In the third round of Burger Battle 2017, we sent teams of three judges to try three burgers at each joint. Not three burgers apiece, although a couple of judges would have gone for that.
The results were telling. One place is definitely on a roll. There’s another that’s having a good-luck streak — or, rather, its competitors have combined for a bad-luck streak. And there is a former champ that has made it to the Final Four — our only former champ to do so — but is showing some vulnerability.
Although there were only four match-ups, there’s a lot to get to. So here we go ...
(2) Fuego Burger vs. (5) Swiss Pastry Shop
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When you get to the Elite Eight round of any bracket, you can’t afford a stumble. After a tremendous burger in the previous round, Swiss Pastry Shop had an uncharacteristic one against Fuego Burger.
The Spicy Pimento Burger came out with all of the beauty of a Swiss Pastry Shop burger. The brown house-made bun provided a nice contrast with the fresh toppings, half-pound patty and a nice scoop of near-perfect spicy pimento cheese.
Likewise the presentation of the Swiss-mushroom burger was splendid when it came to toppings, but the patty — requested medium — missed the mark. The meat ranged from rare to medium well, which affected the overall taste.
The green-chile bacon burger was tasty, but the juiciness of the meat gradually devolved into a soggy mess, and the bun could not hold all the elements together. The green chiles enhanced the flavor with a nice kick, and the bacon and melted pepper jack cheese provided robust flavors. But the patty was a bit underseasoned.
Fuego Burger’s bacon/bleu cheese burger didn’t have the classic appearance of the Swiss Pastry’s Spicy Pimento . But this burger, which had a more rugged beauty, was a thick glistening patty piled high with caramelized onions, bleu cheese and barbecue sauce. With each bite, one had to take care not to consume all the entwined but tasty onions, but the patty was cooked perfectly.
Fuego’s Cowtown Burger is a sight to behold: shredded brisket on top of melted cheese, on top of applewood smoked bacon, piled on a thick meat patty dressed with mustard. The earthy, outdoor-cookout flavors were a powerful combination.
The misstep at Swiss Pastry created an opening for Fuego Burger, which pounced on the opportunity with its namesake production. The Fuego is a bit of a mess, but it’s a controlled and intentional one. The green-chile cheeseburger served as the equivalent to its opponent, but the style was a world apart; mainly in its signature orbiting ring formed by a chewy, crusty mixture of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack. The unique texture of the cheese, combined with the fire-roasted green chiles and jalapeño mayonnaise, added up to a perfect wreck of a burger.
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So in the end, the misfire on the Swiss Pastry Shop patty proved too much to overcome.
Winner: Fuego Burger
(1) Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers vs. (3) Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Charley’s began in 1992, taking over a hamburger grill that now has been open 46 years.
Hopdoddy? The Fort Worth location been open six weeks.
But seniority is not a deciding factor in the Burger Battle, beyond the bonus of a well-seasoned grill.
The new location of Austin-based Hopdoddy was expected to be a sleeper in this year’s bracket. The Dallas Hopdoddy pushed Rodeo Goat to the brink in the 2013 Battle, and since then Hopdoddy was ranked Business Insider’s No. 1 burger in America.
But that was according to New York City judges, not ours. Hopdoddy went up against hometown tradition Charley’s in this burger quarterfinal, and its menu proved sizzling but shallow.
It’s amazing to think that for all Hopdoddy’s fancy burger and sandwich combinations (14, counting the chicken sandwich and vegetable-based burgers), Charley’s actually serves more legitimate hamburgers (10).
Hopdoddy’s El Diablo cheeseburger was the single best of the round at either restaurant. The combination of tiny, fresh serrano and habanero slivers with caramelized onions, chipotle mayo and pepper jack cheese blended perfectly with expertly grilled fresh beef, lettuce and soft tomato.
Yes, the Diablo was even better than the cleanup hitter in Charley’s lineup, the “Project X” Tabasco cheeseburger. If the judging had stopped there, Hopdoddy would have pulled off the upset.
But Hopdoddy’s Magic Shroom mushroom cheeseburger, a clutch winner at the Dallas location in past matchups, was rendered unrecognizable in Fort Worth. The burger came with a too-heavy helping of mushrooms overpowering the goat cheese and basil pesto, all way oversalted.
Charley’s countered with a mushroom-Swiss burger worthy of Instagram. This burger tasted mostly of fresh beef, sauteed mushrooms and onions, with pretty lettuce and red tomato.
A third round of burgers was nowhere close. Charley’s avocado-bacon Swiss burger was a complete surprise, with a generous helping of expensive avocados that went well with crispy bacon. Each flavor was distinctive, all wrapped with fresh beef inside tissue paper folded in a classic “half wrap” diner style.
A Hopdoddy classic burger on a seeded wheat bun suffered by comparison. The seeded wheat bun was our mistake — that’s for chicken and turkey sandwiches — but the burger was short on “sassy sauce” and lacked much flavor beyond the soft, fresh beef.
It was a rare Hopdoddy off-day, and maybe one of Charley’s best days in a Burger Battle.
Winner: Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers
Charley’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, 4616 Granbury Road, @CharleysOldFashionedHamburgers on Facebook; Hopdoddy Burger Bar, 2300 W. Seventh St., Suite 140, Fort Worth (locations also in Dallas and Addison), www.hopdoddy.com
(1) Fred’s Texas Cafe vs. (7) Liberty Burger
Fred’s, which won in 2009, was the only defending champ coming into round three. In round one, it wowed one judge with a stellar trademark Diablo burger. “This was not only the burger that won our very first Burger Battle, it’s the reason why we even have a Burger Battle,” our judge wrote.
Round two was closer, with Fred’s beating Keller’s Bronson Rock on the strength of a slightly better patty and better toppings, which led a reader to ask if this was “a condiment battle.” But there’s more to a burger than just a patty — and Fred’s had the better patty.
Liberty Burger, a small Dallas chain that opened its first Fort Worth location last year, had close calls in the first two rounds, so it seemed vulnerable here.
Fred’s third-round Diablo burger was not up to its first-round standards. Patty was a nicely cooked medium, well-seasoned; chipotles had some heat but not the “spicy, sinister magic” of our first-round judge’s Diablo. The melted Swiss draped the patty nicely. Surprisingly, the pickles retained a pronounced dill bite.
The bacon-mushroom burger was good, too, but just good: Well-cooked patty, generous mushroom portions, crisp bacon, grilled onions. You’d go back to this burger.
But would you marry it? That’s what our third judge said she’d do with the enchilada burger, a relatively new addition to Fred’s menu: Yes, a cheese enchilada topping a burger probably hazardous to your health, but we were surprised at how well the flavors merged. This burger inspired raves.
Liberty doesn’t have anything like a Diablo, so we went with the Chillerno, a “pink” (medium) patty topped with queso blanco, roasted poblano and chipotle barbecue sauce. It’s a curious burger, because that’s all that topped it and the components didn’t really jell together.
The South of the Burger, ordered in answer to Fred’s enchilada burger, was good stuff: avocado that did not go mushy, refried beans, tortilla strips, another nicely pink patty. But it did it make our judge want to elope with it? Nope.
Liberty Burger No. 3, the Wild West, had good, crisp applewood bacon, strong cheddar and chipotle barbecue sauce that spoke up more for itself than it did on the Chillerno.
But when it came down to ayes and nays, Fred’s Texas Cafe had more, um, ayes of Texas.
Fred’s has the ability to go into the Final Four like a steamroller, but it’s going to need to accelerate if it wants to flatten the competition. And it’s going up against a place with a good-luck streak.
Fred’s Texas Cafe (judging took place at original location, 915 Currie St., Fort Worth; locations also on Bluebonnet Circle near TCU and in far north Fort Worth), fredstexascafe.com; Liberty Burger, 8917 North Freeway Service Road E., No. 119, Fort Worth, http://givemelibertyburger.com
(5) Ted E’s Kitchen vs. (3) Tom’s Burgers & Grill
This Burger Battle had a few underdogs and comeback kids, and Ted E’s has been both: Closed three years ago in Fort Worth, it reopened this summer in Bedford. We’ve written about “Bubble Burgers” that didn’t make the cut, and Ted E’s was almost one of them, but it wound up in the bracket, where it has notched victories over Fort Worth burger staples Love Shack and Rodeo Goat (the 2013 Burger Battle winner).
So how would it do against Arlington’s Tom’s, a Burger Battle perennial and the 2013 readers’ bracket winner?
Arriving early at Ted E’s, we wondered if maybe we should’ve given them a little time to warm up. But the patties — one requested medium-rare and the others medium — were perfectly cooked, and a bite of the medium rare one made one judge rethink his tendency to order patties medium — it was that good.
The Hot & Spicy Burger — pepper jack, sliced jalapeño, chipotle mayo, LTOP — lived up to its name, without being so blowout-hot that we didn’t taste the patty, which performed impressively considering its 6-ounce weight. Ted E’s large, soft, slightly toasted buns sometimes dwarf patties. Not this time.
Even more impressive was that medium-rare thin patty on the Ranch Burger. It was well-seasoned, juicy, with the Swiss cheese still melting beautifully at the table. The bacon and fried onion strings added crunch, but the fried tomatoes were unevenly battered.
The blue cheese bacon burger had another nicely cooked, nicely seasoned — a key plot point — patty. The blue cheese didn’t overpower, but the thick raw onion threatened to.
Tom’s also has a spicy burger, and one bite into the medium patty — Tom’s does medium closer to medium rare — brought a pleasing, drippy juiciness. Two bites in, though, and clearly this was an underseasoned patty. We wondered whether it had been seasoned at all.
Beyond that, the jalapeños barely had any kick, nor did the chipotle mayo. Mushrooms added little.
We had similar problems with the bacon-Swiss stuffed burger, where the bacon and Swiss are stuffed into two quarter-pound patties. It was ordered medium rare, despite the waitress’ caveat that “Here, that’s gonna be close to mooin’,” and she wasn’t kidding. But its downfall wasn’t the way the meat was cooked so much as the lack of seasoning. Missing was the usual wonderful char-grilled taste of a Tom’s patty, one judge said.
Our queso burger came with queso dripping over the patty like so much lava, and we mean that as a compliment. Somehow it didn’t create a soggy mess. This patty was nicely seasoned, or maybe it was just all that queso.
Ted E’s put up a respectable egg-topped burger in round one against Love Shack, and two good burgers in round two when Rodeo Goat had a really off night. ITom’s was not up to its usual standard and that led to Ted E’s round-three victory.
Ted E’s is going up against Fred’s in the Final Four. Consistency counts for a lot in Burger Battle, and Ted E’s has been consistent. But you want to win it on your own touchdown, not on the other team’s fumbles.
Winner: Ted E’s Kitchen
Additional judges: Star-Telegram staff writers Denise Harris, Matthew Martinez, Steve Wilson, Roger Pinckney and Eric Zarate, and correspondents Anna Caplan and Malcolm Mayhew