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Close. Agonizingly, excruciating close.
So close that many of the judges remarked that it could have easily gone the other way.
Two newcomers that performed ably and authoritatively throughout the tournament faced off in a final matchup that turned on the slightest of slip-ups.
At Chop House, we arrived on an exceptionally busy Monday morning; seemingly every single member of the Arlington police force was in line ahead of us. What can we say about the signature Chop House Burger that we haven't already said before? The beef, a mixture of ground chuck and ground brisket, had a redolent, richly beefy flavor; the chunk of cheddar cheese melted beautifully on top; the house-made steak sauce so confidently pulled all the flavors together. But we also noticed chinks in Chop House's armor. The steak sauce seemed a tad too stingily applied, and instead of blending into the meat as it has in the past -- almost like a marinade -- this time it felt more like a hastily applied condiment. A few of our buns were a bit too aggressively toasted; a few of our toppings -- the sauteed mushrooms, most notably -- needed an extra dose of salt and pepper. And all of our burgers seemed to have been left on the grill just 30 seconds or a minute too long.
Don't get us wrong. We adore this place, which is the brainchild of former steakhouse chef Kenny Mills. We love how Mills mixes the gourmet elegance of the Chop House Burger with the occasional off-the-wall option -- such as "The Cheeseburger," which replaces the bun with, er, a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches. We love that such passion and ingenuity is being poured into food in an otherwise forgettable stretch of South Arlington. But on this day, the sentiments among the judges were pretty much uniform: Chop House was ever so slightly off its game.
Truth be told, Pop's Burgers and Grill also underperformed on Finals Day. Coming off its dazzling performance in the Final Four round against Fred's, where it made not one false move, maybe this was to be expected -- you can't have perfection every time. What Pop's did deliver, however, were the juiciest burgers in the Metroplex, cooked medium, but still impossibly moist, with gentle yet enduring hints of pepper.
We tried the bacon cheeseburger, with a smear of mustard on both top and bottom buns. The meat was piping hot; the cheese was terrifically creamy; the veggies added color and crunch; the mustard had just the right amount of tang. We tried the jalapeño cheeseburger, which performed equally well, with a splendid heat from those fresh jalapeños. We tried the mushroom Swiss, and loved the meaty, smoky mushrooms.
There were quibbles. The bacon was chewier and lacked the depth of flavor of our previous visits. A few of us yearned for a more exciting bun than the commercially produced one here -- it's far and away the least exciting thing about Pop's burgers.
But we kept coming back to this: A single, simple bite of one of these proudly old-fashioned, thick-pattied burgers has the power to launch you back decades in time, to your childhood barbecues and picnics. They don't call it comfort food for nothing.
Let us repeat that it was close. Extremely close. Maybe Chop House suffered from having been so slammed with customers. Maybe Pop's suffered its own stumbles while trying to shake off final round jitters . In the end, though, the judges were in agreement, and it was a decision we felt we could all proudly and happily stand behind.
A new Best Burger in the Metroplex has been named.
The champion: Pop's