Burger Battle: The Road to the Goat’s first rodeo

Posted 11:37am on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013

If all had gone according to plan, this sunny Sunday afternoon at Rodeo Goat Icehouse would look a lot different. Hungry burger lovers probably wouldn’t be lined up to get in, snatching up every seat. Chef Keith Grober might even be at home, taking it easy with his wife, not yelling out orders to the kitchen staff, expo’ing plates and soothing the minute-to-minute headaches that go along with running a high-volume restaurant.

And it’s doubtful, very doubtful, that Rodeo Goat would be crowned the best burger joint in DFW.

No, if all had gone according to plan, if Grober and father-son founders Shannon and Sam Wynne had stuck to their original guns, Rodeo Goat would be a popular, profitable icehouse — a West 7th version of 8.0, Wynne’s popular downtown spot. Decent food, for sure. But award-winning food, the kind of stuff that people line up for, the kind of food that critics and bloggers and burger-chasers and ordinary, everyday people have raved about since Day One, nah. But hey, it has about 80 craft beers and a big patio.

“We originally wanted to do tacos, but by the time we finally found our space and began building the Goat, taco joints were all over the place,” says partner Keith Schlabs, who owns the restaurant with the Wynnes and Larry Richardson. “So, we chose burgers instead. Then, we started grinding, blending and tasting meats. Once we found the perfect blend, we began pushing the limits on ideas for flavor combinations.”

At that point, says Shannon Wynne, priorities changed, with food moving to the forefront. “No one was doing anything like this here,” says Wynne, a longtime restaurateur who opened his first place, Flying Saucer, in downtown Fort Worth in 1995. “We’d been to Hopdoddy in Austin and knew other restaurants elsewhere were doing similar things. But we wanted to come about this honestly. We didn’t want to just rip off someone else’s idea. We put a chef in charge of the kitchen and the menu, but if you want a straightforward, down and dirty burger, you can get a straightforward, down and dirty burger.”

The original menu was only five burgers long, Grober says. “Every time we went back to Shannon with ideas for five burgers, he’d say, ‘Do five more.’ At that point the menu just kept growing and growing.”

Pretty soon, there were burgers with arugula, coriander chutney, jalapeño jam, Gruyere and other gourmet-ish toppings. Instead of getting lost among the myriad burger spots in Fort Worth, Rodeo Goat’s gourmet garnishes and experimental nature set them apart.

“It was a major risk,” says Grober. “Definitely a major risk. “We’d be going head-to-head against Fred’s [only a couple of blocks away on Currie Street], whose burgers are phenomenal and so well loved. But I gotta tell you, it was a good idea, a good concept and we made it work.”

For the showdown between Rodeo Goat and Chop House Burgers, click here. Plus: the winner of the Readers' Bracket.

For the past five weeks, Rodeo Goat has been on fire, says server and bartender Sarah Semmens. “Ever since the DFW.com Burger Battle started, this place has been crazy.” On this Sunday afternoon, you see what she means, as a trickle turns into a typhoon. Soon after the doors open at 11 a.m., it’s a steady stream. At 12:15, a line begins to form; by 12:30, forget it, unless you want to sit outside in 95-degree heat, you’re just going to have to wait for a table.

Doug Ridenour doesn’t mind at all. “We come once a week. We drive in from Arlington. Chop House is about a block from our house,” he says, a Caca Oaxaca burger in his hands, his wife, Sara, next to him. “Chop House has good burgers, but they’re nothing like these. The toppings are what take this place to another level.”

Even though gourmet burgers are hardly a new concept, it was uncharted territory for Fort Worth, a town that vehemently, protectively stands by its stalwart burger joints: Fred’s, Kincaid’s, Dutch’s, Charley’s, Tommy’s. All serve solid burgers, but none offers blackberry compote as a topping.

Just as there was a bit of skepticism about Fireside Pies — which does to pizzas what Rodeo Goat does to burgers — there existed a certain amount of trepidation that people wouldn’t go for out-of-the-ordinary burgers.

“People aren’t stupid,” says Wynne. “They can see through a gimmick. That’s why the burgers themselves had to be good, not just what we put on them. These had to be good burgers, inside and out.”

Regulars like Ridenour swear by the Caca Oaxaca, the star of RG’s menu and one of the burgers that helped RG win DFW.com’s Burger Battle. The 7-ounce patty is one part chorizo, one part chuck. A fried egg goes on top, along with avocado, pico, queso fresco and a house made Tabasco-mayo. Another favorite is the Cowboy Murrin, strewn with fried onion strings, applewood smoked bacon, sliced jalapeños, cheddar cheese and a pair of made-from-scratch secret recipes: barbecue sauce and pickle chutney.

“When they were working on the menu, they must have taste-tested 50 burgers,” Wynne says. Some of those burgers have turned up in Rodeo Goat’s own burger war, in which two off-the-menu burgers are pitted against one another. The winner is honored with a permanent place on the menu. The latest to triumph: The Whiskey Burger, topped with bourbon-candied bacon, Irish whiskey cheddar and blackberry compote.

Blackberry compote on a burger? Grober has obviously been given free reign with the menu.

“They trust me, they trust my instincts,” he says of the Wynnes. “That’s one reason why I wanted to move over here.”

For a decade, Grober worked at the downtown Flying Saucer; he worked his way up from dishwasher to a manager. His free time was spent playing and touring in a local band called Addnerim. He decided to leave the band and focus his energy on his other passion, cooking. When the Wynnes opened the gastropub Meddlesome Moth, Grober was hired to head up the kitchen. And then, when Rodeo Goat opened last November, his hourlong commutes to Dallas were a thing of the past.

Even though the concepts are different, the similarities between the two made it an appetizing opportunity for Grober.

“You come into our kitchen, it looks and feels like a fine-dining kitchen,” says Grober, 32. “To me, that’s exactly what Rodeo Goat is. We are constantly tasting the food to make sure it’s up to standard. We’re constantly experimenting, coming up with new burgers and new sauces. It’s cuisine between two pieces of bread.”

Named by Shannon after a phrase he heard, “drunk as a rodeo goat,” Rodeo Goat is in a 6,000-square-foot space once occupied by a candy factory. It’s divided into three sections — an outdoor patio that can seat about 160, an inside bar area where patrons sit at long pub tables or at the bar itself, and a seated dining area, with tables and booths, surrounded by old gates; it looks like a pen. Several flat-screen TVs show the big games, while kids can play the “goat ring” game.

In the small kitchen about a dozen workers are in a constant state of motion, hand-forming and grinding the chuck/brisket patties, running potatoes through the “puncher” to make the excellent fries; everyone’s tasting everything, to make sure it’s being cooked, prepared and served to the restaurant’s high standards.

Bucking the local trend, beef for the burgers comes from Omaha. “I love it that so many restaurants support local farmers and before we opened we sampled the local beef,” Grober says. “It was great, but what we sampled from Omaha was better. For us, taste came first.”

Fries are made throughout the day. Fifty-pound bags of cured potatoes are stored in the front of the house, near where servers run out their plates. Several times a day, those bags of potatoes are thrown over someone’s shoulder and lugged to the kitchen, where they’re washed three times and run by hand through a potato punch, which cuts them into long, thin wedges.

“Last Saturday, we started with 21 bags of potatoes and on Monday morning we were down to one,” says Landon Amis, the restaurant’s general manager. “A thousand pounds of potatoes in two days — that’s a lot of fries.”

Buns are brioche-style and come from a bakery in the Dallas area. Grober doesn’t want the bakery’s name out there because he’s afraid another restaurant will steal the supplier. But he will say what he had to go through to find this bakery; if you want to know, you’re more than welcome, he says, to do the same.

“We found these great buns at a burger place in Dallas,” he says. “But they wouldn’t tell us where they were from, either. So, after they closed, we went Dumpster diving and found a box with the name of the bakery on it. Yes, we actually dove into the Dumpster. It was that important to us. We’d looked and looked and looked for the perfect bun.”

From a perch in the bar area, you can watch your burger being made. On this day, the line is being worked by three employees. Lightning-fast Luis Espinosa is in charge of cooking the meat, on a flat-top as busy as a chain-smoker; he dresses the patties with seasoning, bacon and cheese. Next to him, Miguel Martinez works the buns, swiping them with whole butter, throwing them on the flat-top until their edges are crisp, then taking them off to carefully dress them with sauces and vegetables, his hands slowly moving with the precision of a tailor. Jose Osorio is the fry guy, perhaps the busiest of the bunch. Each order of fries comes on butcher paper, neatly wrapped and twisted at the top to ensure warm travels from the line to the table.

“I call them my rock stars,” Grober says. “My rock stars can bang out a $7,000 lunch service — which is about 400 people — with a less than 15-minute ticket time each. That means, it’ll take you 15 minutes or less to get your food. You can be in and out of here at lunch in 30 minutes or less. These guys are good.”

Sauces are made in-house. This is a point of virtue for Grober, as it should be for any restaurant that takes the time, energy and money to develop and implement its own sauces.

“Anyone can do mayo, but to do your own mayo, to do your own ranch, that takes time and money and a lot of trial and error,” he says.

It’s the whole package, however, that launched Rodeo Goat to the No. 1 slot on our burger bracket. Wasn’t just the sauces or the patties or the buns or the fresh produce, which arrives daily. Each element is admirable on its own. Together, they added up to beautiful, imaginative and delicious burgers, time and time and time again.

“Winning the DFW.com Burger Battle, in a word, it makes me proud,” Grober says. “The amazing amount of pride that’s going to burn in my heart, not just because of the time that I put in, but because of the time that everyone who works here has put in. We all made this happen, together.”

Click here for our odes to the burgers that left us too soon in the competition; the biennial Burgie Awards; and meet the Burger Battle judges. Just below, check out a video clip of Chef Keith Grober at the grill, making up a Caca Oaxaca burger.

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