A few of my food-fixated friends who've called to ask after my recent move to Texas have bothered to ask if I've found a place to live. One or two have feigned interest in the weather. But even the most patient of them haven't been able to muster as many as three polite questions before pivoting to the real object of their wondering: Just what is the regional specialty in Dallas?
It's a challenge as much as a curiosity. These are eaters who name-drop culinary oddities, who scan every roadside diner menu for a combination of animal parts and cooking method heretofore unknown beyond the county line. They want to hear about dishes with convoluted back stories and names that don't make sense. They want to hear about transparent pies, white sweet potatoes and Kool-Aid pickles.
And, as it turns out, they don't much care about hamburgers.
I try to explain how the burgers in Dallas are magnificent, how almost every patty that slides off a grill here is edible justification for all the years early settlers spent building barbed wire fences and chasing cows across the plains. By this point, I can usually hear my friends folding laundry.
But you and I know this city does burgers right. Which means you likely have an entirely different question: Why the heck would I drive all the way to McKinney for a hamburger?
You shouldn't—or at least you shouldn't go just for the stunning burger, which Dallas' most-revered burger palaces probably could match on their best days. You should go to Square Burger because it's a fine restaurant, and because there's something wonderfully satisfying about getting a delicate green salad, a perfect hamburger and a nice glass of red wine for $20.
Yet there's nothing about the wooden-floored restaurant, all windows and light, that hints at frugality. Square Burger elevates burgers not by subjecting them to the ostentatious steakhouse treatment—there's no foie gras, truffle oil or flecks of gold leaf on these sandwiches—but by decorating its dining room in an urbane style usually reserved for wine bars and wood-fired pizza joints. The airy space is furnished with compact leather booths and a long back wall of beer taps set into a mosaic of blue shower tiles. It all feels tastefully upscale, an impression undermined only slightly by the stretch limo parked out front on my first visit.
Upscale in that peculiarly modern way, which means macaroni and cheese is on the menu and people bring their kids. Unfortunately, the acoustics are such that the room echoes every happy shriek and child's cry. No matter: The point here is the food and drink, ferried by a charmingly polite and sincere staff who could have been plucked from the McKinney High homecoming court.
Most every diner at Square Burger will have a burger, since the menu doesn't leave guests much choice. The kitchen will make spaghetti or grilled cheese for children, and there's usually a pasta or seafood daily special appended to the giant chalkboards on which the restaurant's 30 draft beers are listed, but otherwise there's nothing but burgers: one lamb, one turkey, one salmon and seven varieties made from grass-finished, hormone-free meat from McKinney's own Genesis Beef.
A server on my first visit pinballed between various explanations for what made Square Burger's 7-ounce patties so special before finally settling on something involving stomach acid and the meat's suitability to vegetarian diets. Since I'm not an expert in anatomy, I can only speak to the burger's flavor: It's beefy and vivid and rich, with all the complexity that comes from a life spent in pasture.
All three burgers I sampled at Square Burger were good, but the one cooked just a shade short of medium was outstanding, with a caramelized char that cloaked the tender meat. The burger drew its dazzle not from any seasoning hocus-pocus but from the peerless combination of quality beef and smart grilling. I certainly could have eaten the burger in its birthday suit, but the buttery, grilled bun from Empire Baking was terrific.
I only wish the kitchen hadn't buried that particular burger under so much barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. While the sauce made with Old Rasputin Imperial Stout was gloriously smoky and the aged cheddar perfectly sharp, the meat-to-adornment ratio was disappointingly askew. Perhaps the kitchen was acting in my best interest when it served a mushroom, avocado and bacon burger without the avocado and bacon.
Seeing a great burger with mediocre fries is always a bit sad, like seeing a talented friend with a schlubby husband. Still, even burger fiends acknowledge superior French fries remain bonus points at a burger spot. Square Burger earns them easily: Its faintly sweet house-cut fries are set off by just the right amount of craggy sea salt. There are also excellent sweet potato fries, onion rings and—for diners who meet their fry quotient just by glancing at the battered pickle that accompanies every sandwich—dainty onion strings, rumbling with a clean, oniony flavor.
Burgers at Square Burger are round—the restaurant's name refers to its location on the historic downtown square. But my ruddy lamb burger had an oblong shape, the better to match the half-moon of puffy pita bread laid beneath it. The burger was served with the standard Greek fixings of romaine lettuce, two tomato slices, salty feta crumbles and a simple tzatziki sauce threaded with dill. The feisty sandwich instantly rescued those familiar gyro flavors from the clutches of greasy spoons everywhere, a feat made possible by fresh vegetables and ridiculously juicy Colorado lamb. I had lamb juice on my plate, lamb juice on my arms, lamb juice on my neck. By the end of the meal, my table looked like a lamb juice Pollock painting.
With so much meat on hand, Square Burger smartly offers four salads, including a fabulous Caesar crisscrossed with two fat white anchovies and garnished with nutty parmesan. But the most exciting thing on the salad plate is a bruschetta spread with a pesto aioli and capped with a tight gumball-machine assortment of fearsomely fresh yellow and red grape tomatoes.
And if salad sounds too healthy at a burger restaurant, Square Burger's got your pub grub-loving back. There are chicken wings, which—while neither crazy nor Cajun, as the menu suggests—are piquant and good. Sporting just a paper-thin coat of fry, the wings are served with Point Reyes blue cheese, a top-shelf spin that works. Even better are the judiciously glazed slow-roasted ribs, which glide off the bone.
Like the starters, desserts are all appropriately humble, the sort of thing you wouldn't feel funny about bringing to a picnic. Not every dessert I tried was successful: A flying saucer of fried apple pie, bandaged with cheese melted in the microwave, featured dry diced apples and pastry pocketed with salt. But the changing selection usually includes homemade ice cream and freshly baked cookies in some configuration or another, and that seems to be the best choice at Square Burger. I was smitten with the jelly ice cream sandwiched between a pair of chewy peanut butter cookies.
There's nothing exotic about ice cream or hot wings or burgers. Even the most daring preparation on Square Burger's menu—a burger piled with baby arugula, prosciutto, fontina and balsamic vinegar—wasn't done here first. The restaurant is an exposition of excellence, not novelty. And so it may not be a destination for culinary adventurers, like my regional specialty-collecting friends. But they're the ones who are missing out.Square Burger 115 N. Kentucky St., McKinney, 972-542-0185. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun. $$