(5) Pop's Burger and Grill, 4400 Benbrook Highway, Fort Worth vs. (1) Fred's Texas Cafe, 915 Currie St., Fort Worth
How do you bring down a champion? Turns out the playbook is pretty much the same, whether you're dealing with football, basketball or hamburgers.
You hope the champion makes a few errors. Then you fight like you've never fought before.
At Fred's Texas Cafe, the winner of DFW.com's 2009 Battle of the Burgers, we settled in for another terrific meal. We marveled at the blue cheese burger, with the luscious tang of the cheese, and that beef seasoned so simply yet effectively with just salt, pepper and garlic. We thrilled, also, at the bacon mushroom Swiss burger: the bacon was chewy on the inside, yet crispy around the edges; the thickly cut portabellas were earthy and buttery in just the right measure.
But when you reach this stage of the competition, the judges tend to get picky. On another day, we might not have complained that the chipotle pepper on the signature Diablo burger felt more like a traditional topping, as opposed to what is usually tastes like, a blanket of fire that melds brilliantly into the beef. On another day, we might also have shrugged off that slightly pale tomato or the overabundance of shredded lettuce. But we noticed these slip-ups, and couldn't avoid another, more critical one: Five of our six burgers were ever-so-slightly overcooked and lacking that supreme Fred's juiciness.
Enter Pop's, which by all traditional standards would seem to have been wildly overmatched. Located in a forgotten strip mall in far west Fort Worth -- blink and you'll drive right by it -- it only opened last year. With its old-school style, thick patty burgers, it hardly aims to reinvent the wheel.
Yet sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel -- you just need to refine it to perfection. We gobbled up the onion ring burger, a thick, 1/2-pound patty topped with bacon, cheese, a giant plump onion ring and Pop's special sauce. The crispy-silky onion ring worked beautifully with the gooey cheddar and the smoky tang of the sauce. As for the beef, there are few words to describe it, other than "mmm" and "ahh." It is deeply meaty, insanely juicy and finishes with a subtle, peppery bite.
Some of the judges quibbled about the Pop's sauce, which consists of Worcestershire, cayenne, lemon and ketchup; when we added it to the jalapeño cheddar burger, it overpowered everything. But there was no complaining about the mushroom Swiss burger, with its creamy hunk of cheese and flawlessly grilled red onions. Oh, and how can we deny the semi-deranged audacity of the Belly Buster, which looks less like a burger than a small island nation. It features bacon, an onion ring, two types of cheese, grilled onions, grilled jalapeños, grilled yellow bell pepper, lettuce, tomato, pickle and Pop's sauce. (We think that's everything.) It's psychotically exuberant, completely reckless -- and, go figure, shockingly flavorful. You end up having to wipe a smile off your face. After, that is, you wipe away the smear of sauce and grease.
One of our eight judges vigorously argued for Fred's, but she ended up being a lone voice in the burger wilderness. We still adore you Fred's -- and we suspect that on your best day, you probably would have bested Pop's.
But you didn't have your best day. And Pop's did.
The winner: Pop's