Review #85: Hops Burger Bar (Chapel Hill, NC)

REVIEW #85 – HOPS BURGER BAR, CHAPEL HILL

Be Careful What You Ask For

We here at the Straight Beef like to push boundaries. We love and revere a classic burger and are forever in search of the Platonic ideal of burgerdom. However, we are not afraid to take on the challenge of burgers that test the limits of what a hamburger can (or should) be. Sometimes that works out wonderfully and we make a grand discovery that we trumpet to the clamoring legion of burger fanatics within our sphere of influence. Many times, however, the boundary testing burger falls short or even fails spectacularly. What happens when a burger place does both? We found out at Hops Burger Bar in Chapel Hill, an afternoon of cognitive dissonance that led to these Rashomon-like reviews.

Scene 1: Michael

The original Hops Burger Bar in Greensboro gained national attention, being named the best burger in the country by TripAdvisor and one of the Top 50 Burgers in the US by Business Insider. Michael’s experience bore that out, and he was thrilled when Hops opened a branch in Chapel Hill.

Michael: I had eaten at Hops in Greensboro and had a truly transcendent experience. I ordered the Pickleback (friend onion ring, spicy barbecue, bourbon-marinated pickles) at that time and assured my burgiatric brethren that this burger was going to be a slam dunk five.  This burger was going to challenge Al’s and Buns as one of the best burgers in Chapel Hill.

X does not mark the spot.

The time came for our official review of the new Hops location in Chapel Hill, and I went with the Spicy Goat. The allure of goat cheese and sweet and spicy pepper jelly was too tempting. However, there were two glaring issues with the Goat that kept it from reaching the burger mountain top: the bacon and the lettuce. A giant piece of green leaf lettuce – easily 25% larger than the patty – acted like a sluice for the pepper jelly to escape from the back of the burger when I picked it up. The strips of bacon were lazily placed in an X on top of the patty. Here’s a tip: if you want to put bacon on a burger in an X, look at it. If you took a test, got it back, and saw an X, that means you got it wrong. Stop it!

Rebuilding the burger automatically garners points off. I took the bacon and lettuce and ripped them apart. Then, I spread the goat cheese on the patty where it should have been, covered it in the jelly, topped that with bacon then the lettuce. This was how the burger was meant to be presented. If I had gotten the burger this way (without the superfluous pepperoncini speared on top of the bun – what is that, really?), it would have garnered a 4.75. It was delicious.

After thinking about it, the Pickleback had neither bacon nor lettuce, which were the worst parts of the Spicy Goat. That’s why I liked my first visit to Hops. That’s why the bar was set so high in my mind. Unfortunately, a careless build turned an excellent burger into a good burger. I give it a 4.0

Scene 2: Don

Don’s experience was different. His undercooked burger brought his alter ego, the Reverend Corey, fiery burger evangelist, to the fore.

Don: Congregation, I beseech you to hear my words. There is nothing so sinful as a poorly cooked burger. Though my colleagues will profess their appetites appropriately satisfied, I was left wanting on the Hill. My burger was to be medium rare and though the first few bites, the burger was true. By the middle, it was apparent that this was just a ruse. The rest of the burger was cold, lifeless and inedible, rare or extra rare how ever you care to describe it. I felt betrayed. Bamboozled!

At Hops you get your choice of 6-oz, 8-oz, or 10-oz lettuce leaf.

In what I could surmise was a surreptitious attempt at flavor, they bathed the base of the burger in copious amounts of mustard and ketchup. Couple this with the overbearing blandness of the largest and thickest piece of lettuce I have ever witnessed on a burger, and there was no safe harbor from my disappointment. For years, I have heard how great Hops was, and perhaps there was a time and a place. However, I would be bearing false witness if I said otherwise as I left Chapel Hill. My journey home was troubled as I regretted finishing my slab of uncooked meat. I was not feeling at peace with myself or my burger. 2.0

Scene 3: Chad

Chad also ordered his burger medium rare, which should mean a warm pink center cooked to about 135°, and that’s what he received, mostly.

Chad: I had the North Carolinian, which comes with a fried egg, pimento cheese and a fried green tomato. The egg was excellent. I remember thinking that Hops should open for breakfast. That egg on a biscuit would be amazing. What I don’t remember are the fried green tomato and the pimento cheese. They were on the burger. I ate them. But I have no memory of them, they just didn’t register.

We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.

What did register was the burger patty. The outside of the patty had a decent sear, but the Hops kitchen seems to be a bit hit or miss when it comes to medium rare, unable to gauge the right degree of doneness with consistency. While Don’s burger was red and cool in the center, mine was mostly pink most of the way through and was pretty close to a proper medium rare. I have learned the hard way that unless you are in the hands of a very skilled kitchen, medium burgers are the way to go. In a burger place known for high quality beef I’ll take the chance and order medium rare to really let the flavor of the beef shine through. In this case I should have gone with medium. The burger was good but didn’t live up to expectations. It rates a 4.0 on the Straight Beef scale, but don’t go in expecting burger Nirvana.

So is Hops Burger Bar a 4.0 or a 2.0? Such is the subjective nature of burger truth.

Average rating: 3.33 out of 5

Overall ranking: 58 out of 85