Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series on food on the road. Part of travel is eating well and we'll give you the info to make wise choices when you leave Houston.
A Texas burger is a sight to behold: Two buns enveloping a juicy patty, crisp lettuce, melted American cheese, thick mayonnaise, sliced red tomato and diced white onion methodically wrapped and placed in a greasy paper sack.
Whether delivered by a teenager on roller skates with crispy thin fries and vanilla milkshakes, served in a red plastic basket with a Shiner Bock at the local haunt or exchanged through a drive-thru window of a late night burger shack, this handheld edible is loved by its devourers.
If there is one thing I've learned, it's that Texans love — I mean really love — their burgers. And just because you leave Houston doesn't mean you should have to give up great burgers.
With that in mind, we set out to find the best burgers in Austin.
Along the way, I also learned what qualities and ingredients sum up the greatness of a burger. Some of these burgers win not just because of their taste, but also because of the ambiance and atmosphere that surrounds them. Others win for their historical, almost cult-like following in the city.
A few sealed their place on the list for their bold move beyond the typical Texas beef, yellow mustard and sesame bun combinations.
Whatever the reason, these 12 Austin burgers deserve a hearty round of applause and a meeting with your taste buds. Keep in mind, these are in no particular order.
1. Hopdoddy — Primetime ($12) — This artisan Kobe beef burger got a roaring shout out from a great number of individuals, including Paul Qui, executive chef of Uchiko, who prefers the Primetime cooked medium-rare to rare with a hint of mustard. He notes the Primetime is his favorite Austin burger because of its "high-quality ingredients, good burger-to-bun ratio and [its] bun."
The burger is made with American Kobe beef, brie cheese, truffle aioli, arugula, caramelized onions, steak sauce and an in-house prepared bun.
Hopdoddy's tendency to supersede traditional burger norms with renditions like cabrito burgers, rabbit burgers and antelope burgers is what makes it stand out. A restaurant team composed of minds from places like Z'Tejas and Moonshine have composed a menu that embraces a unique ideal: No burger idea is off limits.
"A lot of chefs take these standard beef burgers and try to add toppings or ingredients to give the burger its own identity, but I thought 'Why does a burger have to be defined to just beef,'" Larry Perdido, one of the creators of Hopdoddy, says. "I have a saying, 'If it has hooves or feathers, grind it up and put it in a patty.' "
2. Hut's Hamburgers — Hut's Favorite ($6.95) — I first visited Hut's Hamburgers after watching the bats exit the Congress Bridge as a kid. I still remember my first savory bite.
This restaurant has asserted its place as an Austin burger legend, and I doubt it will lose that title anytime soon. Sure, I wouldn't call it a winner amongst refined palates or hardcore foodies, but I wouldn't beef with a Hut's Hamburgers devotee any day of the week.
The burger menu has a heaping helping of burgers that include all-natural Texas beef, buffalo and longhorn, but when it charbroils down to it, the best Hut's burger is the simplest. The Hut's burger that makes our list is none other than Number Seven — Hut's Favorite, made with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, bacon and American cheese.
Sure, it's not the most innovative on the menu, but that's what Hut's is known for: No-fuss, take-it-or-leave-it, legendary burgers. And if you haven't tried a Hut's Burger you haven't been initiated into Austin.
"We're always going to have Hut's in town, and it's going to have the feel-good, fifties vibe to it," Larry Perdido of Hopdoddy says. "There is nothing wrong with that, and people in Austin gravitate towards that."
3. Counter Cafe — Counter Burger ($11) — Counter Cafe has a mystery burger. In fact, if you walk into the hole-in-the-wall restaurant off Lamar Boulevard to grab a bite, you wouldn't know from studying the menu that the burger is king. Yet when you overhear every person ordering a burger, you have an indication of what's really going on.
I should note that when I asked around about the best burger in town, Counter Cafe had some of the strongest supporters. The restaurant's all-natural beef patty with cheddar cheese, red onion, organic bib lettuce and tomatoes has developed a following of devotees that swear by its deliciousness. The thick patty holds it moistness well and is surrounded by a sweet bun.
4. Parkside — Cheeseburger ($5.50) — This juicy American cheeseburger is the brainchild of Shawn Cirkiel. Cirkiel's inspiration for the Parkside burger stems from grandmother's hamburger steak, which had a perfect texture he has recreated through his burger. The cheeseburger's magnificent crumble is the result of two separate grinds of beef, which gives the burger a great richness.
"We've had it on the menu since we've opened, and it continues to be something we're well known for," Cirkiel says. "I eat a lot of burgers around town, but this one is still my favorite."
5. Casino El Camino — The Amarillo Burger ($7.50) — The bar is seedy, but the burger is divine. The restaurant fits right in with the rest of Sixth Street, so if you are looking for something intimate, I'd go elsewhere. You order your burger directly from the kitchen, and one burger devotee compares Casino El Camino to the Soup Nazi's kitchen on Seinfeld.
Sure, you're going to order a burger, but you're going to get it the way the kitchen gives it to you. You don't like it? No burger for you!
"If you talk to industry folks, Casino El Camino would be amongst the favorites, but if you're talking to suburbanites, they probably wouldn't know about it," Chuck Smith of Hopdoddy says. "It's grungy, but it's really good."
The Amarillo Burger is quintessential Texan, made with three-quarter pound local angus beef, roasted serrano chiles, jalapeño jack cheese and cilantro mayonnaise. It may be the dark horse, but it's muy bueno.
6. Justine's — Royale with Cheese ($12) — Who could forget the moment when John Travolta humorously described a McDonald's burger from Paris in the movie Pulp Fiction: "You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris? . . . They call it The Royale with Cheese."
Justine's has playfully adapted this title to artfully describe its burger. The beef burger comes surrounded by a baguette and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and gruyère cheese. The name may be derived from a Parisian McDonald's, but this burger is classy.
"The beef is cooked the right way, it is seasoned properly and the bun is awesome," Jesse Herman, owner of La Condesa, says of the burger.
7. 24 Diner — Bacon Avocado Burger ($13.85) — 24 Diner doesn't get enough credit for its burger. Sure, the place is known for its comfort cuisine and sophisticated brunch, but that doesn't mean the 24-hour restaurant can't cook up a mean patty. Jodi Bart of Tasty Touring says the Bacon Avocado Burger from 24 Diner is her favorite Austin burger.
The burger's high-quality meat, challah bun and fixings are what carried the burger to the next level for her.
"Taking up half the plate, the first thing you'll notice is the shiny challah bun with thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon peeking out on all four sides. Under the bacon rests fresh-cut avocado slices and dark-green charred poblano peppers. Topped off with smoked aioli, forget about the usual fixings and enjoy this burger as the chef intended — cooked medium," she says.
8. Shady Grove — Cheeseburger ($7.49) — It may not be one of the prettiest burgers on our list, but Shady Grove's burger tugs at the heart strings. Its surrounding atmosphere, artful simplicity and beautiful messiness embody that Austin vibe that we crave. Many locals, including Patrick Terry, owner of P. Terry's, still consider this one of their favorite burger places.
"Before we opened P. Terry's, my wife Kathy and I would go to Shady Grove and treat ourselves to the cheeseburger," Terry says. "When we go back there every once in awhile, and just the sights and the smells of that restaurant bring us back. The burger is different from ours, but it's a welcome change for us."
The cheeseburger is made with half a pound of ground chuck, topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions and surrounded by a thick toasted brioche bun.
9. P. Terry's — Veggie Burger ($3.80) — Nobody could have predicted the growth P. Terry's would have. What began as a simple burger restaurant operated out of an abandoned Short Stop in 2005 has turned into a fast food empire now run out of five locations. The sixth location opens in the Village at Westlake shopping center on Friday.
This drive-thru restaurant is quintessential Austin, ranging from its design — created by Michael Hsu — its hip color palette, its dedication to quality ingredients, and of course its delicious burgers. Patrick Terry, owner of P. Terry's, confessed that he even eats lunch at the restaurant every day.
"I'm not a veggie guy," Terry says. "I don't think I even ever ate a veggie burger until we put one on our menu. But, I have to say, I love our veggie burger. For a meat eater, that's a big thing to say."
10. Second Bar + Kitchen — Bar Congress Burger ($12) — Perhaps the most beautiful and elegant burger on our list, the Bar Congress Burger is the product of David Bull's genius. The gourmet American burger is made with house-ground brisket and chuck, shallot confit, gruyère, greens, tomato and horseradish pickles. Since its opening, the upscale restaurant has garnered media attention from all over the nation.
It was also named Texas Monthly's best new restaurant in Texas in March, but the restaurant's burger still remains somewhat unknown. In fact, very few individuals I polled even knew about the Bar Congress Burger, but I'm hoping this will convince them to go out and order it.
11. Yumé Burger — Japajam burger ($5.55) — This food truck opened late last year, but it has surprisingly become one of Austin most delicious burger places. And if anyone can perfectly cook in a food truck, Eric Silverstein, owner of the Peached Tortilla, can. Silverstein has invented a novel burger concept with his Japanese street burgers through Yumé Burger.
The thick burgers aren't your typical American beef and cheese combinations, but Austin is ready for a change.
"Yumé Burgers are so good, you don't have to eat them on the bun. That standard speaks to the quality of their ingredients," Rachelle King of Blinded by The Bite says. "As a food writer, the ingredients have to be able to stand alone but also as a whole."
The Japajam burger, made with beef, Japanese tomato jam, a fried egg, barbecue sauce and crispy onion strings, is one burger that stood out to us not only for its undeniable goodness, but also because it's a welcome change to your typical mundane burger.
12. Mighty Fine Burgers — The Mighty Burger ($5.19) — When Mighty Fine Burgers opened in 2007, many Austin residents probably thought they were in for just another quick, grab-your-burger-and-go restaurant. Mighty Fine defied all expectations. The restaurant quickly gathered steam and even made its way onto Texas Monthly's 50 Best Burgers list in 2009.
The magazine noted, "This sleek new fast-food franchise —which boasts sanitizing 'hand Jacuzzis' in the dining area — looks too squeaky-clean and corporate to produce a good burger. Luckily, it serves up chow that has the heart and soul of a greasy spoon."
The restaurant still maintains its surprisingly delicious quality burgers, especially the Mighty Burger. And, if your heart so desires, top off the meal with an order of salty fries and a strawberry Blue Bell ice cream shake.