the price of the burger, along with those of an interesting assortment of drinks, is cut in half.
* Roaring Fork (707 Congress Avenue): The Roaring Fork "Big Ass Burger" ($13.00)
A 3/4-pound patty with roasted poblanos, two thick slices of crisp bacon coated with black pepper, a lightly grilled thick slice of onion, and, alas, a thin slice of tasteless orange "cheddar", all on a challah bun. The cheese cost this one a star—what is the objection to real cheddar?
? Woodland (1716 South Congress Avenue): The Pepper Crust ($13.00)
? Wink Wine Bar (1014 North Lamar Boulevard): wink brie burgers ($12.00)
* Annie's Café and Bar (319 Congress Avenue): Cheeseburger ($12.00)
With caramelized onions and white cheddar on a brioche bun, accompanied by the obligatory pommes frites, which justify the stiff price tag. The generous rating is owed to the cheese and the bun; the burger itself was found to be thin and overcooked, contrary to the assurance of an impertinent waiter. (Have you ever had the thought that with just a little more erudition, you too could earn a living waiting on tables?)
* Second Bar and Kitchen (200 Congress Avenue): Congress Burger ($12.00)
A nice burger with melted gruyere, but nothing really unusual other than the optional slice of fois gras that is made available to Job Creators for an extra $14.00. Served with sweet horseradish pickles, dijon mustard, a smoky ketchup, and a disappointing black pepper aioli on the side.
? 1886 Café and Bakery (116 East 6th Street): Black and Blue Burger ($12.00)
? Snack Bar (1224 South Congress Avenue): Don Lunas Burger ($12.00)
* J. Black's (710 B West 6th Street): West 6th ($12.00)
Three Wagyu beef sliders (enough already) with gorgonzola, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, caramelized onions, and basil mayonnaise. Not at all bad.
? Contigo (2027 Anchor Lane): Burger and Fries ($12.00)
? Chez Zee (5406 Balcones Drive): "Zee" Burger ($11.95)
? Moonshine (303 Red River Street): Cheeseburger ($11.95)
? Blue Star Cafeteria (4800 Burnet Road): Patty Melt ($11.95)
** Cover 3 (2700 West Anderson Lane): "Big Tex" Burger ($11.00)
Of the three burgers on the menu, this is the one innovation, with bacon, black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, and a tostada, all on a ciabatta-like bun. Following the waiter's suggestion, I added Monterrey Jack. Though it sounds like a mess, the combination actually works well, especially the contraposition of the crunchy tostada to the creamy guacamole and beans.
* Parkside (301 East 6th Street): Cheeseburger ($11.00)
Topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and white cheddar, with a garlic mayonnaise on the side, along with a large portion of fries flavored with parsley, shallots, and garlic. A thin patty on a small challah bun. It's nice to find a garlic mayo that actually tastes of garlic, but points are lost for the cheese (a thin slice of cold bland cheddar) and for overcooking (if you want medium, ask for medium rare).
* Iron Cactus Mexican Grill and Margarita Bar (409 West 30th Street): 3 Chile Burger ($10.99)
Roasted jalapeños, serranos, and poblanos with pepper jack cheese, topped with two crisp fried onion rings on a toasted Kaiser roll, served with a choice of sides—I was happy with the charro beans. Not a lot of kick, for all those chiles.
? Bistrot Mirabelle (8127 Mesa Drive): Merguez Sandwich ($10.95)
** 219 West (219 West 4th Street): Big Ass Burger and Fries ($10.95)
Served with chipotle mayonnaise and shallots. Quite tasty, but could use some more heat. Served overdone by default, but the bartender assured me that I could have it cooked to order. Comes with "shallot fries", which contain a curiously small amount of parsley and no hint of shallots.
* Big Daddy's Burgers & Bar (9070 Research Boulevard): Marie's Hatch Green Chile Burger ($10.95)
I opted for one of the saner items on a burger menu dominated by pork belly, pineapple, enchiladas, fried aggs, and donuts. This one comes with roasted chiles, breaded onion and poblano rings, and queso on a jalapeño bun. Sounds promising but disappoints: the chiles are tame and the queso is bland and runny.
** Bar Louie (123 West 6th Street): Chicago Stockyard ($10.50)
The key ingredient is a peppercorn, bleu, parmesan, and parsley blend, which is complemented by sautéed mushrooms, red onion, chopped romaine, tomato, assorted pickles, and worcestershire sauce. No, this is not Joe Elmiger's latest venture (Louie B's, Baby Louie's, Louie's 106, ...), but in fact belongs to a national chain. Whoever this Louie is, you gotta like a guy who posts the warning, "Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten."
*** Stack Burger Bar (208 West 4th Street): Black and Bleu ($10.00)
With a sharp and creamy Brazos Valley bleu; thick-sliced, lean, crisp, smoky bacon; pickled pear, arugula, and cracked pepper aioli. Garnished with crisp pickle slices with a strong dill flavor. Comes with shoestring potatoes, with Sriracha chili sauce provided as a welcome alternative to ketchup.
** Zax Pints and Plates (312 Barton Springs Road): Blues Burger ($10.00)
Onion rings, bleu cheese, crushed black pepper, mustard. Very tasty and well executed.
** Hopfields (2027 Anchor Lane): Pascal Burger ($10.00)
A "French inspired" burger, topped with camembert, caramelized onions, cornichons, whole grain mustard, and pickled jalapeños ($.50 extra), and served with frites and aioli. The mustard and jalapeños are both house made and quite good; a bolder aioli might have warranted a third star. Note that we have another missing apostrophe; this seems to be a trend.
* Black Star Co-op (7020 Easy Wind Drive): Black Star Burger ($10.00)
Topped with Bibb lettuce, tomato, red onion, sharp cheddar (used all too sparingly), stone ground mustard, and fresh sliced jalapeños ($.75 extra). Comes with very good fries flavored with fresh garlic and coarse salt. If you want it cooked medium, ask for medium rare.
? Jack Allen's Kitchen (7720 Highway 71 West): Green Chile Cheeseburger ($9.99)
** TenOak (409 Colorado Street): Original House-Stuffed Hamburger ($9.95)
According to the menu, stuffed with bleu and bacon and served with a sauce of smoked shallots. Upon being presented a burger topped with cheddar and tomato, I expressed my confusion to the bartender, who assured me that in addition to the topping, the burger was indeed stuffed as advertised. Of course, it was not. The shallot sauce, however, was present and remarkably tasty, as was the meat, and I'm not here to judge anything but the contents of the plate.
? Eastside Cafe (2113 Manor Road): Cheeseburger ($9.95)
? Hyde Park Bar and Grill (4206 Duval Street): Texas Raised Kobe Style Burger ($9.95)
? Café Express (3418 North Lamar Boulevard): Danish Blue Cheese and Smoked Bacon ($9.59)
** Trudy's Texas Star (409 West 30th Street): Cheeseburger ($9.50)
With muenster, havarti, roasted mild green chiles, and a grilled slice of onion on a sesame seed bun. Served with seasoned wedge fries. After I asked for some additional chiles and found a bottle of hot sauce, it was pretty much what I had hoped for.
* Sullivan's Steakhouse (300 Colorado Street): The Best Hamburger in Town ($9.00)
With bleu cheese (or Swiss or orange cheddar), lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles on an airy sesame seed bun. Serviceable but unimaginative, however extravagantly named.
** BC Tavern (11715 Bee Cave Road): Three Napkin Burger ($9.00)
A tall, good-looking burger with red cabbage slaw, sweet onion jam, cheddar, and mayonnaise on a puffy bun. I mistook the sauce for Russian dressing—owner Stewart Scruggs tells me that it's a simple house-made mayonnaise but takes on a reddish color from the cabbage and onions.
? Drink.Well (207 East 53rd Street): Texas Kobe Burger ($9.00)
? Hill's Cafe (4700 South Congress Avenue): Tex-Mex Burger ($8.99)
? Abel's on the Lake (3825 Lake Austin Boulevard): The Austin ($8.99)
? Ranch 616 (616 Nueces Street): The Framed Burger ($8.95, lunch only)
? Patsy's Cafe (5001 East Ben White Boulevard): The John Kelso ($8.95)
** Hopdoddy (1400 South Congress Avenue): Greek ($8.50)
Feta, arugula, pickled red onions, tomato, cucumber, and tzatziki. The sauce is quite tasty, but the meat is underspiced. I will not be surprised if this rating goes up when I get around to sampling the rest of the menu.
* The Café at Central Market (4477 South Lamar Boulevard): Jalapeño Jack Burger ($8.50)
With jalapeños, melted pepper jack cheese, and chipotle mayonnaise, on a buttery toasted bun. Good but overcooked.
? Cat Mountain Grill (3815 Dry Creek Road): Cheese Louise ($8.39)
** Hank's Garage (115A San Jacinto Boulevard): Hank's Burger ($8.00)
Simple but high quality and well executed. Served with lettuce, tomato, red onion. Add $1 for cheese (the cheddar is quite good), grilled onions,mushrooms, or bacon. Choice of frites, mashed potatoes, or salad. The mashed are excellent.
Update: Sadly, Hank's has disappeared from the scene since my visit, but I'll leave the listing in place in hope of a reincarnation.
? South Congress Cafe (1600 South Congress Avenue): South Congress Burger ($8.00)
** Old School Bar and Grill (401 East 6th Street): Bus Burger ($8.00)
An allusion to the bus affectionately known as "Big Momma", from which this burger was once served on the east side of town and which has recently been reincarnated as a 6th Street bar. Topped with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, and tomatoes, cooked medium rare with a crisp exterior.
** Flying Saucer (815 West 47th Street): Saucer Burger ($7.99)
Comes with the usual condiments and a choice of mundane cheeses, but for a heightened experience, as the menu suggests, "substitue [sic] an artisinal [sic] cheese for a buck". The options include finocchiona, brie, Cotswald, a variety of interesting cheddars, and my choice, the maximally decadent Humboldt Fog.
* Boulevard (3616 Far West Boulevard): Cajun Burger ($7.59)
Topped with a spicy remoulade and a slice of provolone.
? Shady Grove (1624 Barton Springs Road): Green Chile Cheeseburger ($7.49)
* The Lion and Rose (701 South Capital of Texas Highway): Sidekick Burgers ($6.79)
Three sliders with grilled onions, pickles, mayonnaise, (a bit too much) mustard, and a choice of cheese ($.99 extra). It's unfortunate that a "British restaurant and pub" can't come up with a decent cheddar—go with the bleu. There is also an 8-ounce "Beefeater's Pub Burger" on the menu ($8.59), which I haven't tried.
* Bakehouse Restaurant and Bar (5404 Manchaca): Avocado and Mushroom Burger ($5.99)
Sliced avocado, Burgundy sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise on a whole wheat bun. Solid but unexceptional. Good fries served with cream gravy.
** Silver Grill Cafe (4005 West Parmer Lane): Cheddar Pour ($5.68)
1/4 pound of ground chuck (1/2- and 3/4-pound variations can be had for $6.93 and $8.18), finished on the grill under a spectacular mound of grated cheddar, measuring better than twice the diameter of the burger. Topped with mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles. Add a touch of spicy salsa, found at at the barbecue condiment bar. A variety of sides are available; I can recommend the green beans, cooked with bacon and grilled onions. Not for the fainthearted, this burger comes without instructions and defies graceful dining.
* Jo's (242 West 2nd Street)
? Beale Street Tavern (214 East 6th Street)
? Blake's on Sixth Street (1221 West 6th Street)
? Shoal Creek Saloon (909 Lamar Boulevard): Reynaldo Burger ($9.59)
** Plucker's Wing Bar (3909 South Lamar Boulevard and elsewhere): The Bypass Burger ($9.49)
With bacon, "cheddar", grilled onions, jalapeños, way too much shredded lettuce, and "Plucker's sauce" by default (something like a thousand island—a strange choice, I'd say), on a sesame seed bun. Either this project has caused me to lose all perspective or the name of the burger is an exaggeration. Anyway, I persuaded my server to replace the sauce with the house signature "Buffalo Hot (XXX)", which made all the difference.
* Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Restaurant (506 West Street): Fiesta Burger ($8.95)
With jalapeños, pico de gallo, lettuce, and a nondescript cheese, between two flour tortillas (curiously described on the menu as "crispy"—they are not). Served with a variety of sauces; I was happy with the combination of a house made mayonnaise and a peppery sauce labeled "Hot Bitch on the Beach".
? Workhorse Bar (100 East North Loop Boulevard): Buffalo Bastrop Burger ($8.50)
* Black Sheep Lodge (2108 South Lamar): Black Buffalo Burger ($7.99)
Frank's buffalo sauce, bleu cheese, and an excess of greens. Good bun. Could use more heat.
*** Jackalope (404 East 6th Street): Bacon and Brie Burger ($7.99)
With caramelized red onions and caesar dressing. Good and sloppy, one of the best in town. The genius behind all thirteen burgers on the menu is a bartender who answers to "Trans-Am".
* Mister Tramps (8565 Research Boulevard): Drunken Burger ($7.99)
Good burger, although slightly overcooked, with lettuce, tomato, and onions, "Smothered in our Signature Queso". Well, maybe not smothered—it could use some more. Good crisp onion rings.
*** Casino El Camino (517 East 6th Street): Buffalo Burger ($7.50)
3/4-pound burger flame-broiled to perfection; house wing sauce and good bleu in ample supply. Juicy, greasy, and spicy. One tries to separate the dish from the ambience, but it's hard not to give this place extra points for the jukebox, the cult movies, and the punk clientele. These are my people; this is my bar.
Update: At one time my clear favorite, the Casino has recently suffered something of a decline, though less in the burger than in its surroundings, and is barely hanging on to that third star. The sturdy whole wheat bun has been replaced by a soft, squishy thing. The surly single-minded cook is now a cheerful fellow who repeatedly intrudes on the serenity of the bar with amplified announcements of completed orders. Worst of all, on Mondays—and this happens to be my night out—the jukebox is turned off to allow the airing of audible movie dialog that is far more palatable in subtitle form.
* Texas Chili Parlor (1409 Lavaca Street): Chili Cheeseburger ($7.50)
With mustard, lettuce, pickles, and a thick slice of tomato. Damn good, but not really owing to the burger, which just seems to get in the way of the chili. Your choice of X, XX, or XXX. When I came to Austin thirty years ago, the XX kept me up at night, but these days, XXX seems a bit tame. Is it me or them?
* Billy's on Burnet (2105 Hancock Drive): The Ends Burger ($7.50)
Bleu cheese and "fire sauce", which is a bit of an overstatement, but satisfying nonetheless.
** Freddie's Place (1703 South 1st Street): The Patty Melt ($7.49)
1/2-pound burger with Velveeta and grilled onions on Texas toast. Eight alternative cheeses are available, but taking a hint from the menu, I ignored the option to "substitute cheese if you must", but added sliced jalapeños ($.59 more) along with some bottled Louisiana hot sauce.
? Poodie's Hilltop Bar and Grill (22308 Highway 71 West): Famous Poodie Burger ($7.25)
** Sputnik (1300 East 6th Street): Altered State ($7.00)
A juicy burger with a nice crust, topped with orange cheddar, grilled onions, "top-secret sauce" (hollandaise?), pickles, romaine lettuce, and tomato, on a buttery brioche bun. The barmaid was unable to shed any light on the name of the estlablishment, which extends to the theme of the menu (burgers and hot dogs are listed as "Satellites" and "Cosmonauts", respectively), although she did inform me that Sputnik was the first Russian satellite of the earth (further evidence that I don't begin to look my age). Nor could she explain the name of the burger, but subsequent research revealed that "Altered State" names both a video game of an earlier era and a burger of similar composition served by the In-N-Out chain. Too bad—this one deserves a name of its own.
* Hut's Hamburgers (807 West 6th Street): The Wolfman Jack ($6.95)
With sour cream, diced mild green chiles, Jack cheese, and bacon. This is one of a variety of serviceable alternatives; another is the Ritchie Valens, with guacamole, grated cheddar, tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, mayonnaise, and mustard. None of them, however, quite justifies the reputation of this place as an Austin favorite.
** B.B Rover's Café and Pub (12171 Jollyville Road): Jalapeño Cheeseburger ($6.69)
With lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, and a choice of cheeses on a sesame seed bun. For the two-star experience, go the extra $.59 (what's up with that?) for the "half pound sausage burger", a blend of pork sausage and ground beef.
*** Grill Girls at the Nomad Bar (1213 Corona Drive): Burger ($5.00)
The Grill Girls grace the Nomad—a swell bar in its own right, where one can drink good beer while listening to Lou Reed on the jukebox and simultaneously watching cult films and televised sports—on Tuesday and Friday nights, serving steaks (Tuesday only), burgers, and assorted vegetables from a grill parked in an outdoor patio. The burger varies nightly (only one version is served on a given night); on the Tuesday when I attended, it was a Buffalo burger rivaling the Casino's, with homemade hot sauce, bleu cheese, bacon, and mixed greens. I don't know the real price—the low figure quoted above reflects a discount that I received upon pointing out that mine had come without bacon.
* Pappy's Bar and Grill (5800 Burnet Road): Li'l 6 oz. Burger ($4.62)
With a generous slice of provolone and grilled peppers and onions on request, supplemented by a standard condiment bar. An 8-ounce version is also available.
*** Bacon (900 West 10th Street): Double Grind Burger ($9.95)
This is a blend of ground bacon and beef, which makes for a much juicier and more flavorful burger than just slapping some bacon on top. Comes with house-made mayonnaise, good pickles, bibb lettuce, red onion, and tomato. A variety of cheeses are available for $.50 more (I went with bleu and was happy with the choice), as is a topping of bacon slices (yes, that's what I said) for another $1.00. The only disappointing aspect of this place, which also features such exotica as corn fritters with bacon aioli and a Reuben with corned bacon, is that the menu includes two vegetarian options.
** Wholly Cow Burgers (3010 South Lamar): Heavenly Double with Cheese ($9.75)
Two generous patties of grass-fed beef and choice of cheddar, provolone, American or pepper jack. The meat is quite good, but they get a little carried away with the self-congratulatory "eco-friendly" rhetoric. All the well-worn condiments are provided, but I advise replacing them with some of the extra offerings—grilled or candied jalapeños, grilled onions, portabellas, roasted sweet peppers—even at $.39 apiece, and pesto mayonnaise, which is not on the menu.
* Counter Cafe (626 North Lamar Boulevard, lunch only): Counter Burger ($8.00)
Unexciting, but high quality ingredients: cheddar, Boston lettuce, ripe tomatoes, grilled red onions ($.50 extra), and mayonnaise. Add bacon for a whopping $3 more.
* Phil's Ice House (5620 Burnet Road and elsewhere): "78704" Burger ($7.75)
A.K.A. the "South of the River Burger", topped with Monterey Jack, jalapeños, grilled onions, sliced avocado, and chipotle mayo, served on a toasted jalapeño cheese bun. Tasty, but for all its spicy ingredients, the result is disappointingly tame.
* Green Mesquite BBQ & More (Barton Springs Road): Chili Cheese Burger ($7.49)
*** Dirty Martin's Kum-Bak Place (2808 Guadalupe Street): Large D.H. Special ($6.25)
On Texas toast with grilled onions, tomatoes, and pickles, and oozing with melted processed cheese. Add jalapeños for $.60. Good and greasy, especially with onion rings on the side. This one scores points for character and style.
** Flat Top Burger Shop (1900 Manor Road): Cheeseburger ($6.19)
Two 1/4-pound patties (a single-patty version can be had for $4.39) of freshly gound chuck mixed with chopped onions, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise, and melted American cheese. I usually frown on the two-patty assembly, but these are grilled just right, and the intervening melted slice of cheese is a bonus.
* Mighty Fine (5601 Brodie Lane): Cheeseburger ($6.19)
** Mariana's Kitchen (6002 Burleson Road): Mexican Girl ($5.99)
A Mexican twist: melted white cheese, grilled onions and serranos, and a tangy sauce. Our waitress, a Mexican girl, was either unwilling or unable to account for the titular sex of the burger, which remains a mystery.
* Nau's Enfield Drug (West Lynn): Bacon Cheeseburger ($4.85, lunch only)
A good old-fashioned drug store burger, with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, onion, and pickles. My only suggestion: why not add the cheese (a slice of American, of course) while the burger is still cooking, to give it a fighting chance of melting?
* Moonie's Burger House (12001 Burnet Road and elsewhere): Swiss & Mushroom Burger ($5.49)
? In the Buns (13776 North U.S. 183): Frito Pie ($5.59)
** Arkie's Grill (4827 Cesar Chavez): Arkie Bacon Cheeseburger ($5.29, lunch only)
Pretty standard construction, with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise, but nicely done, and a positive overall experience. The kicker is three fried onion rings on top, which turns out not to be a bad idea.
* Stallion Grill (5201 Airport Boulevard): 1/3 Pound Hickory Burger ($4.95)
With grilled onions, orange cheddar, and a hickory sauce on a nicely toasted soft bun. I added some Louisiana hot sauce to wake it up. I also exercised the "combo" option for an extra $2.20, because of the interesting selection of side dishes—I can recommend the collard greens. Since this was my first meal following a colonoscopy, I'll have to go back on a normal day to see if it's really as good as it seemed.
** The Original Burger Tex (5420 Airport Boulevard): 6 oz. Burger ($4.49)
4- and 8-ounce versions ($4.25, $4.99) are offered as well, as are a choice of cheese or "cheese sauce", chile, bacon, avocado, and various grilled vegetables, not to mention pineapple (and I mean it—let's not mention it again), for an extra charge, but in keeping with the Texas theme I made do with a slice of Jack cheese and some pico de gallo, onions, and mayonnaise from the condiment bar. The real star of this burger is the bun, which is baked fresh on the premises. Another feature is that the grill is in plain view, but patrons are cautioned not to disturb the kitchen staff, as "They need to concentrate on their work to serve you better." Keep Austin weird.
* Hat Creek Burger Company (5902 Bee Caves Road and elsewhere): Big Hat Burger ($4.46)
Or the Little Hat (one patty rather than two) for $2.86. With lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, grilled onions, and jalapeños on a toasted bun.
* Five Guys Burgers and Fries (3208 Guadalupe Street and elsewhere): Little Cheeseburger ($4.39)
Possibly the best of the national chains. A good juicy 1/4-pound burger with melted American cheese on a sesame seed bun. An extra patty can be had for $1.50, and bacon for $.20. A long list of other add-ons, including grilled mushrooms and onions, jalapeños, bell peppers, A-1, and hot sauce, are free of charge. Not to mention an unlimited supply of peanuts in the shell.
* El Pollo Rico (1945 East Oltorf Street and elsewhere): Burger Only ($3.99)
A simple burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles on a sesame seed bun. A combo with fries and a drink is offered for $2.00 more, but I recommend adding a grilled jalapeño and a side of their exceptional borracho beans, flavored with beef, bacon, and spices.
* Elevation Burger (9828 Great Hills Trail and 2525 West Anderson Lane): Cheeseburger ($3.99)
Another of the few national chains to make this list, boasting high-quality ingredients: grass-fed beef, fries cooked in "heart-healthy olive oil" (however over-salted), "deli-style sliced cheddar" (though it may as well be processed American), and a bun that "compliments [sic] the burger". Comes with a variety of optional toppings, of which I selected the caramelized onion, hot relish, "Elevation sauce" (thousand island?), and crisp pickles.
* Hill-Bert's Burgers (1503 West 35th Street and elsewhere): Jalapeño Cheeseburger ($3.69)
A thin overcooked patty with the usual condiments, but tasty. A second thin overcooked patty can be had for an extra $1.20.
? Rogge Tex-Mex (5700 Manor Road)
? Angel's Ice House (21815 Highway 71 West)
? Hoover's (2002 Manor Road)
? Your Mom's Burger Bar (1701 East Cesar Chavez Street)
Trailers and Street Stands
** The Texas Cuban (South Lamar Boulevard and Collier Street): Cuban Cheeseburger ($10:00)
Topped with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles, horseradish mustard (on request), and—the Cuban part—sliced grilled pork tenderloin. The patty itself, as clarified by the menu, is "100% natural American beef".
*** Luke's Inside Out (1109 South Lamar Boulevard): The Burger ($8.75)
A half-pound of ground sirloin, cooked medium rare, with grated cheddar, some good bacon, baby spinach, red onions, a lot of black pepper, and Luke's secret "love" sauce (Russian dressing mixed with barbecue sauce) on a toasted muffaletta. This guy Luke Bibby, who also runs a catering business called Out There Cooking, knows what he's doing.
*** Turf 'n Surf Po' Boys (207 Congress Avenue): Hamburger Po'boy ($8.00)
In addition to the usual condiments, this one comes with cole slaw and options for cheese and various grilled vegetables (at extra cost). I opted for cheese and grilled jalapeños. Well spiced (even without the jalapeños), very good fresh slaw, a generous amount of meat, and not overcooked. The cheese was uninteresting, and the roll could have been better; ditto the meat, which had a bit too much gristle. Come to think of it, maybe two stars is more like it.
**   Mati (1001 East 6th Street): Keftede ($7.00)
As the menu says, "Think Greek hamburger." Spiced beef stuffed with feta and topped with tomato, red onion, and tzatziki. This is the spice that I had hoped to find in the various lamb burgers that I've sampled around town.
* Tenderland (2406 Manor Road): BBQ Burger ($6.00)
Barbeque sauce, grilled onions, orange cheddar, and lots of jalapeños.
** Downtown Burgers (350 Trinity Street): 1/2 Pound Burger a la Carte ($5.95)
Nothing extraordinary, but pretty high quality. A 1/4-pound version is offered at $3.95; cheese and bacon are available for $.50 each. Good fries, and service with a smile. In fact, when I pointed out that I had neither ordered nor paid for the fries that I found in my bag, the guy behind the window explained, "You can't eat my burger without fries." (Aside: conventioneers should be discouraged from wearing their name tags in public.)
** Yumé Burger (Roving truck): The Original ($5.55)
More adventurous offerings are also available, featuring fried eggs, pork belly, and wasabi slaw, but I found "The Original" burger to be sufficiently exotic for my taste: American cheese, tomato, paprika mayonnaise (the house "pink sauce"), and a spicy jalapeño-onion relish.
* The Mighty Cone (1603 South Congress Avenue): Beef Cone Slider ($5.75)
With red onion, Roma tomato, lettuce, and "Hudson's [yes, the one on the Bend, which is the parent restaurant of this trailer] secret Ancho sauce", on a whole wheat sesame seed bun. Comes with "Hudson's gourmet fries [??]". Add cheddar for $.65 and fresh jalapeños for another $.45 and you've got a pretty high-priced 1/4-pound streetburger.
* Sandy's Frozen Custard (603 Barton Springs Road): Chili Cheese and Onion Burger ($3.99)
Pre-cooked, overcooked, flat patty with bland chili on a preservative-laden bun, but somehow it works.
* Taco Bella (9960 Westgate Boulevard): Cheeseburger ($3.00)
With lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard, melted American cheese, and salsa on a sesame sees bun.