You can put a lot of thought into making a burger if you want to. Chefs at top restaurants started a trend when they realized they could charge an arm and a leg for what was once considered cheap and pedestrian. All they had to do was make the entire thing from scratch and people would pay $20 or more for a familiar hamburger they could enjoy with a fine cabernet and white-linen service.
These high-end chefs grind high-end beef and gingerly form massive, loose-packed patties. They bake brioche buns so pillowy and refined they cradle their contents like a golden down comforter. They whip up fresh mustard and aioli and slice warm summer tomatoes from quaint, local farms. If that's not enough, they reach for truffles and foie gras. At some expensive restaurants the price for a burger seems bound only by a chef's ability to procure obscure ingredients — or his arrogance.
The extras are nice if you have the money to blow and you're not feeling the coq au vin, but when you break down the meal you're holding in your hand it's essentially a beef patty, toppings and a bun. There's only so much you can do to refine the humble burger.
At the other end of the spectrum, behaviors that can only be described as burger abuse abound. Fast-food cooks squeeze any remaining life from processed, frozen patties before they're mashed between factory-baked, bleached white-flour buns. At burger stands, the meat may be fresh, but it's usually ground and formed somewhere else, often with little care. These are the burgers that Americans have come to love. They can be had for a couple of bucks or less, and we consume more than 13 billion of them a year.
While chefs pushed the outer limits of fiscal responsibility and refinement, smart businessmen focused on the gap in the middle. Shake Shack, Five Guys, Smashburger and scores of other restaurant chains offer customers a burger built with higher quality ingredients than their fast food counterparts and for only a buck or two more.
This is where Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso focused their attention when they opened their first Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin in 2010. They'd just sold their Eddy V's brand to the Darden Restaurant Group for $59 million and were looking to hit it big again.
Foles gives Hillstone credit for the inspiration for the venture. The national chain of casual but refined restaurants makes burgers just like the high-end chefs. Built with hand-crafted ingredients and patties cooked to a turn, their version will set you back $15 but deliver big flavor. Foles wanted similar culinary standards with a walk-up counter and casual service.
While "simple stupid" is the mantra Foles repeats more than once as he describes the painstaking processes specified for each component of his burgers, the process is anything but prosaic. His cooks make use of timers, scales and other measuring devices and follow explicit instructions for handling the products.
The meat is ground in a custom cutting room in each of his Hopdoddy restaurants (three and counting) and patties are formed to exact standards. Separate grinding attachments produce the optimal textures for beef, lamb, turkey and other meats, and ring molds and pressure plates form perfect 7-ounce patties with just the right density.
For their buns, Foles and his team worked with a baker to develop a custom recipe loosely based on challah bread. They're baked fresh every morning from scratch at each store, not from frozen dough balls.
To make up for equipment, ingredient and operating costs, Foles turns the entire operation into a people grinder. "Our goal was to do the best burger we've ever eaten for a price that could compete with the place selling 1,000 burgers a day," Foles says. And the original Hopdoddy in Austin now sells 1,000 burgers a day, too. Business isn't quite as brisk here at the Dallas location, but if you come during lunch you can count on a line of customers that sometimes extends out the door and around the corner.
Order a burger medium rare and that's how you'll get it, just about 10 minutes after you've ordered at the counter and found your assigned table out in the dining room. The register serves as a customer throttle. If no tables are available they stop the line till another one opens, and then the line starts up again.
The process works. The line moves briskly and a quick meal is possible even during the lunch crush.
In the age of Internet journalism when the word "best" is thrown around more than "hipster" at a dive bar, superlatives have lost their edge. Still, the following can and should be said with a high degree of confidence: Hopdoddy serves what is easily the best $6 burger in Dallas.
Forget the cutting rooms, timers, logos, trendy dining fixtures and tattooed workers who bring you a quarter sheet pan holding your meal. Just pick the thing up and watch as juice slowly cascades down the sides of the patty, soaking into the bun beneath. Take a bite and note how gently the meat yields to your teeth. The exterior could use a bit more char but that feels like splitting hairs about what is obviously a damn fine hamburger. Other things are much easier to pick on.
The turkey patty is a knockout, boasting coarsely ground, juicy meat that actually still tastes and looks like turkey. The bun it rests on, however, is dry and grainy enough to completely ruin the experience.
The veggie burger rests on the same arid bread, and while the flavor of black beans, rice and spices is wonderful, the patty itself is too soft and squishes out the sides with every bite.
The milkshakes are based on runny soft-serve, so if you like a thick shake (or one made with great ice cream) you're out of luck too, but there are better things to drink here.
Hopdoddy's bar offers a decent selection of Texas beers. Peticolas, (512), Deep Ellum, Live Oak and St. Arnold are all poured into heavy goblets for swilling 18 ounces at a time. Take a seat at the blond maple bar and order. Your favorite and a delicious burger will be with you shortly.
Just don't get too comfortable. Hopdoddy may bill itself as a burger bar, but it's not really a place you'd want to sit around and put in a session. After all, if Foles is going to serve 1,000 burgers a day, he's going to need you to vacate that seat before too long. And Foles sounds like a man who's serious about his business.
When asked about his plans for expansion, Foles is direct. "That was our goal," he says. "We've done it with a bunch of concepts. We think this is the best concept we've ever done."
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