When former City of Ate contributor Steven Doyle, now a big shot at Critic’s Guide, was posting at the Dallas Observer, he was constantly asked “What is the best burger/taco/pizza (add your own comestible here…) in town?” or “Can I get to Wingfield’s burgers on only one tank of gas?” and “Is Rockwall this side of the Louisiana border?”
To settle these questions he decided to conduct a series of taste-offs… Jump for the glorious details. AND “2010 Burger Tour,” the movie.
His first official tourl took place on Saturday. I joined 18 other volunteers for a day of burger munching around the Dallas area. The plan was to visit four or five touted burger places where, in order to ensure we survived the whole tour, we would split a burger with two to three other people. One would never reach agreement among Dallas burgerphiles as to which places to visit, so Doyle simply drew on his training with Attila the Hun and announced where we would go. Take it or leave it. This was good, as we were scheduled to leave the parking lot at base camp at 11am and managed to do so promptly (at least by 11:30am).
Such a serious task required serious transportation and Steve was able to rustle-up just the thing – a 1969 school bus (I know it was the legendary 1969 model because the license plate was ’69 Bus’). Furthermore, this particular example was the ‘Woodstock’ edition. As well as a period-correct paint scheme it had a disco ball (thought to be from a later model) and pole-dancing pole on board. Riders were encouraged to sign the interior paint with a marker pen. Aftermarket a/c made it climatically comfortable and the north-south seating guaranteed that you would get intimate with your fellow eaters on the left and the right every time the brakes were applied – whether you wanted to or not. The suspension was the worse for wear after its 31 year life, but more on that later. Ample supplies of beer and wine helped ensure nobody died of thirst. One of those sound systems where “the numbers go to 11” meant that, as we traveled along city streets, everybody on the sidewalks stopped and stared.
Our first stop was Boots Burgers in Rockwall. They are located in a shack at the back of a private house on a quiet residential street. A small marquee-like sign in the front yard informs you that you have found it, although it would be easy to miss but for the line of cars parked out front. There is no indoor seating and you order from the limited menu at a small window. When your burger is ready they wave at you through a side window and you go back to pick it up. Drinks are in the soda machine.
The burger is a fairly thick patty of fairly fatty beef. The cheese is standard “American Cheese” and the accompaniments are finely chopped onions, shredded lettuce, and pickle. Bootsburger had one of the best sides we found on the tour: hot relish is made with jalapeno and it is hot enough to be piquant but also shows clearly-defined jalapeno flavors. Frankly, it was scarfable on its own. The juicy patty had a distinct beefy flavor and attendees judged this a good start to the tour. In the words of a famous restaurant guide, Bootsburger is “worth a diversion.”
Next came a late revision of the original plan. Randall Copeland, chef/co-owner of Restaurant AVA had intended to come on the tour, but restaurant duties swamped him. So he invited the group over to the restaurant where he and co-owner Nathan Tate made us AVA’s interpretation of a burger. The patty is made from the scraps from the tenderloin and rib eye served in the restaurant, the cheese is white aged cheddar, the toasted buns are baked in-house and the bacon is also made in-house from Niman Ranch pork belly. So fanatical is the commitment of these guys to the integrity of their ingredients that they used to even make their own mustard.
This was the humble burger gussied up for its prom. As much care and attention was lavished on it as one would a fine steak. It may be, without exaggeration, the single best burger of my life. I don’t know if this is on the menu at AVA, but try it if you can.
It was back to the bus and the long haul back to town and down to The OC for Wingfield’s Breakfast and Burger. The building here was apparently designed by the same celebrity architect that did Bootsburger’s. Except here, you do order inside. Affable owner Richard Wingfield abandoned the thankless task of trying to teach Steven Doyle biology as a DISD science teacher for the role of burger entrepreneur and neighborhood institution. During our visit there was a constant stream of locals double-parking outside to place orders.
The burger itself is massive. Wingfield uses regular 80/20 ground beef for a succulent patty, It is paired with American cheese, sliced red onions, a slice of tomato and discs of pickles. Wingfield’s can be regarded as representing the best example of a traditional burger. That is, this is a home style rendition rather than a gourmet take on the concept.
Now running only an hour late we headed over to Greenville Avenue to try what Texas Monthly has called The Best Burger in Texas. Chef Brian Luscher’s burger at The Grape. As it happened, they had gone to town for us, with a tent set up on the patio and a special one-quarter version of the famous burger made of the same ingredients as the original. That means all Texas produce consisting of hydroponic Bib lettuce, Lemley’s tomatoes, Luscher’s house-cured and smoked bacon and buns that come from French Father and Son Bakery in Garland. The result is impressive. The juicy and tasty meat complemented by the sharpness of the lettuce and the sweetness of the tomatoes. Also, not a burger, but Luscher is making his own sausages now. Check the video for a hearty filled roll he calls an Uncle Jimmy’s that uses his Italian sausage.
We couldn’t be let off without being reminded of the Woodstock bus’s mechanical limitations. Our journey from Wingfields to The Grape took us, for reasons I won’t go into, along Monticello Avenue, which has speed bumps at what seems like every three yards. At a full out 25mph the bus’s rear end would rise a foot to scale the bump and so would the Steve Doyle’s budget Styrofoam beer cooler, which was on the floor of the bus near the back. After passing over the bump the rear end of the bus would come down a foot. However, the cooler did not. It just froze, motionless, in the air for a fraction of a second before crashing down to the floor. On one of these bumps the side of the cooler split off and a wall of water, ice and beer bottles gushed onto the floor running half way along the bus. Luckily, no bottles were broken in the making of this disaster movie.
As we arrived back at base camp, two hours late, every one agreed that it had been a great day out and there was not a bad burger in the bunch. Beyond that, people differed in their rankings. I personally saw two categories of burgers on the tour: gourmet burgers and traditional burgers. The two gourmet burgers (The Grape and Restaurant AVA) were very close, but I give it to AVA by a nose. The two traditionalist burgers were also close, but I give it to Wingfield’s (even though Richard didn’t succeed in teaching Steve Doyle much biology).
Next: taco tour. Date: TBA.