It seemed like a gutsy play: Eureka!, a California restaurant chain, recently opened a location in Dallas, a land where restaurant owners love the word "scalable." Even more brazen: The restaurant specializes in burgers, and hopes to out-patty the state that practically invented the cow. Step aside Hopdoddy, Liberty Burger, Goodfriend, Keller's and other local favorites; let California show you how burgers are done.
It wasn't unprecedented. Many California-based chains have filled their registers in Dallas and elsewhere in Texas, including Del Taco, California Pizza Kitchen and a number of juice bars and health food restaurants. Four years ago, In-N-Out Burger moved to town, stirring up a fervor that garnered national attention. Cars lined up for two miles, the police had to be called to keep order, and a woman wept actual tears as condiment guns shot crossing arcs of golden mustard and hand-cut french fries fell from the sky. Clearly, not all Texans think that we can handle burgers on our own.
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But any Texan with a spatula and a stopwatch could turn out burgers better than the ones served at Eureka! I tried five across four visits and encountered burgers cooked differently, and badly, every time. A bartender told me spirits for cocktails were measured precisely to the quarter-ounce, but when I asked for a burger cooked medium I got medium well, and when I asked for medium rare I got well done. While waiting for my seat near the bar one night, I watched as a woman bit into a rosy red burger and wondered if she'd ordered hers raw. It called me like a beacon, but I could never recreate the experience. I wanted meat juice to run down my hands to my elbows with each bite of burger, but no matter how the beef was cooked, it was always greasy, but not juicy.
There's help. You can add a runny egg if you're after a little more moisture, and there's a bone marrow burger, too. The latter comes topped with a tablespoon or so of butter mixed with bone marrow and porcini mushroom dust. The result is definitely moist, but it's still not juicy in that carnal way that fires up your salivary glands. It also costs 16 bucks. And why is marketing material screaming at me from every direction? In addition to the restaurant's name and logo, the t-shirts, the menus, the chalkboards and other materials are all punctuated by bright orange exclamation points. "No crap on tap!" cries the beer list, and that, at least, is true. You won't find Budweiser or Miller Lite sloshing around in the glassware here. Instead, the taps behind the bar pour locally brewed craft and other notable brews.
The people have come to drink. Show up at 8 p.m. on a Thursday and expect nearly an hour wait. And don't think you can spend that time comfortably lounging at the bar; be prepared to battle for real estate. A row of high tops is pressed up against the bar, framing everyone into a box of overflowing beer glasses and jutting elbows. On a Friday night, several customers walked in, took one look at the fray and walked back out.
It's just as chaotic behind the bar, where the bartenders sling drinks to keep up with demand. On one visit I heard multiple pieces of glassware shatter, with nary a rabbi or newlywed in sight. These were the sounds of a long evening, the sounds of Eureka! revealing itself to be less restaurant and more party bar. A party with inconsistently cooked $16 burgers and chaos behind the bar, at that. L'chaim!
The bar staff is plenty nice, but they lack the polish of seasoned bartenders. Your glass might sit empty, for instance, even though two employees chat and fiddle with corkscrews at the register. Their knowledge of the beer selection falls well shy of the pros who work most beer bars around town, and their craft message is often lost on the guests.
"Do you have any Fireball?" a customer barked over my shoulder one night. The bartender informed him that he did not, but that he could make something similar with whiskey, simple syrup and cinnamon. The customer had already walked off. Another customer who ordered a Tito's and soda looked confused as her bartender launched into a lecture about craft distilleries and mass-produced vodka.
It's hard to understand how a staff so snooty about booze could be so apathetic about substandard food. Osso buco riblets sound delicious. What's not to like about little segments of pork rib -- sort of like pork short ribs, actually -- braised into submission and draped in a smooth sauce? Unfortunately these hunks of pork are braised so long they're somehow dry, and drenched in what tastes like chicken wing sauce. How about some blue cheese with that?
The menu offers onion rings breaded in panko, but the crust doesn't matter if it sloughs off with one bite. The french fries are blond and undercooked. Alfredo mac and cheese is bland; it's served in a cast iron skillet, as if the cooks meant to bake it to lend a nice crust, but forgot, just like they forgot the fried sage the menu promises.
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I had some decent tacos stuffed with beef cheek and cabbage, and the corn dogs shaped like lollipops are strangely addictive, but most of the food here oscillates from forgettable to plain bad. And judging by the dining room that's often packed, there's little incentive for improvement. Eureka! perfectly fills the void in the West Village left by Union Bear, which closed last year, by providing the same craft beer service in a glitzy dining room that feels tailored to the neighborhood. It's working so well that a second location is expected to open in Richardson soon. The wait there will probably be longer.
It's just a shame that this new dining room can't be filled with the delicious, over-the-top burgers served elsewhere in California, and even right here in Texas. What if Eureka! focused less on passionate punctuation and cocktails and more on custom-baked buns to cradle house-ground, high-quality meat? Even better, what if the Golden State had sent us an Umami Burger? As Texans, we have come to expect more. You're better than this, California!
Eureka! 3700 McKinney Ave., No. 126, 972-993-2222, eurekarestaurantgroup.com, 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Sunday, $$
Lollipop corn dogs $7.50 Nachos $10.50 Beef cheek tacos $9 Burgers $9.50-$16.50 Apple crisp $6