Food News

Maple & Motor's Jack Perkins: He Does it His Way

This week, Three-Course meal interviews burger meister Jack Perkins, who grills up one of the city's most popular patties at Maple & Motor. Tomorrow, we throw a Q&A Perkins way, and Friday he hands us the keys to the kingdom, showing us step by step how a Maple & Motor burger is made.

Jack Perkins has sold a lot of hamburgers out of a former taqueria on Maple Avenue in the 12 months, making his Maple & Motor Burger a high point in a ground beef landscape littered with dozens of aspiring burger kings. Each week as we talk with some of Dallas' top chefs, they almost always point to Perkins' burger as their favorite, thanks to its high-quality ingredients and its homage to childhood patty memories.

"In the past year since we starting selling our burger we have had maybe three people say the burger wasn't right. What we do immediately is scoop it up and remake it for them," Perkins says.

Maple & Motor offers its burgers two ways: brown or pink -- well done or with a thin strip of color in the center. "Have it your way" isn't an option if you like your burgers rare.

"There is no profit in serving a burger somebody isn't going to like," Perkins explains. "We serve the burgers two ways for the simple fact that we want to put out a good product, but we cannot do so if we are making custom burgers when we have a line out the door."

The limited choice has created a mini-controversy among some burger fans, and that's not the only conflict following Perkins. He has been banned from the website Yelp for speaking his mind to a few commenters, among them a former employee. Their exchange involved a volley of e-mails, a nasty review on the web service and the eventual expulsion of the ex-employee who was upset because he could no longer get his burger fix.

"Here's the problem with Yelp and Urbanspoon: They are not making money because they are talented," Perkins says. "They are making money because we are talented. They are profiting off the name Maple & Motor; they are making money off the name Jack Perkins. It's fine if people want to say something, but I should be able to respond."

Several signs adorn the restaurant that remind customers to mind their manners: Don't let your kids disturb other customers, don't snag a table before ordering and, most important, "Be Nice or be Gone."

Sometimes the rules rub some customers the wrong way, but that's fine with Perkins. The customer isn't always right.

Perkins cut his teeth in the restaurant industry at Landry's in Addison after leaving the Navy. He originally wanted to be a writer but needed a paycheck while he worked on a novel. He eventually took a job as bartender at Mi Piaci while waiting for Roaring Fork to open in 1995, where he would be manager.

"I always wanted to own a restaurant," he says. "I always wanted to own a place like Maple & Motor. I have written a screenplay, and a few short stories, but at the time I wasn't particularly interested in managing a restaurant."

Perkins went on to work at several steakhouses including Morton's, Chamberlain's Chop House and Sullivan's.

"I was at these places and decided that I was tired of working for what restaurant managers make," he says, "so I left the business. I opened a computer company where I repaired PC's. I eventually sold that and became a school teacher."

Perkins had a two-year run as a public school English teacher and then came upon the idea for Maple & Motor. His neighbor and now partner, Austen Wright, knew about a very old flat-top grill that he thought he could purchase from a restaurant that had closed some years earlier in Vernon. The grill turned out to be the key to making the perfect burger. It's 1-inch-thick, well-seasoned cooking surface gives meat the perfect sear -- plus there's all the good karma from burgers past.

"We experimented in my garage for maybe a year, making dozens of burgers each week, trying out different combinations until we hit on the perfect burger. It didn't take long after that before we opened in this building," Perkins says.

What's on the horizon for Maple & Motor? Another Maple & Motor in Frisco?

"We had thought about opening another location, perhaps on Henderson, but we decided we didn't want to water down the concept," Perkins says. "We do have a new concept that is very close to opening, and I will announce officially when it is time."

Great, so he told us, and now we are sworn to secrecy, but we can say this... it's cool.

Some news we can share is the fact that Maple & Motor will be open in a few weeks for breakfast, serving breakfast tacos. They are doing a little remodel job on the west side of the building that will open a window so you can order the tacos to go with seating outside. A separate kitchen added for breakfast will also allow the restaurant to serve more burgers at lunch, making for speedier service by allowing phoned-in orders. Right now, the phone isn't answered during lunch.

Perkins is also going to be a bit nostalgic on Monday and Tuesday evenings, when Maple & Motor will offer curb service. He's calling those evenings "Back to Prince's Night," an homage to the former drive-in Prince of Burgers formerly located on Lemmon Avenue.

"We have 10 spaces out front that will be reserved where you can back your car in and flash your headlights. We will run out to take your order and deliver trays of food to your car the old fashioned way," Perkins says.

Also, starting September 28 Maple & Motor will offer live acoustic music on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Raised in Dallas, Perkins remembers the way burgers were made here when he was a kid. That's why he uses Mrs. Baird's buns instead of a fancier, custom-baked version. The bun is grilled in a bath of butter till crisp.

"The whole menu is really simple," he says. "If I don't like the food I won't serve it. There are two ways to look at this business: We can do things to make everyone happy, or we can do things that we like and make us happy. I think if we hold true to what we believe that there will be a number of people that will enjoy it as well. And it seems like it's working."

The formula does seem simple -- a good product at a fair price. And don't forget the colorful Jack Perkins.

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Steven Doyle

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