Many things about the original Off-Site Kitchen were less than perfect — the ordering counter was small; the bar for indoor seating was tiny; the outside seating was disconnected from the rest of the restaurant; the address had as much curb appeal as the strip clubs out on Harry Hines Boulevard; the line was always long, haphazardly winding inside before snaking out the door; the wait was sometimes unbearable; the parking lot was a nightmare. But you know what it had that made it all worthwhile? Charm. From the giant "eat" sign, to the ugly cement burger that faced Irving Boulevard, to the perky Farrah Fawcett poster hanging on the wall inside, Off-Site Kitchen exuded charm like its burgers exuded grease and juices. The place was inefficient, quirky and constantly over-capacity — and it was awesome.
Which is why the news that the burger shack was moving to the soulless restaurant theme park of Trinity Groves shook a few of its fans. Trinity Groves has produced more restaurants than any other Dallas neighborhood in recent years, acting as what the owners call a restaurant incubator. The restaurants are meant to scale across multiple locations, but like most scalable restaurants, few of the options are very good. The idea of Off-Site Kitchen coming here to gestate a burger empire was about as attractive as if owner Nick Badovinus had put a carrageenan-bound veggie burger on the menu. The NickLean? Not lovin' it.
The move was announced in January and executed over a few weeks earlier this summer. News that the grill from the original kitchen was making the move provided a little comfort — maybe the burgers would at least be similar — but the biggest concern was whether or not the quirky character of the original could survive the move to Trinity Groves.
Can the soul of a restaurant live in a flat top? Is it transportable? These were the questions that played in my head as I reached for the door and took my place in line. My concerns were placated almost in an instant. Hello, Ms. Fawcett.
The newly expanded Off-Site Kitchen is an improvement in almost every way. The same swimsuit posters grace the walls, but now the beer fridge offers a larger selection than your average 7-Eleven. It's a mesmerizing display of glistening cans — Pearl Light, Schlitz, Miller, Coors and more — perfectly faced and stocked top-to-bottom in full-size, reach-in coolers that corral the line toward the registers. There are big cans of beer and little cans of beer. There are plenty of fizzy bottles of soda.
The whole dining room rightly pays tribute to the original location. Condiment bottles stored in bullet boxes mimic ammunition, and sugary beverages percolate in dispensing coolers. A motorcycle sits near the doorway (I dreamed about stealing it during every visit), televisions flicker with football and baseball, and the space is filled with classic rock. All of this under a tattered, swaybacked Old Glory that hangs from the rafters, recalling a simpler time. Hell yeah, 'Merica! Let's eat some beef!
If the burgers have changed at all, I can't tell. They're still smallish, about a quarter pound, and juicy, with a big, beefy flavor. The secret is a cooking technique that maximizes contact with the grill. Combined with enough salt, the result is a savory crust that accounts for most of the burger's flavor, complemented by toppings that range from shredded lettuce and mustard to bacon turned into a sweet and tangy jam.
Order the Straight Up if you want to truly appreciate the kiss of that flat top. The Locals Only makes use of mustard, bacon, chopped jalapeño and a slice of American cheese for the quintessential Texan burger experience. The Murph-Style is popular, on account of the bacon jam that oozes from the bun when you take a bite, but all of the options deliver the same compact, paper-wrapped burger that's shaped like a softball and leaves a small puddle in your basket. You'll consider a second.
And because the new location has so much space, there's a chance you'll hang around long enough to get hungry for round two. At the old location, diners loomed over the few picnic tables on the patio. The second a napkin was dropped, vultures began to circle in hopes of securing a spot. The new Off-Site has plenty of seating across an expansive dining room and a patio sheltered with shade cloth. The TVs and a series of games, from shuffleboard to bumper pool to basketball, suggest customers should stay awhile — if not for another burger, then at least for another can of beer or seven from the reach-in.
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If you suffer from some sort of genetic defect and burgers are not your thing, you will be OK here. The menu board over the counter details sandwiches filled with fried and grilled chicken, pulled pork sopping with sweet sauce, corned beef and peppery brisket. If you don't want a sandwich, the sloppy taco will take you back to your childhood dinner table. Picture an elongated Old El Paso crunchy shell filled with sweet, saucy meat and topped with shredded lettuce, cheese and diced tomato.
Whatever you order, save some room. Those tiny pies filled with apples, cherries or pecans swimming in caramel are the perfect size after a meal like this, and they really hit the spot.
Is this really Trinity Groves? I still don't consider myself a convert, but I have to say that sitting on the patio at Off-Site Kitchen, I'm more at ease than I've ever been in this restaurant theme park. It's not quite enough to get me to root for an Off-Site Kitchen expansion resulting in Murph-Style burgers dropping all over Texas and beyond, but I'm comfortable here, and from the looks of the diners at the other tables, I'm not the only one.
Maybe that's because Badovinus was actually in the kitchen a few times I visited. I never saw him flip a burger, but he was there on the line, yukking it up with the staff as they called out orders and — my God! — apparently having fun. That's the sort of thing that's hardest to scale in the restaurant business.