It’s time to let the grill go. This, dear friends, is the wondrous era of the griddle. The flat-top, or the griddle as you may like to call it, is a volcanic prairie of beautiful, long-seasoned metal, and it’s the best place to find hamburger that will change you. Many of Dallas’ best burgers, the ones that truly make an impression, have the tell-tale hard sear of a piping-hot griddle. Daydream of the crust on the Maple and Motor burger, or the texture of a Off-Site Kitchen $5 cheeseburger, to picture what I’m talking about.
In a 2014 New York Times post, iconic mutton-chopped burger expert George Motz stated it perfectly. “The beef fat collected in a hot skillet ... acts both as cooking and a flavoring agent.” With burger grease comes great responsibility: Don’t smash it half way through. Don’t over-flip and poke it. Because in the beginning, there was fat. When it renders around the patty on a skillet or a flat-top, magical things happen. On a grill, fat drips into oblivion.
On a chilly day in Dallas, I’m at the Austin-imported Haymaker, aka the newest barstaurant on the ever-gentrified stretch of Greenville Avenue. They have tons of TVs and patio benches spiked with umbrellas, and giant burgers bookended with Texas toast. I go with the Pecan Bleu Cheeseburger, which is a 1/3-lb. patty topped with peppery bacon and a molten, chunky blue cheese sauce studded with pecans. I ask for medium rare.
The bread’s fine. The bacon’s crispy and nose-clearing with pepper. The patty, an 80 percent Angus beef and 20 percent fat blend, is overcooked to the point of being stiff. The seasoning is there, but the overcooked, tough beef bums me out. Jay Burchard, sous chef and kitchen manager, confirms they’re using fresh beef, and it's fired over the flames of a grill. The patty, which looked pale almost like it was steamed or loaded with more fat, is seasoned with their own blend of spices, including pepper, salt and brown sugar. Some of the patty’s leftover juices hang out with the tomato and lettuce, but the rest have disappeared into a black hole.
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There are a few great fire-grilled burgers in Dallas. The double cheeseburger at On the Lamb nearly persuaded me to fill my trunk with propane, though sadly that burger is no more. The open-fire burger at Smoke, topped with a gently frittered egg, is delicious, huge and as Texas as the Brazos River. Except for one or two, I can’t remember a fire-grilled burger that was cooked less than medium well.
The flat top adorns the beef with a thick char that casts a spell on your brain. You know this char. It’s the one that’s dilating your pupils when you eat some of the best burgers in Dallas. It’s the one you get when you cook a burger on your cast iron at home. It’s the one you miss, dearly, when you’ve tried way too long and hard to get proper grill marks on a burger. The flat top is also responsible for the juiciest, most spot-on medium-rare burgers in Dallas.
Beyond the cook, there’s a story imbued into our ancient griddles. Dot’s, in Deep Ellum, has Club Schmitz’s grandpa-old flat-top. There’s an unmistakable, memory-stirring flavor soaked into every bite. Dairy-Ette doesn’t even season their burgers, but their decades-old flat-top somehow suffuses the ghost of salt and pepper.
For burgers, at least, it’s time to let the grill go. Embrace grease. As Motz said, “Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself.” Damn right.