University of Texas football season kicks off Saturday, meaning people will be breaking out the charcoal, filling up the propane tanks and slapping burgers on the grill. While everyone in your neighborhood/tailgate party knows you make the best burgers, I’m going to introduce you to my favorites in town.
Burgers are no longer the strict domain of fast-food joints and greasy spoons. You can find excellent examples at some of Austin’s best restaurants. But just because some of our top chefs have created their own takes on the American classic doesn’t mean you have to get all high-minded about things. Sometimes the simplest burger is the best.
This list features my 12 favorites. Why 12 and not 10? Why not? It’s my list. I’ll do what I want. Why didn’t I rank them in order? My preferences change from day to day. One week I might want a thick coarse-grind burger topped with fontina cheese and cooked over an open flame and another I might long for the childhood memories evoked by the thin flat-top cooked patties served on buns straight from the bag.
I could have gone well past a dozen. I can think of at least 10 others that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as many of these. But I had to stop somewhere, lest my word-count or waistline explode.
Black Sheep Lodge
2108 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-707-2744, BlackSheepLodge.com
I don’t need or expect a game to be on TV when I go to the Black Sheep Lodge for a burger and a beer. In my book, that makes BSL less a sports bar than just a good neighborhood hang with a bunch of TVs and better food than most bars that offer this many beers. Opened in 2009, the Sheep has since expanded to twice its original size, and the crowds come in part for the signature Black Buffalo Burger ($8.49), a half-pound of angus laced with the sting of Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Wing Sauce and smothered in ample chunks of funky blue cheese.
Casino El Camino
517 E. Sixth St. 512-469-9330, CasinoElCamino.net
Walking into the imposing and ominous Sixth Street bar and making your way to the kitchen window in back has served as a rite of passage for young meat-loving drinkers for almost 20 years. Maybe it’s the dim lighting, the bartenders who look like they could kick your butt (and those are just the ladies) or the vintage genre movie posters, but the road into the Casino just feels daunting, like entering that haunted house at the end of a dark street. Once you get your nerve, the place is home. And the ¾-pound burgers coming off the grill taste like something you’d get at a friend’s backyard party, if the devil was manning the grill, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The toasted white bun has grill marks like Slayer’s logo and the cooks look like heavy metal roadies. The Amarillo burger ($8.50) burns like the red neon lights over the bar, the slippery roasted serrano chiles ablaze atop a thick charred patty full of fierce pepper. Cilantro mayonnaise squirts out of the sides, but don’t expect any floral cool in the concoction. That wouldn’t be very rock ’n’ roll.
1200 W. Sixth St. 512-297-2525, ClarksOysterBar.com
Seafood takes top billing at this McGuire Moorman Hospitality property billed as the little brother to Perla’s on South Congress Avenue. Despite its seafood pedigree and Hamptons-esque styling, the oyster bar puts out a mean burger. And it’s as fancy as you might expect from the white tablecloth shoebox painted in oceanside sea foam with yellow awnings hanging over nautical-colored stools out front. I doubt any other restaurant has the temerity or ingenuity to include a sauce gribiche on a burger, the tangy egg and mustard mixture a bright accompaniment to the savory billiard-ball sized burger covered in a nutty melted gruyere. Enjoy the $16 pan-roasted burger with a glass of Donati cabernet sauvignon ($14), because … why not?
2027 Anchor Lane. 512-614-2260, ContigoTexas.com/Austin
It makes sense that a restaurant inspired by a Texas ranch would serve one of the best burgers in town. All wood, leather and wrought iron, Contigo spills from its garage-sized interior bar to a massive outdoor seating area featuring long picnic tables. A copious layer of white cheddar drapes this burger ($13) that bristles with a peppery crust that reveals a pink interior that gushes its juices at the press of a palm or squeeze of a jaw. Homemade bread and butter pickles and a rich aioli make for a fine balance of accoutrements on the tall burger served on pumped-up housemade challah bread. Make sure you sample one of Contigo’s excellent cocktails to go with your burger. I recommend the old fashioned ($9).
Crown and Anchor
2911 San Jacinto Blvd. 512-322-9168, CrownAndAnchorPub.com
I can’t begin to imagine how many hours I would have spent at this campus-area pub had I attended the University of Texas. I probably would have just had my mail forwarded to the bar that offers billiards, darts, a great deck and more than 20 beers on tap. The Crown and Anchor opened in 1987, and the gristle-edged burgers have a flavor that makes me believe the same flat-top has been in service for all 26 of the years. There’s nothing fancy about this burger. It reminds me of the kind I used to crush at municipal golf courses as a kid. I always get a double ($8.25) with bacon and cheese (simple American slices), pickles, fierce white onions, mustard and mayonnaise, on which they do not skimp. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t go to UT.
207 E. 53rd St. 512-614-6683, DrinkWellAustin.com
One of the places that helped change the face of the North Loop entertainment district, Drink. Well. makes eclectic bar food that almost rivals their excellent cocktails, from tater tots to a kimchi reuben. The burger is the menu’s showcase item. Charred on the outside with a rosy center the color of the bright tomatoes atop it, the burger ($11) comes blanketed in a sharp white cheddar on fluffy potato roll. The burger’s not-so-secret weapon? An onion marmalade both smoky and sweet. Get the burger with the fantastic auburn homemade potato chips and a vieux carre.
2307 Hancock Drive. 512-371-6840, EpicerieAustin.com
Some neighbors expressed dismay when chef Sarah McIntosh’s cute bistro opened in an old salon across the street from Fonda San Miguel. That squawking seems to be mostly a distant memory now, with the elegant restaurant hosting a steady flow of diners at brunch, lunch and dinner. Among the successes at the French-inspired Epicerie is the sumptuous cheddar cheeseburger ($10.95) that comes on an absorbent and mildly sweet brioche bun.
3110 Guadalupe St. 512-537-0467, HopfieldsAustin.com
Beer nerds and foodies have equal reason to love this campus-area spot that features an exceptional tap wall and culls recipes from the owner’s French grandmother. The delicate, flaky tartes and nicoise salad pay respect to France, and the classic American cheeseburger gets a French update, with creamy rind-on camembert cheese, sweet caramelized onions, bold brown mustard and spirited Napoleonic gerkins layering their flavors on the Pascal burger ($12) that comes with crisp, golden fries.
Luke’s Inside Out
1109 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-589-8883, LukesInsideOut.com
Trailer owner Luke Bibby sports a bandana, a devilish soul patch that looks like a billow of smoke and likes to keep it light with his troops at the trailer stationed outside the Gibson bar. It’s no surprise then to find out that the chef has a colorful cooking history that includes catering for musicians and big music festivals. Some improvised condiment crafting at the Austin City Limits Music Festival one year led Bibby to create his signature Love sauce. I won’t spill his secret here, but the sweet tang of barbecue sauce lingers after you bite into the ½-pound sirloin burger ($10) topped with crisp bacon. The juiciness comes from an 80-20 lean-fat split, a beautiful little sin that bleeds over the gooey yellow cheddar cheese and bright red tomato that resemble the Spanish flag. The flat-top burger comes with Parmesan chips, but I suggest paying the $1.50 extra for crinkle-cut potatoes. And if you really have no regard for your health, top those with bacon, queso and jalapeños — something one of the more inebriated or stoned bands Bibby has crossed paths with might appreciate.
301 E. Sixth St. 512-474-9898, Parkside-Austin.com
The hope among many was that chef Shawn Cirkiel’s New American oyster bar and grill would serve as a template for what “dirty Sixth” could be. Sadly, much of the street remains the same. Happily, Cirkiel’s burger ($11) remains as great as it’s been since the restaurant opened in 2008. It may not be too big around, but it can stand up to any in town. The fat content makes for a burst of juices absorbed by the buttery roll hash-marked by the grill. At the daily happy hour from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. the $5.50 burger is one of the best deals in town. And while you can’t go wrong with the crispy, thin fries, I like to sub a dollop of the boozy blond pate. It’ll leave you full and wobbly like a Sixth Street newbie.
Second Bar + Kitchen
200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2750, CongressAustin.com/Second
The space at this Congress Avenue restaurant is bright, airy, modern and sleek, fit for an afternoon business meeting or a classy date night. But its popular burger is a roll-up-your-sleeves, tuck-the-napkin-into-your-collar affair. The house ground brisket and chuck mixture make for a sloppy proposition, the recklessness of the patty given a bit of refinement from shallot confit and a thick cut of gruyere. With fine dining Congress within elbow-swinging room, you can add seared foie gras ($14) or a crisp pork belly ($4) to your colossus, but you might need a nap by the time you eat your last bite.
315 Congress Ave. 512-482-8842, SwiftsAttic.com
This shabby-chic second-floor restaurant on Congress Avenue sometimes feels like a nightclub, with the expansive bar area up front playing host to loud groups of revelers. But no dance club can boast a burger like Swift’s Bowling Alley burger ($13). No bowling alley can, either. The coarse-ground patty blends the salty tang of melted fontina with the sweetness of caramelized onions for a decadent burger that can get amped up with Calabrian peppers, oxtail, pork belly and more.