We asked each of our judges to identify one burger they wished had gone further in the competition.
Maybe it was one that they judged favorably in an early round but then saw eliminated by a second judge; maybe it was a burger that came up against an uncommonly accomplished competitor and had to get the boot. Or maybe -- and these are the ones that hurt the most -- it was a burger they normally love and champion, but it simply didn't perform under tournament pressure.
Herewith, one final toast to these most noble burgers that got away.
Tom's Burgers & Grill
1530 N. Cooper St., Arlington
Tom's, I'm really sorry that it didn't work out, that your Old Fashioned burger turned out to be my burger that got away. I thought about it, so long and so hard, and, for hours and hours, contemplated the direction in which I wanted to go. I thought about the great time we had together, you and me, in that booth, you smiling at me with your long grill marks, your fresh toppings. You were so filling, so delicious. Yes, Tom's, it was a magical time we shared. But you see, I met this other burger. I knew Kincaid's half-pounder way back when, then we drifted apart. Friends said Kincaid's had changed its ways, wasn't what it used to be, and I believed them, thinking that very soon, I would be back between your buns. But on the day of our chance reunion, Kincaid's was everything it used to be -- and yes, dear Tom's, I turned you away, my beard still stained with mustard from whence we shared our last kiss. I do hope that you have found the strength to carry on -- you have so many wonderful qualities. It's a big world out there, Tom's, lots of mouths to feed, lots of memories to make. I just hope, my dear lost love, that we can still be friends.
1605 S. University Drive, Fort Worth
It was the very first burger we tasted in the competition, and talk about setting the bar high: Love Shack's Dirty Love burger was an exquisite medley of flavors that couldn't possibly be beat. We drove to our second destination, the Colorado-based chain, Smashburger, which earlier this year arrived in North Texas, figuring this would be a speedy walkover. With just one bite of the BBQ, bacon and cheese burger, though, things got complicated. The 1/3-pound patty was cooked to a precise, juicy medium; the cheddar melted with picture-postcard grace into the beef; and the egg bun -- sweet and yeasty and as good as any being served in the region -- held it all together perfectly. Another bite, and then another. How on earth were we supposed to decide? Another bite, and really the only quality difference we could discern was that the beef in the Dirty Love Burger has a deeper, more complex flavor profile. As much as it broke our hearts, we said goodbye to Smashburger -- and then watched with frustration as a few lesser burgers survived and even thrived. It's one of the cruelest ironies of the burger battle: The bracket strives to be objective, but it can't always be fair.
Maple & Motor
4810 Maple Ave. Dallas
The first bite took me to another place in time, where burgers were cooked on a flat griddle seasoned over decades, delivering an effect that speaks of expertise I'd all but given up trying to find. This ethereal experience involved a half-pound ground-beef patty cooked exactly to my requested medium side of medium-rare, for starters. It was done up in proper Texas fashion, meaning there was mustard on the beautifully griddled bun. (No "special sauce" or ketchup to muck up the works.) There was a gorgeous pair of red tomato slices, hearty green lettuce leaf and dill pickle relish, gratis, to which we added thick-sliced smoky bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled onions, jalapeño slices and the crowning glory -- a fried egg, cooked exquisitely over-medium. The result was what I am certain burgers in heaven taste like -- juicy and yes, greasy, with a rich melding of flavors. My palate is forever spoiled.
1201 Airport Freeway, Euless
Some year, a charbroiled burger will rise to the top of the Burger Bracket. Texas loves the back-yard-cookout flavor of broiler-burger landmarks such as Bellaire Broiler Burger in Houston or Del's Charcoal Burgers in Richardson, but we don't love them enough to rank them over our flat-grilled faves. This year, OC Burgers had its chances. But the broiler burger also has its weakness: It must be cooked medium rare to keep its juice and flavor. Despite a leathery, way-too-well-done first effort, the OC Burgers in Euless brushed past Steak n' Shake on the strength of the guacamole and generous toppings. But in the clutch, the Euless OC threw up another brick against eventual champ Pop's. Had OC served the same perfect burger we've had in Watauga, it might have rewritten Burger Bracket history.
2615 Commerce St., Dallas
Oh, my beloved Twisted Root burger. You're so hot and delicious, you with your perfect, peppery patty, your sophisticated style and your chefly ways. Why then, in a competition, do you crumble so easily? In 2009, you were the new kid on the block, and you seduced me hard. That chuck-and-brisket blend, so flirty with that zing of buffalo sauce, and how it melts so rapturously into the dollop of blue cheese dressing. You were magic. You were harmony. You were the Beach Boys of burgers. That year, you sailed easily into the second round of the bracket, where you stumbled with dry patties -- not once, but twice. But since then, your juicy come-ons finally won us all over. Alas, this year, thanks to the taste buds of another judge, you didn't even make it out of the gate, my beautiful TR. You were spurned once more, falling to the new new kid on the Dallas block, Maple & Motor. Sigh. We'll always have lunchtime. But come the next Burger Battle, I hope you never leave me.
H2 Burger Co.
306 Houston St., Fort Worth
A few months ago, DFW.com colleagues told me about H2 Burger Co., the kind of place you need to be told about: It's inside a bar, The Red Goose, with outside signage that doesn't exactly jump up and grab you. (And it's pretty easy to get distracted by the Paciugo Gelato next door.) As soon as I could, I wandered over with a work friend and tried it; we were impressed by the varied menu, which included a veggie burger, an item I always look for because of Marilyn, my vegetarian partner in burgering and everything else. Since then, I've been back for several return visits and I've always been pleased. Except on the day that I judged it for a Battle of the Burgers second-round matchup. Let's just say that I like a lot of things that are crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, but hamburger patties aren't among them, and the cheese on my cheeseburger was so subtle I had to look to make sure it wasn't forgotten. To make matters weirder, I was joined by colleagues researching the best turkey and veggie burgers -- and both had exceptional nonbeef burgers. Dallas institution Keller's barely beat H2 in this bracket, even with H2's misfire. H2 is a strong player that had an off day. That's no crime. I'm sure it has plenty of great days ahead.
7940 North Central Expressway, Dallas
The disparity between the two burgers could not have been greater. One, Grumps, was a homegrown, mini-chain of restaurants specializing in big, juicy, satisfying burgers. Its competitor, the California-bred juggernaut, In-N-Out, delivers a far different experience. (Let's just say there weren't scads of cars holding up traffic and lengthy lines outside Grumps.) While our Double-Double, served animal-style (naturally) -- two slender beef patties caked with cheese and piled high with fresh lettuce and tomato, caramelized onions and fried -- yes, fried -- mustard -- was shockingly good, it wasn't quite enough to squeak past the local folks. Nevertheless, as the rounds progressed, we found ourselves pining for the fast-food burger that slipped through our fingers. It sounds like a mess, but there's a method to the animal-style madness; the fried mustard permeates the meat, just as the caramelized onions provide a smoky counterpoint to the fresh veggies and gooey cheese. The Fort Worth location opens any day now, and we'll happily hop back in the long line and wait for another dose of Left Coast bliss.
2704 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake
The double cheeseburger with bacon and jalapeños at Johnny B's was a work of art -- cheese oozing perfectly between the juicy patties, a delicately sweet bun holding in crunchy pickles and jalapeños (and all that flavor), the generous strips of bacon were oh-so smoky and delicious. After two bites, I was convinced Johnny B's had punched its ticket to the Final Four. But then came Fred's Diablo burger -- a champion at the top of its game. The Diablo wasn't just a work of art on this day, it was a chefly masterpiece. But that doesn't mean I haven't dreamt about another trip to Johnny B's, the best dang burger joint in Southlake's murderers' row of burgers.