The Dallas Burger Goes Gourmet
Forget the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder. Local patties are going gourmet.
Mushroom and swiss burger at Pappas Burger (left); build-your-own piled high with feta cheese, bacon, and mushrooms at The Counter (right).photography by Kevin Hunter Marple
Everywhere you turn, it’s burgers, burgers, burgers. And we are not talking about Mickey D and his pal BK. Ever since New York-based French chef Daniel Boulud launched a culinary cannonball in the summer of 2001 with his foie gras-infused DB Burger, everyone’s lining up to build the perfect burger, to transform it from basic grub to high cuisine.
Locally, Twisted Root Burger Co. in Deep Ellum was first, followed by Tim Love’s Love Shack in Fort Worth. More recently, four new entries have joined the burger brigade—from a California-spawned chain in Plano to a chef-driven spot in Fort Worth. Two out of four have a bar on the premises; burgers have grown up.
At Dutch’s in Fort Worth, celebri-chef Grady Spears takes each component and upscales it. The ground beef was organic, from Billito’s Best, a rancher in West Texas. Fries were hand-cut, skins-on, with a deliberately rustic, non-uniform appearance. Onion rings were thick bangles with a substantial crust, made from a batter of buttermilk, beer, and egg and flecked with peppercorns. The result was crunchy, not greasy, with the bite of the peppercorns making the rings thoroughly addictive.
But Dutch’s defining element was the bun. It’s a unique sweet sourdough made by Sweet Mesquite, a bakery in Houston brought to the table by Spears’ partner, Lou Lambert. The sweetness of the bun made the burger seem all the more manly—which made the bun seem that much sweeter. That interplay will keep you going until the burger is all gone.
Dutch’s eschews milk shakes. Instead there is beer, served at a welcoming bar; rough-hewn wood tables create a ramshackle vibe and a lovable shaggy dog of a place.
Pappas Burger comes from the Houston-based Pappas family, owner of Pappadeaux, Pappasito’s, Pappa this and Pappa that, but most significantly the excellent Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, which supplies Pappas Burger with its meat. (There are two other Pappas Burger locations, both in Houston.) The 9-ounce patty was thick but not too, on a utilitarian bun, served with excellent french fries cut a shade thicker and longer than the fast-food archetype.
Milk shake flavors included Butterfinger and Oreo, though the texture came off as too frothy to make a dent.
In addition to burgers, Pappas has entrees at night such as fried catfish and CFS. With a full bar and lots of sports on flat-screen TVs, the name Pappas Burger is a misnomer. It’s less about the burger and more about being a place to take the family and hang out.
Mooyah is a new chain wannabe that’s barely a cut above a traditional fast-food place. The first branch opened in Plano, a second opened in Uptown, a third opened in Addison in December, with more on the way. Launched by Rich Hicks, who founded Tin Star, and his partner Todd Istre, Mooyah keeps it simple, with just three items on the menu: burgers, fries, and shakes.
Given the limited selection, you’d hope that everything they do would excel. But you might only call Mooyah excellent if you were comparing it to regular fast food. As in, “This burger tastes good compared to one you’d get at McDonald’s.” By gourmet standards, the bar here is set low.
Burgers were greasy (which for some is, admittedly, an asset). You can choose from toppings such as bacon, grilled onions, or sauteed mushrooms. Cheese is of the oozing yellow variety; there’s also choice of various sauces including mayo, ketchup, and, of course, “special.”
Fries were thicker than the typical fast-food spud, which meant they had some body along with crunch. Shakes had the same weirdly goopy consistency as the shakes at, yes, McDonald’s. Mooyah claims its shakes are made with real ice cream, but it’s a soft-serve version of real ice cream, which some might say is not real ice cream at all. My meal at Mooyah’s produced that same leaden feeling you get post-fast food, except it cost twice as much.
The Counter comes from California and lo and behold, there’s avocado and sprouts on the menu. Also: grilled pineapple, carrot strings, garlic aioli, peanut sauce—something like 60 toppings, sauces, cheeses, et cetera. Do people honestly want this many choices for their burgers? But then you go a couple of times and suddenly you’re grateful that they’ll fulfill your neurotic need for having your burger with scallions and olives on an English muffin.
The burgers boasted a good crunchy edge and memorable meaty flavor. Medium-small french fries were less memorable than the slightly thicker sweet potato fries, both dusted generously with salt. Onion “strings” cloned the super-thin style blazed by Tony Roma’s, requiring a fork and not as satisfying as the big, thick version.
Part of the lore of The Counter is that it was designed for people in their 20s, with an industrial decor theme including polished aluminum chairs and poured cement floors. The staff was young and low-rise jeans are encouraged.
Given its California birthplace, you’d think The Counter would do a good veggie burger; they do make their own from a blend of toasted rice, black beans, scallions, and dried cranberries, so points for that. But the thing fell apart and tasted like fish sauce. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and get a burger.
Update: The Counter has closed.