Review #86 – The Mecca Restaurant (Raleigh, NC)

Our Double Glo Burgers crash landed at the table with its eponymous Glo sauce completely melted away. The first few bites revealed a well-seasoned, slightly over-cooked but otherwise fair to middling burger.

Whither art thou, Lee Majors?

The Double Glo Burger. A burger barely meriting a 3.5. We can rebuild it. We have the ingredients. We have the capability to build a burger that can contend with Raleigh’s best. The Double Glo Burger at The Mecca Restaurant will be that burger. Better than it was before. Tastier, tangier, cheesier.

The Glorified Jumbo Hamburger, introduced at The Mecca in 1958, might have been innovative at the time. However, like tail fins and tube radios, it’s time had passed. Drastic measures were called for.

It was vital to use components native to The Mecca, otherwise we would risk incompatibility and inevitable topping rejection. Using our wits, what we had at our table, and a very accommodating waiter, we got to work. Slathering on more Glo sauce was a good start, but we had to do more. This was not a time to be timid. Adding a slice of American cheese gave some much-needed texture, but it wasn’t enough.

We needed to do more.

We took away the pointless lettuce that was wilting under the double patties. Addition by subtraction.

We needed to do more.

Then, an epiphany. It was sitting there in a little crock, the Baked Cracklin’ Meccaroni. We carefully scooped a healthy helping between the two patties. The burger soared! The Meccaroni, excellent in its own right, turned out to be the key to the rebuild. Better than pimento cheese which oozes out at every opportunity, the Meccaroni held everything together and gave the whole burger a texture and flavor that the original just didn’t have.

The original Double Glo Burger merited a 3.5. Our new creation dubbed the Meccandcheese Burger was a triumph of burgiatric science and deserved a 4.5.

Overall ranking: 14 out of 86

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

Review #83 & #84 – Wayback Burgers (Raleigh, NC) & Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Apex, NC)

Be-Bop-A-Lula, Be My Burger

Faux-retro burger places are a sub-genre unto themselves, distinct even from the shiny diner format. Places like Freddy’s, Checkers/Rallys, and the two under consideration here, Wayback Burgers and Hwy 55, bank on a Happy Days nostalgia vibe, with Bobby Darin on the sound system and vintage photographs and paraphernalia to give the impression that you’ve just come off the dance floor at the sock hop. Some do it really well. Hwy 55 does. Wayback Burgers doesn’t.

#83 – Wayback Burgers

Wayback Burgers, tucked away in a generic strip mall on Capital Boulevard, is bland. As Chad said, “It has all the warmth and charm of a Subway. There is no surface that can’t be hosed down.” The photos of vintage soda shops on the walls are the only nod toward the retro theme. As Don said, “The only thing Wayback about this place is that it’s tucked way back in the strip mall.”

Unfortunately, the burgers matched the decor. Don said, “My Classic burger was the epitome of average — two beef patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard. The burger like the store was a bland amalgamation of classic derivative imagery. While the burger looked good, it was just a hollow façade hiding an unimaginative blend of lacking favors. I give it a 2.5, could be better, should be better.”

Michael was equally unimpressed, “I ordered the Cheeeesy. No, my E key did not get stuck. With that many Es, I was expecting a grilled cheese sandwich with a burger patty on it. Alas, what I got was just a sad double cheeseburger with one extra piece of cheese served on limply toasted sourdough bread. I would have sacrificed one or two of those Es for some flavor to the patties. My Philly roots were screaming for some Cheez Whiz. Don’t waste that many Es on bland processed cheese. C’mon! This is supposed to be a throwback burger place. A time before we didn’t know that a big fat cheesy burger was bad for us. The only thing Wayback Burger gave me was regret and a longing for more cheese. I give it a 2.5.”

The only thing Cheeeesy is the inverted bun gimmick

Chad and Carolyn were even less enthusiastic. Chad said, “I ordered the special, limited-time Horseradish Butter Burger, which offered nary a hint of butter or horseradish. A real butter burger has a big slab of just melting butter between the patty and the bun. The Wayback website and the in-store promo poster show what is presumably horseradish butter oozing between the double patties of their burger. Mine had no ooze. Investigation revealed a scant teaspoon of some kind of sauce between the patties. It might have been horseradish butter, it was hard to tell as it had no discernible flavor. The burger was about the same. I saw the cook put the patties on the flattop, but they tasted like they had been steamed. For all intents and purposes, this was a Wendy’s hamburger, passable but completely forgettable. 2.5 (aspires to Meh).”

The Horseradish Butter Burger that wasn’t

Carolyn, who also rated her Carolina burger at 2.5, noted that the Straight Beef crew spent the entire meal talking about where we would go next rather than the burgers in front of us.

In my mind I’m going to . . . find a better Carolina burger

Wayback Burger Average: 2.5 out of 5

Overall rank: 76 out of 84

#84 – Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries: Retro Redemption

Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes & Fries is also tucked away in a strip mall, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Hwy 55 is warm and inviting. It feels like a real burger joint. As Michael said, “Hwy 55 is what Wayback Burgers tries to be. The decor is authentic, the staff truly cares about your experience, and they know how to make a good old-fashioned burger. I ordered the All-American Cheeseburger with bacon. The patty was seasoned with plenty of salt. The bacon was crisp and laid perfectly in the cheese. Good quality American cheese, mind you. My quibbles were minor. They used leaf lettuce instead of shredded, and the tomato was not on top next to the mayo. Simple ingredients done exceptionally well. I give it a 4.25.”

Carolyn arrived early and had a platter of the chili cheese tots, which we happily helped her finish off. She gave her Pimento Cheeseburger an enthusiastic 4.25.

Chad had the Andy’s Double with bacon, cheese, pickles and mustard. “This was a really good classic burger,” he said. “It was properly seasoned, had a properly beefy flattop flavor, and didn’t fall apart when I tried to eat it. Easily a 4.25.” Even the sides were good, with the peaches and cream ice cream and Michael’s fresh squeezed Orangeade being particular standouts.

In short, Hwy 55 does the faux-retro theme proud with an average score of 4.25.

Overall ranking: 22 out of 84

The Straight Beef Podcast Archive is here

For a little while, TSB had a podcast. After leaving out original host, we have found a home for our full catalog of 27 episodes. If reading the site isn’t enough, head on over to Anchor and listen to everything we have recorded. We can’t guarantee that we’ll record more. However, for those new to the site, we think you’ll enjoy these gems of burgiatric wisdom and humor.

Review #80 – Wimpy’s Grill (Durham, NC)

No School Like the Old School

Chad’s review:

Wimpy’s Grill in Durham was a throwback from the day it opened in 1987. Even at the height of the Ford Escort, parachute pants and skinny tie, New Wave era, Wimpy’s was decidedly old-fashioned. Wimpy’s is so retro that in 2018 it is retro again.

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Like King’s Sandwich shop, Wimpy’s is a classic walk-up burger stand. There is no seating. You either get your food to go or eat it in your car. That’s just fine with me. There are some burgers (and my favorite sandwiches) that are better off eaten standing up so the juices don’t run down your arms, or eaten under the comforting, non-judgmental glow of your dome light, where no one can see you consume an entire double bacon cheeseburger and large fries in a disturbingly short time. Not that I did that.

The building itself is a narrow A-frame, most of which is taken up by the submarine-like kitchen. That leaves only a narrow aisle in front. You practically have to turn sideways to get through the door, like entering the haunted house at a questionable carnival. Luckily, the service is very fast. I barely had time to work up a good streak of envy for those waiting by the exit for their food before I, too, received the joyful call.

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I ordered a bacon double cheeseburger (mustard & pickle), large fries and tea. I fully intended to take half the burger home, knowing that there was no way I could eat all of that, especially standing around sweltering at the trunk of Michael’s hatchback in the middle of July. Imagine my surprise when I found myself pawing at the last crunchy ends of the fries and seriously considering licking the burger wrapper to get the last taste of the burger. It was that good. I should have gotten two. Wimpy’s classic flat-top griddled burger earns an estimable 4.5 grease stains* in my Straight Beef notebook.

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* In honor of the late, great Holly Moore.

Michael’s review:

I had the Garbage Burger. One of us had to. Chad was sane with his choice. Don couldn’t embarrass himself in front of his daughter. I, Michael Marino, being of sound mind and, until recently, sound body, ordered the Garbage Burger. What’s on the Garbage Burger you ask? A deep breath now: two four-ounce patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, slaw, chili, tomato, mustard, mayo, and ketchup. This is a mammoth burger. It’s about the size of a regulation women’s ASA softball. I’ll admit. I was a little intimidated at first. I had to eat it like an apple. The shame in that is that I couldn’t enjoy all the tastes together. It was almost like eating a different burger in every bite.

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The chili was tangy and meaty without being greasy. The slaw was crisp. The tomato was juicy and red. I could go on. There was really nothing inherently wrong with the burger except it was just too much. Eventually, all the flavors ran together. That’s the risk you take when eating a stunt burger.

I’m glad I did it. Next time, I’ll get a classic burger with the works. I imagine it will be outstanding. If they can make a ridiculously large burger delicious, they must be able to do wonders with a normal burger. The Garbage Burger rates a 4.25 in my book.

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Don’s review:

Wimpy’s grill is comfort food for me. In a former life, I worked in Durham and had Wimpy’s on Fridays as a bit of a celebration of the end of the work week. What made this trip special was it had been over ten years since my last visit and I was bringing my daughter to get her opinion. Hopefully, this would serve as a life lesson for her about good burgers. I got my old standby chili cheeseburger with tomato, mustard, and onions, a classic combination of flavors that took me back to my younger more fit days. The burger was like a good song that you haven’t heard in years that comes on the radio and puts you back in time. This burger time machine made feel younger, better looking and not so angry- a beautiful experience, albeit too short of one.  The chili, mustard and onions, play well with the burger, and the cheese smooths everything into a nice rounded flavor pallet.  I scored it a 4.25

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My daughter ordered her favorite (probably that of most preteens)- a cheeseburger plain. To me, this is the most dangerous burger recipe, so much can go wrong if any of the three ingredients is not up to par. What makes Wimpy’s able to pull that off is the fact that their burgers are deliciously juicy. The cheese was melted perfectly for a picky eater and she finished it in no time flat, a modern-day miracle. When she had finished, she said that was great (another miracle) and gave it a 4.5.

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Average rating 4.33 out of 5. Overall rank 16 out of 80.

Review #79 – Sutton’s Drug Store (Chapel Hill, NC)

Nostalgia Burger

You don’t go to Sutton’s Drug Store to get a prescription filled, unless your prescription is for a classic cheeseburger, lunch counter sandwich or milkshake. In that case, you’ve come to the right place.

There are a lot of burger places these days that trade on nostalgia for a time that never was, with bright colors, Elvis memorabilia and jukeboxes playing Chuck Berry and Bobby Darin. Sutton’s is the real thing. The drug store has been a Chapel Hill mainstay since 1923 and goes back to the days when pharmacies had soda jerks in white lab coats and served a reasonably priced breakfast or lunch to the downtown crowd. But Sutton’s is not a museum or a Disneyfied version of the past, just a small-town lunch counter (the pharmacy business was sold to CVS a couple of years back) that has managed to stay afloat in chain driven America. That, in and of itself, is pretty wonderful.

So, how’s the burger? According to Chad, it’s fairly close to what he remembers coming off the Eckerd Drug flattop in Chattanooga, where he grew up. “That was a special treat when I was a kid. My mom would stow us at the lunch counter while she shopped. Sutton’s burger patties are heftier and fresher, but the crinkle cut fries are the same.” With several decades and several thousand burger’s worth of experience, he’s hesitant to separate the burger from the location. “We sat and watched a steady stream of families, sometimes a couple of generations, having lunch that Saturday, the kids getting a taste of a hamburger that didn’t come from a drive-through. On a strict grading scale, Sutton’s burger would score a 3.25 or 3.5, but the combination of food, atmosphere and company skews the equation higher than that.”

I’ll take a bacon cheeseburger. Light on mayo. Heavy on nostalgia.

Michael grew up way out in the county near a medium-sized city. It was just after the time when these types of pharmacies were relegated to the city. Our pharmacies were more akin to the big box stores of today. He didn’t really experience greasy spoon dives until high school and beyond. “I don’t really have a place in my history that’s like Sutton’s. I can only compare it to places like Johnson’s. Given how good a Johnson’s burger is, the Sutton’s burger just doesn’t live up to what I expected when I walked in. The best thing I can say about my bacon cheeseburger was that it was solid. Good but not great, 3.25. I am glad for the experience, but I would probably order a bacon biscuit with a sweet tea next time.”

Does Sutton’s offer the best burger in the world? No. Not even the best burger in Chapel Hill, which these days boasts Al’s Burger Shack, Buns, and Top This within walking distance. What it does offer, however, is an experience that is worth seeking out and sharing, at least once.

Overall review: 3.38 out of 5

TSB rank: 52 out of 79