At the start of the summer, our idea seemed like a joyful lark: We would eat our way through 32 of the best hamburger joints in DFW, pairing them against one another in an NCAA Tournament-style bracket, round after round, until ultimately declaring a single winner, the best hamburger in the Metroplex.
By the end of the summer, having collectively tasted 99 burgers, we were asking ourselves: What on earth were we thinking?
But if the DFW.com Battle of the Burgers was perhaps a quixotic, bellyache-inducing endeavor, it also ultimately affirmed a number of our long-held beliefs: For one, Dallas-Fort Worth offers a truly peerless collection of hamburger offerings, from the wildly overstuffed (Pappas) to the purely old-fashioned (Kincaid’s), from the almost surreally messy (Burguesa) to the strangely elegant (Dutch’s).
For another, approaching these burgers NCAA-bracket style — we visited opposing burger joints on the same day, often back-to-back and ordered similar style burgers at each — proved an invaluable and perhaps even foolproof means of determining the very best of the best. The focus was on taste and individual experience; not service or price. And we didn’t allow ourselves to be swayed by any sort of post-lunchtime lobbying.
As happens in the NCAA Tournament, sometimes the top seeds suffered an off day and were dismissed earlier than expected (buh-bye, Twisted Root). Meanwhile, a few second-tier competitors coasted along, capitalizing on upsets. (Or at least that’s how we might explain how Fuddruckers almost advanced to the Final Four.)
But, as with any bracket-style competition, winning the championship eventually requires two things: consistency and talent. And that’s what our final two competitors delivered.
In the Fort Worth region, Fred’s marched past Trailboss, rising star Dutch’s and stalwart Kincaid’s. The races weren’t always clear cut (in fact, the Fred’s versus Dutch’s matchup went into overtime — i.e., a second visit). But each time we were amazed how a burger that we had tasted many times before — particularly, the masterful Diablo Burger, which comes topped with Swiss cheese and chipotles — revealed to us new subtlety and richness of flavor.
Much like a classic novel, Fred’s offers a slightly different experience each time you tackle it, without ever straying too far from a core of pure genius.
On the other side of the bracket, Jakes performance wasn’t quite so flawless: After a so-so first round when it barely made it past Burguesa, and a second-round appearance of gristle in our meat, we expected it to stumble in the Final Four. But sometimes legends save their A-game for the most challenging matchups. In its showdown against Five Guys, Jakes sent us into blue cheese-induced ecstasy. Any doubts about the Dallas mini-chain’s reputation as one of the best burger purveyors around were squelched.
The final battle was both clear cut and much closer than we expected. We went to Fred’s first. Once again, the Diablo, the Blue Cheese Burger and the Fredburger with portobello mushrooms were beautifully presented — as big, messy and greasy as you could hope for — and the flavor combinations seemed as inventive and exciting as when we first stepped inside Fred’s many years ago. As stuffed as we were from so much meat, we just kept wanting to eat more. The collective ghosts of Julia Child, James Beard and Ronald McDonald could have collaborated on the hamburgers at Jakes — and they still would have had a hard time beating Fred’s.
As it turned out, Jakes came to play in the final round. We were particularly impressed with the deliciously smoky hickory sauce that tops the Red Steer burger, and the lusciously hot crunch of the fried jalapeños on the Bottle Cap burger. But in terms of originality, verve and flavor of the meat patty itself, it simply didn’t compare.
And so we declare the Battle of the Burgers complete.
A modern burger legend adds another feather in its cap. Truth of the matter is, many expected it to turn out this way from the start. A greasy spoon with an unexpected patina of sophistication, Fred’s blurs the lines between cowboys and culture, haute cuisine and down-home cooking. It represents everything that’s great about Fort Worth, and everything that we yearn for in a hamburger.
The experience of watching it march to victory has been as exhilarating as it has been artery-clogging.