A hamburger is warm and fragrant and juicy. A hamburger is soft and nonthreatening. It personifies the Great Mother herself who has nourished us from the beginning.
-- novelist Tom Robbins, Esquire magazine, 1983
Ill gladly you pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.
-- J. Wellington Wimpy
It shouldnt be all that complicated. Ground beef. Spices. A bun. If youre feeling extra indulgent, maybe you ask for some Cheddar cheese or bacon on top. They should all pretty much taste the same. A hamburger should just be a hamburger.
And yet, when it comes to this quintessentially American food item -- which is said to have been invented by a group of Germans who ground up some beef and called it the "Hamburg sausage" -- there are limitless variations on this old-fashioned concoction. And just as many opinions on what makes a hamburger great.
Case study No. 1: The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, where hamburgers are a kind of religion. Perhaps its to be expected from a state that prides itself so aggressively on its beef, but the mixture here of mom-and-pop burger joints, regional chains and fast-food emporiums is pretty much unparalleled in the country.
More to the point: People take their burgers very seriously. Forget the Civil War: Here in Fort Worth, for instance, families have been known to divide over the question of which burger is better, the elegantly old-fashioned one at Kincaids, or the joyously sloppy and overstuffed one at Freds.
A similar debate rages in Dallas. Is that trip up Northwest Highway to the legendary Kellers Drive-In really worth it? Or should we really be bowing at the altar of a newbie called Twisted Root Burger Co.
There seemed to us no other solution, then, but to throw ourselves into the middle of the burger mania -- and devote the summer of 2009 to pursuit of a single dilemma: What is the greatest burger in DFW? We began by polling friends and foodies, and enjoying more than a few long, food coma-inducing lunches ourselves. We culled together the list of the top 32 contenders, carefully ranked and seeded them based on reputation and recommendations, and then divided them into regional brackets: a la March Madness.
Theres Dallas, Fort Worth, the Mid-Cities and beyond, and "The Chain Gang" (for those restaurants who have more than three area locations and/or dont strictly identify with one part of the Metroplex).
Knowing that our initial picks and cockeyed bracketology are bound to inspire controversy, weve also included a few "on the bubble burgers" -- and were eager to hear if you think they wuz robbed. Or tell us which bodacious burgers we missed entirely.
But now the fun part begins. We start eating, as our intrepid gluttons, er, judges will pit burger joint against burger joint, and only one will survive. Each week, well work through a section of the bracket, on our way to a waistline-expanding coronation of the single greatest burger in DFW.
The debate is endless: Will the readers bracket ultimately match up with the DFW.com bracket? Will an eighth-seed like M&O Grilling Station pull a shocking upset over a top-seed like Kincaids? Will our judges, so stuffed with meat and cheese, eventually decide to go vegan?
Were not sure if well ever be able to solve the mystery of why burgers so captivate our imagination here in Texas. But were determined to find that one joint that rises above the rest -- and proves, once and for all, that a hamburger is never just a hamburger.
The ground rules
1. On the same day, judges will travel to each of the two competing burger joints and order what is regarded as the house specialty. The judges are allowed to eat as little or as much of the burger as they deem necessary to determine the winner. The process will then be repeated as the bracket narrows.
2. While lobbying by individual restaurants is allowed, judges will visit each competitor anonymously and pay for their own meals.
3. Service and side items will not be taken into consideration. A waitress can dump a $25 dollar burger on the floor and slap it back on the plate -- but if it tastes good, thats all that matters.
4. While open to mockery and derision, decisions of the judges will be final.
* Restaurants marked with an asterisk and those in the chains category have multiple locations; we visited the address indicated.
Fort Worth region
1. Kincaids: The mother of all Fort Worth burger joints, Kincaids stack of accolades is almost as thick as one of its double-meat burgers. But as the beloved institution has grown (to five locations), the backlash has begun. Is Kincaids, gasp, overrated? 4901 Camp Bowie Boulevard*; 817-732-2881, www.kincaidshamburgers.com
2. Freds Texas Cafe: The diablo burger is to die for. Just ask Guy Fieri, platinum-haired host of the Food Networks Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, who dropped by outlaw chef Terry Lawsons funky shack recently. We just hope Freddy hasnt gone Hollywood. 915 Currie St.; 817-332-0083, www.fredstexascafe.com
3. Charleys Old Fashioned Hamburgers: Its in the middle of nowhere on Granbury Road, but hungry buggers have been flocking to Charleys for years for the two-fisted burgers that are full of flavor and unapologetically greasy. Get extra napkins, especially if you have the intestinal fortitude to try the Project X burger. 4616 Granbury Road; 817-924-8611
4. Love Shack: Celebrity chef Tim Loves burger stand/beer garden in the Stockyards serves up a delicious mix of prime-tenderloin and primebrisket burgers. The signature Dirty Love Burger, topped with a fried quail egg, inspires mixed reactions. 110 Exchange Ave*; 817-740-8812, www.shakeyourloveshack.com
5. Tommys Hamburgers: Tommys has been grilling up thick, bodacious burgers for more than 25 years. But sometimes they get overlooked. This could be your Fort Worth sleeper burger. 3431 W. Seventh St.*; 817-885-7500, www.tommyshamburgergrill.com
6. Dutchs: With its gourmet pedigree (chefs Grady Spears and Lou Lambert started the place) and gourmet prices, Dutchs is still proving its burger bona fides. Well see if the TCU fave can become big man on Cowtowns burger campus. 3009 S. University Drive; 817-927-5522, www.dutchshamburgers.com
7. Trailboss Burgers: Tim Love gets all the love in the Stockyards, but dont overlook The Boss, which serves up burgers so thick and juicy that the Fort Worth Herd has been known to stare angrily at patio diners on its march down Exchange. 120 E. Exchange Ave in Stockyards Station; 817-625-1070
8. M&O Station Grill: The mom-and-pop style diner, attached to the Leonards Department Store Museum, specializes in stuffed 1/2 -pound burgers that are bursting with flavor. Despite being fairly new to the FW burger landscape, M&Os has got a taste for tradition. 200 Carroll St., No. 110; 817-882-8020.
On the bubble
Griffs: Good and greasy, but a little scary.
Roy Pope Grocery: Tastes like Kincaids. So go here if you want to eat and shop.
Central Market: Nobody grills burgers like CM, but only on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Navajo Burgers: Technically its Lake Worth, and its used to be a Tommys, but the burgers are still darn good.
1. Pappas Burgers: The Houston-based Pappas monolith is conquering the world with its seafood, barbecue and steaks. Pappas Burgers does the same with its prime chuck and tenderloin burgers that more than justify dropping a Hamilton, especially when theyve got blue cheese and bacon. 2700 West Freeway, Fort Worth; 817-870-9736, www.pappasburger.com
2. Whataburger: For almost 60 years, this fast-food haven -- founded in Corpus Christi, headquartered in San Antonio -- has been the pride of Texans who salivate at sunshine-colored wrapping paper dotted with clouds of grease. But is Whataburger really just like we like it? 109 Airport Freeway, Euless; 817-354-0303, www.whataburger.com
3. Fuddruckers: Like Whataburger, Fuddruckers is a beloved order-at-the-counter Texas-based burger chain -- founded in San Antonio, headquartered in Austin. With huge patties, melt-in-your-mouth buns and a toppings bar for days, this worldwide fave is tough to beat. Even if it does feel like a Chilis inside. 5601 S.W. Loop 820, Fort Worth*; 817-263-0996, www.fuddruckers.com
4. Steak n Shake: With its distinctive steakburgers served on china, Steak n Shake fills the space between fast-food and old-fashioned diner fare. The patties are thin, so one will hardly do, but a double or triple could topple the competition. 5020 Overton Ridge Blvd., Fort Worth; 817-370-7051, www.steaknshake.com
5. Red Robin: Many of our fellow burger lovers are a-twitter lately about Red Robin and its enormous portions of never-frozen, preservative-free beef. Left-field toppings like grilled pineapple and tortilla chips make for a unique taste experience, but purists may scoff. 820 North East Mall Blvd., Hurst; 817-590-0696, www.redrobin.com
6. Burger Street: This Lewisville-based chain has stayed close to home, with locations throughout DFW and a few in Tulsa. When it comes to burgers, sometimes simpler is better. But is it too simple to take down No. 3 seed Fuddruckers? 7301 W. Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth; 817-244-2864, www.burgerstreet.com
7. Mooyah: Mooya has been called the In-N-Out Burger of Texas -- a notch above fast food with items made freshly in-house. Its where Paris Hilton would go before hitting the clubs if she lived here. 2720 Texas 121, Euless; 817-571-7575, www.mooyah.com
8. Chapps: Family-owned Chapps has nine locations, all in DFW, and knows what we like round here -- inexpensive burgers we can barely fit into our pie holes. When the "Baby Chapps" is 1/4 of a pound, you better come hungry. 9109 Boulevard 26, No. 161, North Richland Hills; 817-281-8887, www.chappscafe.com
On the bubble
Krystal: If youre a fan of little square sliders slathered in onions, be our guest.
McDonalds: Some days, a Quarter-Pounder with cheese is all you need.
Jack-in-the-Box: We love the commercials a little more than the burgers.
Dairy Queen: Once we have a Blizzard, theres no room left for a burger.
1. Five Guys Burgers and Fries: No less a luminary that first lady Michelle Obama is a fan of this Arlington, Va.-based chain, which opened a Southlake outpost in 2008. Nothing fussy or fancy here -- just tender, juicy burgers at pleasingly low prices. 242 State St., Southlake*; 817-416-9726, www.fiveguys.com
2. Johnny Bs Burgers and Shakes: This Southlake spot stakes its reputation on the "Dragonburger" - a triple cheeseburger topped with jalapeños and homemade chili. The winner of many "best-of burger" contests in recent years, it could easily pull ahead of Five Guys and sweep this bracket. 2704 E Southlake Blvd, Southlake; 817-749-0000, johnnybsburgers.com
3. Als Hamburgers: Famed for its thin-patty burgers, this Arlington institution is the veteran competitor, having first started serving in 1957. But while respect must be paid to our elders, weve heard a few grumblings that maybe its time for Als to retire. 1001 N.E. Green Oaks Blvd., Arlington; 817-275-8918
4. OC Burgers: A California-style burger shack plopped in the middle of Texas sounds like a contradiction of terms. With two locations in Tarrant County, though, OC has carved out a niche since opening in 2007. Be warned, though: Such California concoctions as the teriyaki pineapple burger could easily sink it. 6300 Denton Highway, Watauga*; 817-428-4290, www.ocburgers.com
5. Denton County Independent Hamburger Co.: More than a few burger-lovers regard this spot on Dentons downtown square to be the finest restaurant in town. A mound of shredded Cheddar cheese and hickory barbecue sauce are considered essential add-ons. But is the long trip up I-35 really worth it? 113 W. Hickory St. Denton; 940-383-1022.
6. Jacksons Grocery and Grill No. 1: These giant burgers are bursting with flavor and, with the cheap prices, they are a bargain. The only question that remains: Is a convenience store capable of competing with the big boys? 1823 S. Fielder Road, Arlington*; 817-275-8201
7. Clown Burger: Its not much more than a dumpy-looking shack with a giant orange clown on the side. Yet this Haltom City institution -- presently celebrating a half-century in operation -- might be one of the best-kept secrets in Texas. 5020 Stanley Keller Road, Haltom City; 817-831-8015
8. Airways Hamburgers: Charcoal-grilled burgers in an airplane-themed diner. Whats not to love? But the burgers can be a little salty for some palates. 1106 N. Collins St, Arlington; 817-461-1601
On the bubble
Flips: The sports bar and grill is a solid player in Grapevine.
Simply Burgers, Arlington: Nice, but a little too simple.
Nicky Ds, Crowley: Tasty burgers served in a former service station. Great, if youre in Crowley.
Toms Burgers & Grill, Arlington: Another fun 50s-style diner with juicy half-pounders.
1. Twisted Root Burger Co.: It bills itself as the only "trained chef-driven burger joint in town" -- and the burgers, which blend chuck and brisket, have sent foodies into rapture since its opening in 2006. But is this place too pretentious for its own good? 2615 Commerce St.; 214-741-7668, www.twistedrootburgerco.com
2. Kellers Drive-In: A true Dallas institution, its the rare place where bikers and bankers feel at home. Yet some feel like the cheap and greasy burgers have been coasting on their reputation for years. 6537 E. Northwest Highway*; 214-368-1209
3. Jakes: This diet-busting, Dallas-based mini-chain keeps expanding, most recently to downtown Fort Worth. The Jakes Special (think Thousand Island dressing) is sublime, yet those pesky poppy seed buns could very well be the restaurants undoing. 2702 McKinney Ave., No. 101*; 214-754-8001, www.jakeshamburgers.com
4. Scotty Ps: This family-owned operation, which continues to expand through Dallas, Plano and points north, is beloved for such concoctions as the Preston Trail Burger, featuring homemade chili. But does it have enough pizzazz to challenge the top contenders? 11661 Preston Road, No. 131*; 972-398-6767, ext. 6; www.scottyps.com
5. Wingfields Breakfast & Burger: This tiny burger joint -- rated tops by D Magazine -- is usually packed with folks eager to tackle an overstuffed, extremely messy burger. (Hello, mustard!) More than a few detractors, however, regard it as wildly overrated. 2615 S. Beckley Ave.; 214-943-5214
6. Burguesa Burger: The new kid on the block, this bright-orange shack that specializes in "Mexican burgers" has earned rave reviews, including from DFW.com. Could it be an "El Monumental" spoiler? 2222 Inwood Road; www.burguesa.com
7. Burger House: Another longtime Dallas institution, now with multiple locations (the original Hillcrest spot, opened in 1951, is still regarded as the best). Theyre known for classic, thin-patty burgers served with the usual fixings. 6248 E. Mockingbird Lane*; 214-828-2732, www.burgerhouse.com
8. Goffs Hamburgers: Laura Bush is said to be a fan of the SMU-area joint, around since 1950, which specializes in charcoal-broiled hamburgers. Yet some people think the food doesnt justify the slighty-higher-than-normal prices. 6401 Hillcrest Ave.*; 214-520-9133, www.goffshamburgers.com
On the bubble
Hunkys: A nice trip back in time, but the 50s-style burger feels a little dated.
Angry Dog: Famous for their hot dogs, but burgers are a close second.
Lee Harveys: Its a conspiracy this beloved pub didnt make the cut.
Hole in the Wall Hamburgers: The ultra-divey joint in North Dallas is scary, in a good way.