Chili-smothered cheeseburgers aren’t usually sandwiches that feel restrained. They’re usually loud, insane messes, like a bad school marching band. Picking up a torrentially drenched chili cheeseburger stains your hands and your shirtsleeves orange, and clumps of mystery meat taste like a metal can. When Texas chili is hurled on burgers and hot dogs like an afterthought condiment, it triggers the monsters from the Upside Down. Texas chili isn’t a condiment — it’s a meal.
Treating chili like ketchup is like restoring a '63 Pontiac GTO in your garage and then driving it into a shitty lake. The chili-smothered burger at 18th and Vine, Dallas’ cultured barbecue joint, reins in the madness. It balances rich, dark chili — a comforting meal in any setting — against a flame-grilled cheeseburger.
It’s carrying two big fried onions, but there’s nothing gaudy about it. It has humble inspirations.
“I grew up in Dallas,” says Scott Gottlich, chef-partner at 18th & Vine. “I grew up having a Goff’s chili and cheese — you know, the No. 6 with a hot dog.”
Goff’s on Hillcrest Avenue went up in flames, and Harvey Gough recently retired his charcoal grill in North Dallas. 18th & Vine may be one of the few homages in the city that doesn’t shame the name.
The grilled burger is first seasoned with the house barbecue rub (a mix of garlic and onion powder, paprika and a zap of cayenne). Chili stews down to a paprika velvet, caramelized, mahogany with celery seed, garlic, tomatoes and brisket. The best food is the kind that feels like something you've known for years, prompting an emotional connection or a memory, and 18th & Vine taps into that emotional well that you stumble upon when you eat chili with white onion and cheese. Onion rings, big hoops, are golden-fried in the same batter used for okra.
“We make our own patties,” Gottlich says quietly. “We form them ourselves.”
On a recent visit, the sun's rays shoot into the bar with strength. The Smokestack is the only burger on the menu, hiding under the usual barbecue sandwiches, and it comes with a side for $14. French fries are great, seasoned and far better with hammers of the mustard vinaigrette that hangs out on the table. (You’ll want this for the burger, too. Trust me). The burger has crisp char marks from the grill and tastes of smoky fire. Chili is restrained — it’s more brushed over the patty than slopped on. The onion rings look crunchy down under the challah bun, a soft thing that keeps every ingredient inside the sandwich. I finished the first half, buttery beef juices mixing with the smoky tomato of the chili, in a few big, satisfying bites.
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Chili isn’t a condiment at 18th and Vine; it’s a unflashy tease of a meal you should order in a bowl on the side.
Nearby, two gentlemen on what sounds like a typical business lunch eat ribs and a sandwich on Texas toast. One says to the other, who’s eating fast and furious, “Take a break. Eat your sandwich.”
It’s good advice for the cheeseburger too.
18th and Vine, 4100 Maple Ave.