In May, I announced that I was embarking on a quest for the “best burger in Winston-Salem.” I declared it the “Summer of Burgers” and said I was looking for my top 10 burgers in town and would formulate a list from there. My wife and my doctor both grimaced when I said I was going to do this and I had to make promises as to the practice.
So, let’s review. I could only have three burgers a week with some green/healthier things in between. Toward the end of the summer, I had to have a few more to get the ones in that I needed to get in. I went to places that my readers, listeners and friends recommended. I tried to get every recommendation in but I didn’t achieve that, either by lack of funds available or just timing. A few of the burgers on the tour was sponsored by said listeners, readers and friends.
So, before I go any further, I want to thank those who did sponsor burgers for me. Daniel Butner, owner of Carrabba’s and our sponsor on this blog and podcast sponsored the Blarney Burger at Finnigan’s Wake and the burger at King’s Crab Shack. “Street Team” member, Steven McDowall sponsored the Boone Doggies trip and Thunder Road Grill burger. Steven Gallo sponsored the Krankie’s burger. My pal Jeff Davids sponsored both the Small Batch “Morning After” burger and Zesto’s “Chubby Decker” burger. Jason Cobb and Yamas! Mediterranean Street Food donated $50 for gas on the “tour.” Brandon Cassidy of Food Freaks, Chef Travis Myers of Willows Bistro, Chef David Swing of Sir Winston, Chef Antwan Hairston of Mac & Nelli’s, and my friend Dawn McDaniel with Bad Daddy’s did sponsor their own burgers. None of the sponsorship consideration influenced the correlating establishment’s standing in this list. No advantage was given for me not having to pay for them. That being said, thank you all so very much for your help and consideration in this very fun and delicious project.
Now, let’s get to the “housekeeping” stuff. I didn’t get to everyone. I just couldn’t. There is a burger in almost every restaurant, it seems. In some, those are the focus and in others, it’s just a menu placeholder. I tried to get to the ones that people were the most adamant about. I think I got most of them but just couldn’t get to all of them.
To be on this list the burgers had to be on the menu or at least mostly available. Specialty “off-menu” items or things that were made just to “wow” me are much appreciated but I couldn’t count that here. The biggest of these was Chef Travis’ first entry at Willows. Had I accepted that burger, it would have probably been top 3, but it was made for me, special, and not available all the time. Chef Swing at Sir Winston had a “special” burger that couldn’t be counted, as well, but it was darn good. In all, I had 34 burgers from 30 restaurants.
I kept a “journal” of the burgers that I had. It was a spreadsheet that I kept track of the name of the establishment, the name of the burger (if applicable), the amount of seasoning, the “doneness,” the juiciness of the burger, the type of bun and my thoughts on the burger itself.
I thought about breaking it down into “diner burgers” and “gourmet burgers.” Some have said it would be unfair to put a diner burger against a gourmet burger. I don’t see that as the case. I think it’s more unfair to impose some kind of “affirmative action” on burgers. Categorization is more of a problem than letting the burgers stand on their own, in my opinion. And that brings me to what I see as an important aspect of this list. This is my list. It’s not meant as a “readers’ choice” or a popularity contest. I respect the lists made in local publications but I feel it is just a popularity contest more than a true top list. I can’t compete with those lists and I don’t want to. I did take recommendations from others to get a broader knowledge of what is available to us. Burgers I either didn’t know or wouldn’t expect showed up and I am a better burger eater because of it. There were a lot of fantastic burgers on this list and some of your favorites will not make the top list. That doesn’t mean that those burgers that do not show up on the top list aren’t worth having. That’s not what this is about.
And it comes down to this, the list is about how I felt while eating these burgers. I love burgers and this list is representative of much joy.
So, to quote Marty DiBergi, “But hey, enough of my yakkin’; whaddya say? Let’s boogie!”
10. Small Batch
My pal, Jeff Davids sponsored this burger, which was us having a good lunch together in a place where burgers were prominent. I chose the “Morning After” burger. Yes, it’s a gourmet burger and was what I was in the mood for that day. This burger was a big patty with a fried egg, bacon, fries, pepper jack cheese and grilled onions on what I believe is a brioche bun. In addition to “Done” for doneness and “Very Good” for flavor/seasoning, my notes state: “Some of the juiciness comes from the egg, but still a very flavorful burger. Once you bite into it, you aren’t putting it down until it’s done because of that egg and the mess, but also because it’s a darned good burger.”
This was a late entry and I didn’t know much about it because it is kind of down in the boondocks (Old Salisbury/Hickory Tree Rd area). This was also my first “Juicy Lucy” even though I had heard that term a good bit. I had it with both Pepper Jack and American cheese, onion, tomato and while I usually leave off the lettuce on burgers, I forgot to order it that way, and really on a “diner burger,” that’s not a problem. I think it adds to the flavor. This was on a brioche bun. It was a fantastic diner burger at that. Under the doneness and flavor/seasoning categories, both were listed as “perfect.” And, as the name states, it was juicy. Notes: “A really great burger which I had no expectations of. A surprise. The cheeses and fixings made this a delicious entry.”
8. West End Cafe
Full disclosure, when I had the first burger from WEC just before the start of the burger tour, I was set to let that be the first one but it was a little disappointing. I talked with John, the GM of WEC and he said they had been having a bit of trouble with their grill. I told him that I was going to give him a “mulligan.” This was the only mulligan on this tour and only because I had it before the “tour” started. Now, also in full disclosure, I gave John a heads up that I was coming and he gave me recommendations, as I welcomed from all establishments (after all it is their entry). I paid for the burger and it wasn’t comped. Now, this was certainly a different burger. This was, for all intents and purposes, a burger and a half. This burger was a Hamburger Grinder with habanero jack/provolone cheeses, spinach, 1000 island and pickles. I forgot to add onions, but they weren’t needed. The cheesy/1000 island combo is one thing that made this burger a winner. It was a bit messy but delicious. “Perfect” for the doneness, and “very good” for the seasoning, the majority of the flavor came from the accouterments. Per John, “the most underrated sandwich on the menu.” Per me: “Basically 1.5 burgers, great flavors and great unique sandwich.”
7. Cin-Cin Burger Bar
Another full disclosure moment: Cin Cin is owned by the Michael family who also owns Yamas! who did sponsor me in gas. Again, that has nothing to do with this burger’s merit which is what this is about. I had the “Speakeasy Deluxe” burger which is their “classic” burger. This is a gourmet burger that tastes like a diner burger. There is a great underlying onion flavor that I enjoy in diner burgers, this I counted in the “flavor/seasoning.” It was a very juicy burger, too. I do kind of wish that restaurants would get away from the brioche bun as the end-all-be-all of gourmet burgers, though. My notes: “A gourmet burger that tasted like a diner burger, onions-on-the-grill quality. A very good burger.”
6. Canteen Market & Bistro
I will be honest and say that I had little expectations for this burger. I can’t explain why, either. This is a “Smashburger” with American cheese, grilled onions, tomato and 1000 Island on a bun. The burger was perfectly cooked and seasoned. The grilled onions made it more like a diner burger and I love that. The burger wasn’t a thing of aesthetic beauty but it was delicious. “Perfect” in both doneness and seasoning. My notes: “A fantastic burger. Pricey but the flavors were top notch with the grilled onions.” My only knock on Canteen isn’t a knock because I try to stay clear of opining on the prices of restaurants’ wares. That’s their business but my business what I pay. It was more than I’d expect to pay for a burger usually, but the flavors made it worth it.
SO! That’s 10-6. Now, for the Top 5 Burgers of Winston-Salem (ish).
5. Food Freaks of NC Food Truck
Brandon Cassidy sponsored this burger, but again, there was no bearing on the outcome for that. This was the only “actual” food truck that I got to, although there were a few that were on my “to do” list. This was also the first “official” burger of the tour on May 29. As I said in the Instagram post, “This is perhaps the messiest thing I’ve ever eaten but goodness! This is phenomenal.” It is the Wild Mexi burger which is andouille sausage stuffed into a double burger with jalapeno peppers, Muenster cheese and topped with a Sriracha chili mayo on Martin’s potato bun. This burger is huge and if you put it down, it would be all over everything. So, I recommend keeping a roll of paper towels near and don’t put it down until you’ve downed it. The flavors in this burger burst in your mouth and it’s juicy as all get out. Perfect in doneness. My notes (being my first entry): “What a burger should be.”
4. Zito Pizzeria and Grill
The biggest “didn’t see that coming” moment on this tour was when I ate the burger at Zito. It came as a recommendation and I was like, okay, let’s give it a shot. I had only eaten at Zito once and that was right after they re-opened. That was a pizza-kind of day. I sat down and looked over the menu. I decided I wanted a double burger and got it with cheese, onion, mayo and tomato. The flavors in this burger were amazing. It was juicy, seasoned perfectly and worthy of the #4 spot on my list. Doneness and flavor/seasoning was “perfect.” My notes: “Was pleasantly surprised at how good this burger was. Better once it cooled off a bit. Lots of flavor with no fluff.”
3. Social. Southern Kitchen & Cocktails
A beautiful chunk of filet, NY strip, ribeye and ground beef ground together into a delicious patty of perfection. “All that wonderful beef with mayo, American cheese, housemade pickled onions and housemade pickle chips on a brioche bun. Woot… and BAM!” I said on Instagram. The pickled onions were amazing. The pickle chips were also unlike I’ve had anywhere else. This could have easily been #1 on the list. “Perfect” in flavor and doneness. My notes: “A darn fine burger. Great seasoning and temperature. Made with filet, strip, ribeye and ground beef.” It is in a location far from where I usually go, but it was worth that “drive.”
2. Zesto Burgers & Ice Cream
Of course, this had to be on the top 10 list, right? You were probably looking for it earlier, huh? Well, there is undoubtedly no burger that gets as much public love from me than that of the “Chubby Decker” from Zesto. There is something about having this double burger with its 8-minute char, the mayo, ketchup, onion, tomato and melty American cheese that puts me in a great mood. It makes me happy. I love eating at Zesto, too. Algenon and his staff make it a great place to eat a delicious, always flavorful and juicy burger. Zesto is much more than its burgers but for this, the burger reigns supreme. At least at the #2 spot.
And, then there’s #1…
1. Boone Doggies
If you notice throughout my writing of this post, I have mentioned Winston-Salem (ish) a time or two. Boone Doggies is not in Winston-Salem. Luckily for us all, it’s also not in Boone. It located in Yadkinville. Named for the fact that Drew Ausley, who started the Boone Doggies food truck graduated from Appalachian State University in, you guessed it, Boone. The truck focused on hot dogs, mainly. But, the time came to do something different and he opened a restaurant. The location is a true “greasy spoon”-type building and the dining room can get quite crowded. All that being said, you are completely remiss if you don’t make the drive there to have the burgers from this heavenly place. So, about the burger. Steven McDowall alerted me to this restaurant and took me there, and sponsored the tasting. It was an overall win-win for me. I was honored to taste not one. Not two. But three different burgers from Drew and company. I will say that these burgers were probably the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. Ever. First, we had the “Grandfather” which is their classic burger, named after Grandfather Mountain (a Boone reference). It’s a double burger with chopped onion, tomatoes, mayo and American cheese. Next was “The Rock” (another Boone reference): mayo, grilled onions they char in their homemade bbq sauce, bacon, and cheddar cheese. They even char the patty in the bbq sauce for a little something extra! Was it ever. The third is “The Peacock,” named after a chancellor at ASU that Drew had. It’s made with Papa Ausley’s homemade pimento, perfect bacon, tomato and mayo! Seared (and smashed) on the flattop and placed on a buttered toasted bun. I couldn’t pick a favorite of the three but why should I? I got to have all three at the same time. Thank you, Drew and thank you, Steven!
So, here you have it. MY Top 10 Burgers of WSNC (ish). I want to thank all the restaurants for their contributions to the tour and even if they didn’t make the top 10, they all are worth a try. You can’t know how incredibly hard it was to leave anything off this top list. Except for about three places, any of these could have made this list. Thank you to Mac & Nelli’s, Willows Bistro, Campus Gas, Sir Winston, North Point Grill, PB’s Takeout, King’s Crab Shack, Crafted, Earl’s, Allen’s Dairy Treats, Quiet Pint, Trade Street Diner, Mooney’s, Bad Daddy’s, Thunder Road Grill, Krankies, Mozelle’s, the Katharine and New Yorker Pizza Pasta and Wings for your burgers. My apologies to Burger Supreme, Jeffrey Adams, Athena Taverna, Hot Dog City and Sweet Potatoes for not getting to you.
It was a long-yet-short summer. It was a great burger summer. It was great eating great burgers with great friends. Let’s just say it was all great. I know some of yours didn’t make the list. I know some of you don’t agree with this list. But, that’s okay. Convince me otherwise. Tell me about your top list. Tell me the ones you like I left off. Tell me why you don’t agree with the list. I love the conversation and I love the interaction.
Now, I’m off to finding the next “tour” to take. What’re your recommendations on that?
As always, thank you for reading and thank you for listening!