Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hamburger Superior.

Top Notch trio. © Ryan Schierling
As much as I'd like to start this off with a quote from Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," which prominently features Austin's Top Notch Hamburgers as backdrop for his classic film about the last day of school in 1976 in a small Texas town, I can't. In the movie, the restaurant isn't much more than a cool background. So I'm going to go with Jules in Pulp Fiction for this one, because it's pretty much true.

"My girlfriend's a vegetarian, so that pretty much makes me a vegetarian, but I do enjoy a tasty burger."

There was a dearth of good, solid burgers in Seattle. It was either local fast food chains (the beloved and cheap Dick's immediately springs to mind) with their thin, grey patties, or pubs (Two Bells Tavern), or specialty burger joints (Lunchbox Laboratory, who Food Network called the best burger in the state) with ridiculous and delicious over-the-top offerings. Don't get me wrong, when I'd had a few drinks I loved eating Dick's as much as the next guy – yeah, that one never gets old – and LL put me into food coma more than a few times, but there was nowhere to go for an honest middle-of-the-road burger that was fresh, consistent, well-made and delicious. Red Mill came close. Daly's came closer. But Daly's closed down, was probably bulldozed and is now condos-up, retail-down.

I can't tell you how excited I was after we'd arrived in Austin, to find out that Texas does not take hamburgers lightly. Even local/regional fast-food joints here kick the buns off of most burgers I've eaten in the rest of the country. The first thing you learn about Texas hamburgers is "all the way," which means mayonnaise, mustard, onion, pickle, tomato, lettuce. There is no secret sauce, there is no ketchup/catsup when you go all the way. I love that when you drive-thru at Sonic, they ask you if you want your burger mayo/mustard OR ketchup, as if the three could never peacefully coexist under the same bun. The second thing you learn about Texas hamburgers is fresh beef. There is no reason to eat a hamburger made from a frozen patty. Ever. EVER. Fresh beef is king in Texas, and the good burger joints serve fresh beef, even the fast food ones.

But as many fantastic burgers as there are in the Lone Star State, I've found that there really are only two significant variations. Is the beef patty on top? Or is it on the bottom?

For example, if you go to legendary All-American staple Sonic, the beef is on top of the "toppings." It goes like this: bottom bun, toppings, beef and cheese, top bun. If you go to legendary All-American staple Dairy Queen, the beef is under the toppings. It goes like this: bottom bun, beef and cheese, toppings, top bun.

(L) Char-broiled @ Top Notch. (R) #4, Longhorn Special. © Ryan Schierling
These are two very different burgers, and this dichotomy led me to question my faith when it came to hamburgers. I'd always been taught that the meat went underneath the toppings. It was just the way things were, and always had been, and always would be. I mean, when you grill at home, the burger goes on the bottom bun, right? Toppings are toppings, right?

Were the juices from the beef on top filtering down through the vegetation underneath, and then hitting my tongue in a more pleasing manner? Was it the mouth-feel of the beef dominance and then the lesser crisp/crunch underneath coming through that I liked? It was a hamburger after all, not a salad sandwich. I don't have all of the answers here. 

I explored other burger joints in Austin. Culver's, beef top. Dan's Hamburgers, beef top. P. Terry's, beef top. Hut's Hamburgers, beef top. Top Notch, beef top. EZ's, beef top. Mighty Fine, beef top. I'm starting to see a trend here, and a trend I think I support wholeheartedly. I mean, I think I like the hamburger superior better. No, no. I'm going to take a stand here. I prefer the beef on top, and the "toppings" underneath. There, I said it. I want the beef on top.

What's your take? Where should the meat go? On top? Or on the bottom? Because this is serious. 


  1. I suppose I don't have a clear preference. Just that the burger be amazing. Incidentally, next time you make it to Seattle, let me take you out to Zippy's Giant Burgers in West Seattle. Simple, honest, and awesome. Oh, and miss you guys.

  2. We miss you guys too. I never made it to Zippy's before we left. But everything I've heard is all good... and it looks like they put their burgers in the middle of the toppings. Conundrum!

  3. Research done: Made it to 3 places in the small town here in Spain willing to make you a burger. It's burgers below, toppin's atop. Did I finally scrape, replace, and enjoy it Austin style-burger aloft? Yes I did. And count one vote for me that I liked it a whole lot. Strange as the toppings were-red peppers brined in olive oil, no mayo OR mustard, goat cheese and jamon. Not bad. Not bad at all. Could have done with a side of onion rings...

  4. I would *gladly* eat goat cheese, jamon and pickled peppers on a burger. But, I would also probably eat goat cheese, jamon and pickled peppers on a deep-fried shoe. Those are awesome "condiments."

  5. I'm gonna have to try the burger on top formation... =)


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