OK, so we're a barbecue town. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of good burgers, too. To commemorate the 40th anniversary celebration of Huey's on Sunday -- there's a burger that's always been a local favorite -- and because, well, someone had to do it, we went on a tour of some of the best burger joints in town.
Lesson one: If the burger is named after someone, chances are high it's a good burger.
Lesson two: The cooking surface does make a
difference. An old well-seasoned flat top or skillet helps.
Lesson three: In almost all cases, hand-formed patties trump pre-formed. There is an exception, and we'll start there as that's what started this burger brouhaha in the first place.
Tops, with multiple locations around town, makes a fine burger. The skinny patties go in the store looking like a flat disk, but they leave the griddle transformed, a salted-up (don't give us a burger without enough salt) treasure. A toasted bun, melted American cheese, mustard, pickle and onion make this bad boy a long-time drive-thru favorite.
Tops obviously is proud of its hamburger. When told we tried burgers at other places around town, Linda Duckworth, who was behind the cash register at the Tops location on Union, said, "They're trying to compete with us? They can hang it up."
We both love Tops, and JB considers it the perfect example of a mustard, pickle and onion burger.
(Note from JB: Some will argue that the classic mustard, pickle and onion combo is the only way to dress a burger, but that's just wrong. The other way to dress it is with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and onion. However, these are burgers, not pizzas that can be served half and half, so we went with each restaurant's version of everything on these burgers.)
We both agree that the best burger is at Alex's Tavern, 1445 Jackson. Owner Rocky Kasaftes buys the meat from High Point Grocery, and the patties are formed by hand, given a generous dose of Cavender's Greek seasoning and fried up in old iron skillets.
"It's kind of a joke, whether you even need seasoning since the skillets are so seasoned," Kasaftes said.
The resulting burger -- it's officially the "Greek burger" but is known to everyone as the "Alex burger"-- is bliss between a bun. Bits of crust pepper the edges, the inside is juicy, the onion cut just before going on the burger, and it's topped with fresh, local tomatoes in season.
Here are 10 other favorites culled from three days of burger tasting. We agree these are the best we tried, and hope you like them, too.
Sweden Kream at 1472 National has a burger that's a dream, a griddle-fried delight that's just the right size. It's a hand-formed patty, not too thick, not too thin. Toppings are messy and napkins skimpy, though, so eat this in the little dining room or take it home.
Don't be deceived by size: This is no drive-and-dine burger, and only a fool would even attempt to eat and drive with Uncle Lou's jumbo burger, which is the smallest size available at the fried chicken joint at 3633 Millbranch. The third-pound burger is a monster (though the official "Monster" burger is actually three of those patties and five slices of cheese -- good luck with that!) on a soft kaiser bun. The savory "Sauce of Love" gives this burger a kick, though it doesn't lend so much flavor that it takes away from the meatiness.
When you love a burger, you give it a worthy name. The Shirley burger at the Lamplighter Lounge at 1702 Madison is deserving of this love. It is named after longtime bartender/cook Shirley Williams. Owner Ann Bradley uses Black Angus beef, hand forms those patties and fries 'em up in a skillet, just like Rocky does at Alex's. These are similar burgers, distinguished mostly by seasoning and that you drink Natural Light at Alex's, PBR at the Lamplighter.
South Memphis Grocery at 9 W. Mallory was new to us, but we'll be going back again and again. This is another hand-formed burger, fried and served with freshly cut condiments. The Sykes family has owned the store for more than 30 years, running a small grill and deli inside the corner grocery.
Buckley's Lunchbox at 919 S. Yates is a burger I know well because this is where my daughter and my mother want to eat every time we have lunch. Not that I'm complaining. The big burger bridges the gap between the daily burgers and beer burgers reviewed here and the upscale burgers that we're not tackling for the time being. It's served on a big soft roll, juicy and flavorful.
After my last visit, Broadway Pizza House at 2581 Broad also is known as "Broadway Hamburger House." They serve a really tasty hamburger. It's very big, very thick and great for dinner or for that late-night beer-and-burger combo.
And, after my last visit, Jack Pirtle's Chicken now is known as "Jack Pirtle's Hamburger." There are several locations, but we tried their burgers at 890 Thomas. They were big, moist, succulent, delicious hamburgers.
I can keep eating Earnestine & Hazel's Bar & Grill "soul burgers" -- especially at parties held at the bar/restaurant at 531 S. Main. That's when they slice them up into quarters, which makes them even easier to eat. The patty is thin but filling and so meaty-good. The burgers come with a bag of potato chips.
Lot-A-Burger is a lot of burger. They're located at 862 Thomas and 2260 S. Third. We tried them at the Thomas spot. This is the good old-fashioned flavorful hamburger with just the right amount of lettuce, tomato and onions on a big bun.
I think of Lot-A-Burger, Top's and Sweden Kream as 1950s hamburgers -- what I remember hamburgers tasting like when I was little, stopping somewhere in Memphis on Saturdays or going to dairy bars during summer vacations. The Belmont Grill's hamburger is more of a 1970s version of a hamburger. I've eaten many of these late at night with Heineken beer at the Belmont at 4970 Poplar. The hamburger is uniquely Belmont. It tastes and looks different. It's a thick oval-shaped patty with an almost steak taste, served on an oval French baguette. The onion, pickle and tomato are on the side. It's a sophisticated hamburger, which I don't think I'll ever get tired of eating.
Now, before anybody begins e-mailing or picking up the telephone to call us, we're quickly going to add that we didn't make it to every great hamburger place. Exceptional hamburgers can be found at other spots, including Kudzu's at 603 Monroe, Dyer's Burgers at 205 Beale, Kwik Shop Grill at 711 E. Parkway, Elliott's Restaurant at 16 S. Second and R.P. Tracks at 3547 Walker.
Also, we stuck to the lunch or late-night burger places; we didn't add national franchise hamburgers like McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King. And we didn't include fine dining restaurants that sell the ritzier high-priced hamburgers.
All right. If you want to, you can call or e-mail us and tell us your favorite hamburger places. We're getting hungry again.
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
--Michael Donahue: 529-2797
Huey's 40th anniversary celebration
2 p.m. to midnight Sunday at the Midtown location, 1927 Madison Ave., with live music inside and outside by the Settlers, Funk DeVille, DiAnne Price & Her Boyfriends and the Soul Shockers, among others. Free admission, and a percentage of sales will benefit the Church Health Center. Call 726-9767 for more information.