I’m really scratching my head on this one. As I struggle to tickle the keys on my beat to hell 2007 Macbook, I face the stark truth that I am about to give props to the one burger joint in Austin that seems like it came out of the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy: Hopdoddy Burger Bar. The customers don’t wear nearly the same amount of leather as Carrie Anne Moss, and I’m pretty sure open carry in Austin’s City Limits doesn’t include Matrix level hardware, but the almost too perfect polished feel of the place seems jarring enough for me to take the red pill. In this case, the “red pill” meant taking on three(actually 4) burgers to see how deep Bang for your Burger Buck can go here. And how deep does the rabbit hole go at Hopdoddy? Let’s just say by the end I was waxing poetic on these burgers with the Mad Hatter and Alice.
On paper, places like Hopdoddy are why I began the search for Bang for your Burger Buck. The $10 and up burger trend was shifting burger discourse away from beautifully imperfect burger stands to chef driven concepts dripping with start up cash from dudes in Teslas who just started saying the word “dude” again after a 5 year hiatus post college/grad school. With a full bar, boozy milkshakes and several well positioned monitors blasting ESPN, the temptation to stay awhile and get loose at Hopdoddy is great. $50 later you may find yourself asking how a burger and beer experience bordered on a light sushi dinner. Well, it’s not really a conspiracy on the part of joints like Hopdoddy. They figured out awhile back that people will spend money in all kinds of settings, whether they be quiet white table cloth lined dining rooms or a burger joint with kobe on the menu and kobe highlight reels on the TV. So why should you spend your hard earned buck here? Because in this instance, the crowds indeed gather for good reason: their burgers rock. Their burgers are also all over the map. In fact, it kind of irks me when a burger joint can’t pick one burger version and run with it. In Hopdoddy’s case, they have 12 burgers that showcase extreme topping creations versus that one single interpretation of what they believe a great burger truly is. After an initial dud, I honed in on three burgers that struck me as compelling on their own and fine to compare and contrast. Like shopping for a car or a Mac(hint hint), budget will drive your journey. So here are three great Hopdoddy burgers, in ascending order of Bang for your Burger Buck, that are indeed worthy of your hard earned buck. And I freaking enjoyed eating every one of ’em too.
the burger:“Primetime” Texas Akaushi beef, Brie cheese, arugula, caramelized onions, truffle aioli, steak sauce, beefsteak tomato on a house made bun
the bucks: $12.00
The most expensive burger ever to grace Bang for your Burger Buck is not surprisingly, laced with Wagyu beef. For the uninitiated, Wagyu beef(commonly referred to as Kobe), is a breed of cattle from Japan whose high cost reflects marbling of the highest order, making USDA Prime beef look like a triple-A baseball team. In this case, Akaushi refers to a particular breed of Japanese Wagyu that was brought to the US through a trade loophole in 1992 which means only one ranch has the stuff, which means its gonna cost ya. I’ll just get to the point here: the star of the show, Akaushi beef, was totally underwhelming. Perhaps it was due to the fact that burger came out closer to rare than medium rare(more on this later) or because those decadent toppings masked the subtle flavors of the Akaushi, I just couldn’t taste much of this venerable beef at all. Give me Hopdoddy’s hormone/antibiotic free Angus any day, and for a substantially cheaper price to boot. Despite my thumbs down for the Akaushi beef, I still heartily endorse the Primetime burger at Hopdoddy and those over the top decadent toppings are why.
If you’re gonna do a burger for over $10, then that burger best include a serious cheese. Brie certainly falls under the “serious cheese” category, and one that is overlooked more than it should by other haute burgers. Years ago back in Los Angeles, Chef Alex Scrimgeour introduced me to the wonders of a Brie cheeseburger at his eponymous restaurant Alex, for a jaw dropping price of $18. And it was worth it. The size of a small dinner plate and composed of prime beef steak trimmings, applewood bacon, balsamic glazed shallots, the Brie was in fact the real revelation here. The near liquid rush of cream and salt meant a cheeseburger that had the melt quality of those graced with American cheese yet decadent enough for the most discriminating of palates. Cut to 2016 and the Primetime at Hopdoddy seems like a worthy reincarnation, and for a lot less coin too. Arugula is another topping that helps consider the $12 price tag as on par with market value. The other day I tried to pick up some arugula for some ahi tuna burgers I was concocting at home only to dump the pricey green for twice the watercress at half the cost. And then there are those caramelized onions. Packing a wallop of umami, the combo of the Brie and caramelized onion give this burger an overall flavor similar to French Onion soup – the very flavor Chef Sang Yoon was going for when he created his groundbreaking burger at Father’s Office. Further tipping the scale of decadence is the truffle aioli. I’m a sucker for made from scratch mayonnaise and while I doubt the significance truffle plays in the Primetime, it certainly makes for a burger that is worthy of a fine glass of red wine. Speaking of red wine, if you’re like me, you might have mistakenly thought the other sauce at play, the steak sauce, was something akin to A1. Wrong. Try a red wine reduction. This burger tastes of an evening at a French bistro and even the cheap ones will run you more than $12.
As is the case with every burger at Hopdoddy, the bones of this beast are strong thanks to a buttery pillow of dough that is a whopping couple hours old before graced with a hefty patty. Oh yeah baby, these buns are so fresh that I would bet they would go stale in a day, if that. In general I have been happy with the quality of tomatoes in Texas burgers, the beefsteak here is no different. As mentioned above, the most glaring issue is the undercooked beef. While I love a good steak tartare, beef this rare gets lost in a bun, and almost drowns in these decadent yet very complimentary toppings. Final analysis is that the Primetime burger is a brilliant display of decadence for a somewhat reserved price tag. The pedigree in the topping selection is flat out formidable enough to forgive the undercooked beef and worthy of the $12 price tag. But does one have to spend that much at Hopdoddy? Absolutely not.
the burger:“Llano Poblano” Hormone/antibiotic free Angus beef, apple smoked bacon, pepper jack cheese, seared poblano peppers, chipotle mayonnaise, red leaf lettuce, white onion, beefsteak tomato on a house made bun
the bucks: $8.50
As you glance past the Primetime, you will find most all of the burgers at Hopdoddy fall into the $8 and change category. Some, like the Teringula take advantage of chili cheeseburger fanatics. Others, like the Buffalo Bill, strike a chord with those who were wondering how a buffalo burger could taste like a buffalo wing. I find these extreme directions to be a distraction from the solid burger foundation Hopdoddy is built on. But I do have a penchant for heat. If you do as well, you might be inclined to try the El Diablo, a burger that features two kinds of peppers(serrano and habanero), Pepper Jack cheese, salsa and chipotle mayo. Further, I added some avocado on the advice of a Hopdoddy staffer. That burger turned out to be a dud. But I didn’t want to give up on a spiced option which brought me to the Llano Poblano. Like a sleepless Travis Bickle driving all night, I was determined to find a burger with some kick at Hopdodddy. What I got was a blueprint of how a successful bacon cheeseburger works.
If you have not had a hatch chili cheeseburger, the poster child for burgers in the Southwest, well, you need to. It is a three way tango of buttery cheese, hearty beef and enough heat from roasted hatch green chile peppers to keep you coming back for yet another bite. Umami burger makes an epic version, in fact it’s my favorite burger on the menu there. Hatch chiles have an almost addictive heat quality to them and aside from classic toppings like lettuce/tomato/Thousand island or gourmet toppings like aioli/caramelized onions, that heat is what I’m drawn to. Consider then the Llano Poblano: a bacon cheeseburger with a roasted pepper(poblano), pepper laced cheese(Pepper Jack) and some chipotle mayo thrown in for good measure. Sounds like Hopdoddy’s answer to the hatch burger right? Well, not exactly. Truth be told, poblanos don’t have much heat, and not a great deal of flavor. I wonder if the draw to use poblanos is simply because it is a cool word to say. Say it with me: “Poblano” See? You probably threw an accent in there too. And as far as Pepper Jack goes, well I still think it’s an 80s burger fad created by Jack in the Box in a desperate attempt to give their burgers an exotic twist. I would like to say it added a little more kick than Swiss but it certainly didn’t blow me away. What did blow me away was the heat and smoke from the chipotle mayo, and the perfect, and I mean perfectly crisped apple smoked bacon. Those two immensely strong flavors layered on top of this excellent burger and bun make a near perfect bacon cheeseburger experience. I have said time and time again that good beef doesn’t need bacon. Well this bacon is worthy of great beef. It’s also worth pointing out that unsuccessful bacon cheeseburgers often point to the notion that the concept itself is simply to excessive. The Llano Poblano defies that notion by offering strong flavor contrasts that create an intense burger that balances the richness of the beef, cheese and bacon with heat and smoke. I think Hopdoddy could take this burger to another level if they chose to smoke the poblano pepper. What the pepper might lack in heat could be made up for in smoke. Until then I’ll just have to make due with this fabulous bacon cheeseburger for $8.50:
Every cross section at Hopdoddy is evidence of why these burgers can hang in the $10 plus category: master burger craftsmanship. The complimentary toppings of red leaf lettuce, beefsteak tomato and white onion are layered conservatively so as not to interrupt the structural integrity or the flavor concept. Usually at topping concept burger joints, either the complimentary stuff is left out, or cast to the side and left for the customer to haphazardly add on to their burger. Not at Hopdoddy. As was the case with the Primetime, I found a medium rare burger that has drifted into the seas of rare. Not a deal breaker but one can assume the texture would only improve would just a touch more time on the griddle. The Llano Poblano is also the most popular burger at Hopdoddy and both on paper and in hand it is easy to see why: bold flavors and decadence for $8.50. Certainly a fine burger deal. Almost the most Bang for your Burger Buck. But the tastiest? No. That honor goes to this one.
the burger:“The Classic Burger” Hormone/antibiotic free Angus beef, red leaf lettuce, white onion, beefsteak tomato, sassy house on a house made bun
the bucks: $7
Look, sometimes I wonder if I sound like a broken record, always giving props to the cheapest burger at an awesome burger place. But damn it all, this is the burger that had me dancing like I was back in my jam band days of the 90s. The Classic Burger is the blueprint of beef to bun to topping perfection that launched Hopdoddy to burger stardom. The bun alone is a work of art and $7 is all you need to get a seat at the table. The rest of the menu seems like a series of explosions in a Jason Bourne trailer, designed to immediately get your attention and get you in the door. But what keeps yours attention? What makes you come back to try more versions of a Hopdoddy burger or see more Bourne sequels? An excellent burger foundation. And the dude in a military green sweater who can kill with his bare hands.
What impresses me the most about a premium burger joint is how perfect they can slice a tomato or onion. When I spot an onion sliced with that much precision, I just know I am in for a quality burger experience. No big explosion distractions here folks. Just Jason Bourne waltzing into the US embassy saying he wants to talk to someone. Get ready.
Wow. He just took out everyone in the building. I mean, look at that burger and tell me something is missing. Maybe the die hards who believe every burger should be a cheeseburger could call me out on the queso front, but everyone else, believe me when I say you don’t need cheese on this burger. Save it for the dry thin patties at the burger joints with a drive thru cuz at Hopdoddy, you best let the beef do the talking. And maybe let the sassy sauce have a say as well. That mix of mustard/mayo/horseradish means that the Texas burger style is in full effect here. Mustard on a burger is a newly acquired taste for me, and it has to be cut with mayonnaise, but it does do wonders in a single smear of creamy spice and acidity. The fact that this burger came out a perfect medium rare didn’t really hurt my case for the Classic either. Every bit as juicy and as beefy as the black and blue versions seen above but this time, the texture was more discernible. Just looking at the burger reminds me of how wonderfully perfect that last bite of burger is. Picture every element you see here in that final bite, being held up perfectly between the index finger and thumb, like a diamond. OK, maybe Jason Bourne is holding the diamond. And I just have the burger sans the explosions in the background. The point is $7 will get you my favorite burger at Hopdoddy and I would gladly spend more for the sake of variety and mood. That’s solid Bang for your Burger Buck with the assurance that any burger upgrades come with quality and forethought.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar. Product of the Matrix, perhaps. But it is in the Matrix where we get our Neo’s and our Jason Bourne’s. Uh, I think I just got a killer idea for script here. I might need to get cozy at a Hopdoddy and work out some plot points.
I just need to decide on the right burger.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Locations in Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas