When we set out to find the best burger in Nashville, we knew it would be a physical undertaking, if only because digesting all that cow would tax even the most athletic colon.
But nobody expected the Great Burger Challenge to be such a head game.
Imagine 10 overly opinionated people debating what makes a burger good. Is it the beef? The bun? The condiments? The restaurant environment? The level of intoxication? The hour? The price?
You might as well ask what makes America good. Surely the essence of burger is linked to unique personal experience—Friday in the school cafeteria, a childhood visit to A&W, Dad’s Brillo patties from the backyard Weber. Such existentialist thinking likely prompted author Calvin Trillin to say that anyone who doesn’t think that the best hamburger comes from his own hometown is a sissy.
Furthermore, imagine that same dogmatic group clambering for consensus over what actually constitutes a burger in the first place: Cheese? Bacon? Mayo? Does it have to have a bun? Can it be on French bread? Rare, medium or well done?
And, of course, there was the matter of contenders. With hundreds of burgers available across Nashville, who would get a berth in the Great Burger Challenge?
For a few days, we kept a running list of burgers we really like. There were some unlikely choices and there were some omissions, but no suggestion was rejected, with the exception of the obsolete McDLT and various veggie burgers. (To paraphrase Trillin, anyone who doesn’t think the best hamburger comes from a cow is a sissy.)
Eventually, we drafted a list of 16 much-loved contenders. To put the burgers on equal footing—i.e., to eliminate variables such as condiments, environment and intoxication—we ordered them all medium, with “The Works.” (If given a choice of cheese, we picked cheddar.) Then, sober and armed with debit cards and portable angioplasty kits, we set out across town to collect and deliver the burgers to the Scene’s conference room at high noon.
As we rooted through grease-stained bags and squeaky Styrofoam containers of silver-wrapped burgers, a few early leaders emerged. There was the Ombi burger, whose charismatic combination of posh condiments earned it the moniker Obama Burger. And there was the unpretentious Edgefield specimen, dubbed the HuckaBurger, because, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
There were some surprises: Rotier’s, Bobbie’s Dairy Dip and Brown’s Diner all fell into the unremarkable pile, perhaps illustrating the importance of restaurant ambiance in the overall burger experience. (Or maybe we just caught them on an off day.) The Palm’s burger was an expensive disappointment, and, well, nobody really liked Cheeseburger Charley’s.
Wading through the beef and bread, we isolated the following characteristics of good burgers:
Variety of color: An all-brown burger—even if it comprises delicious brown bacon and brown caramelized onions—is boring. Lettuce, tomato and yellow cheese are there for a reason.
Crisp lettuce: The lettuce leaf’s role is texture, and since arugula, frisée and prissy micro-greens can’t stand the heat, stick with an unpretentious frond of iceberg or romaine.
Element of surprise: A burger is a commodity combination of—cue the music—all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun. So if at least one aspect is exceptional or unexpected (think wasabi mayo, bacon aioli, homemade pickles and kick-ass bacon), the sandwich can really stand out.
Manageability: If you can’t fit your chops around a burger and its components in one bite, some portion of the sandwich invariably will land on your body—in which case the burger will taste unbalanced, and you will look like a slob. Unless you use a fork, in which case you will look like a tool.
Taking into consideration these and many other data, including which burgers were devoured immediately and which ones made it to the leftovers free-for-all in the break room, we whittled the Sweet 16 down to five superior contenders: Ombi, PM, Radius10, Edgefield Sports Bar & Grill and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. (See sidebars for details of all burgers.)
Over a couple of days, we brought the burgers back for follow-up tastings. Much to our surprise, Ombi fell out of the running when our revisit fell far short of the expectations set in the primary. With four burgers left in the competition, we found ourselves drawing lines between the Classics (Edgefield and Five Guys) and the Newcomers (PM and Radius10), which added gourmet embellishments to the standard burger trappings.
We selected finalists from both categories. PM took the Newcomer honors, while Edgefield nosed out Five Guys for the Classic title. We unanimously agreed that Radius10 beat out Five Guys for third place. That left the final cut between the spicy, unconventional PM burger—peppered with zingy Asian spices and laced with wasabi mayo—and the all-American burger’s burger from Edgefield, comfortably cushioned in a soft sesame bun and generously lubricated with mayo.
Both were excellent. But when we asked ourselves the likely hypothetical, “Hey, I’m going out to grab some burgers, where do you want me to go?” the general consensus was...
PM$7 with side salad, fries, chips or wasabi peasWhen we set out to find the beefy paragon of burgerdom, we did not expect to find it next to baby octopus salad, sesame brown-butter halibut and kaffir-dusted duck curry. But Arnold Myint’s Asian-inspired treatment of the classic American chopped-steak sandwich blew the competition away. An 8-ounce patty, infused with minced onions sauteed in butter, hits the olive-oiled grill to order and, at just the right second, gets licked with a glaze of minced garlic, Thai sweet chili sauce and fruit juice. Flame-kissed to caramelized perfection, the burger cuddles up on a soft multigrain kaiser roll from Provence, beneath a green swath of romaine, pink onions and a schmear of wasabi mayonnaise. The result is a tender sandwich that melts in your mouth, leaving a decadent trail of sweetness and a faintly fiery kick. Add-ons of cheese and sautéed wood ear mushrooms and shiitakes are available but unnecessary, since the standard version packs so much flavor and texture. A master of unexpected details, Myint delivers steak fries that would hold their own against any in town if the Scene were ever to conduct a spudstakes. A favorite breezy hangout for sipping Chai-tinis and nibbling sushi on the patio while watching the Belmont traffic stroll by, PM now holds the blustery title for Best Burger in Nashville. —Carrington Fox
Edgefield Sports Bar & Grill$6.25 with potato chipsIf you’re an East Nashvillian who’s had it with the hipsterized, trendalicious gentrification of your ’hood, the Edgefield is for you. First, there aren’t many places in Nashville where you can still enjoy the pleasures of secondhand smoke. And in a town with more than a few admirable down-and-dirty burgers, the Edgefield cheeseburger is a notch above. It’s decidedly old-school: a hand-formed patty topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, one slice each of American and Swiss, and...mayo. We know, the lube of the gods may disgust you health-conscious types—what the hell are you doing eating a hamburger anyway, sprout-heads?—but the ubiquitous egg yolk/vegetable oil emulsion gives this bodacious bundle of bovine a divinely saucy decadence. The soft grilled bun only ratchets up the artery-taunting ecstasy. It’s kind of like a Big Mac, but really good. In fact, it’s so wrong it’s a turn-on—this is the burger Eliot Spitzer would order. (Of course, he’d order takeout, and use George Fox’s name.) —Jack Silverman
Radius10$10 with a side of herbed steak friesEven though Radius 10 is right by the Scene’s office and would seem to have an unfair advantage in being fresher than other burgers in a taste test, it still had to sweat it out in its plastic carry-out container until the other burgers arrived for tasting. Even after its sauna, the 10 Burger was still the most beautifully presented, with a square beef patty reminiscent of Wendy’s peeking out beyond the edges of a golden kaiser roll. The lead of the toppings was the salad of onions and homemade pickles that added a tang more powerful than the fresh tomato, a cameo that added more color than flavor. The sweet-and-smoky elixir of bacon aioli added enough moisture that no other condiment was required, and a generous tangle of arugula added texture while standing up to the other powerful flavors. Aged cheddar was the perfect encore to every bite. With a medley of toppings that would make a fine sandwich on their own, the 10 Burger pushed it to 11 with a patty cooked to a perfect medium—a superb star among a remarkable ensemble cast. —Brent Rolen
Five Guys$4.79Were it not a national chain, no-frills upstart Five Guys might have taken home the greasy gold. But even though hometown pride led our judges to give the D.C.-based burger mill a good ol’ down-home knee-capping, it’s still as close to a grill-out aorta-buster as you’re likely to get at a counter. Tightly wrapped in plain old aluminum foil, the regular cheeseburger comes with two brawny patties and free works ranging from mustard to A-1 sauce and jalapeños. Skip the grilled mushrooms, which just made the already unwieldy burger a soggy mess: if our tasters had any gripe, apart from the jaw-defying thickness of the thing, it was that Five Guys’ burger is too juicy. Do not, however, skip the steamy walnut-brown fries ($2.39), an overflowing Styrofoam cup of grease-staining goodness. —Jim Ridley
Hardee’s$4.99 combo (includes drink and fries)“Try the Thickburger,” our glassy-eyed gluttons gurgled. So we did. And friends, that first bite is fast-food burger heaven—mouth-filling, succulent, with a big-dicked beefy flavor that elbows aside the bun, the condiments and the impressively fresh veggies. But then you take a second bite, and a third—and as one judge eloquently put it, “It’s like your mouth is getting crop-dusted with some kind of beef-flavor additive.” Even so, this is no Big Mac full of ash-gray beer-coaster patties. That Hardee’s chargrilled taste you recall from childhood has survived intact. Hell, thanks to the eggheads in Hardee’s food lab, it’ll probably haunt the Earth long after the cockroach. —Jim Ridley
Ombi$13 regular with foie gras; $9 special, with side of friesGood looking, charismatic and modern, the Ombi candidate earned the moniker Obama Burger and took an early lead in the voting. A yeasty grilled bun loaded with a juicy patty, gooey goat cheese, herbed mayo, arugula and what can only be described as the Best Bacon We’ve Ever Eaten, O.B. blew away the primary competition. But exit polling from the round of 16 would just as soon have predicted Dewey over Truman. As it turned out, this bacon-topped symphony of sweet and savory flavors, crispy and gooey textures was not the standard Ombi burger, but rather a daily special. To compare the standard to the special, we ordered both for the final round, and we were doubly disappointed. The special arrived with no bacon and miserly amounts of the toppings that had wooed us the first time. The standard burger, grilled with foie gras inside and topped with caramelized onions, was a monochromatic lump with a liver-tinged aftertaste reminiscent of a Krystal. After touting Ombi as the likely winner, we ate our words, while leaving a fair amount of expensive burger with goose guts on the table. —Carrington Fox
The Grill at Green Hills$7 with side of fried plantainsGranted, for a good old-fashioned gutbomb, you probably wouldn’t pick a place with an entire aisle of designer yogurt. But ever since Whole Foods’ in-store grill opened last fall, we’d been hearing the joint had a killer burger. Add to that abundant fresh produce and lots of healthy, free-range and organic alternatives, and we were fired up. Well…perhaps our expectations were a little lofty. With only one employee to take orders and a single burger-flipping octopus to cook them, our medium burger with Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato came back overdone, bland and dry as parched desert—albeit with good tomato, crisp lettuce and an extremely shiny egg-washed bun. But great veggies do not make up for lackluster meat. Next time, a chicken wrap—or maybe a post-yogurt sneak across the street to Five Guys. —Brian Miles
Rotier’s$4.50With its memento-covered bar and nostalgia-stained vinyl booths, Rotier’s is proof that the unselfconscious trappings of a well-loved diner can do more for a burger than all the Kobe beef and homemade ketchup in the world. Slightly dry, with standard-issue toppings of tomato, lettuce, pink onion, cheddar, mayo and mustard, the classic Rotier’s burger didn’t hold up under the fluorescent scrutiny of conference-room lighting. Taken out of its legendary—and formerly smoke-filled habitat—it was just another burger. But that’s where the sterile methodology of taste-testing breaks down. There’s a reason that Rotier’s is top-of-mind in any conversation about burgers—or shakes or fried pickles, for that matter. Served on a bun, white or wheat toast, or French bread, the Rotier’s burger, like it’s surroundings, is an institution. —Carrington Fox
Fat Mo’s$5.88 with side of spicy friesWe knew something was amiss when the drive-through window opened unexpectedly and we received our Fat Mo’s burger almost immediately after ordering it. Never in our many, many trips to the Nashville institution had our gratification been so instant—or so, well, ungratifying. Where Fat Mo’s is normally one of our favorite local burgers, this specimen limped into the competition. Sure, the signature peppery beef was nicely seasoned, and the tangy, savory tangle of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mayo, mustard and American cheese was present and accounted for, but on the whole, the sandwich looked a little pale, tasted like an under-heated leftover and was not at all the gut-busting delicacy to which we’ve become accustomed. While this surprising dip in quality was an aberration in our experience, our beef bracket had no room for excuses. As a result, perennial powerhouse Fat Mo’s was, sadly, one and done in the tourney. —Steve Haruch
12 South Tap Room$10.38 with side of mashed potatoesThe prospect of a burger with bacon and avocado inspired plenty of interest among our team of tasters, but initial excitement gave way to thoughts of the next burger in line. It’s not that the 12 South burger wasn’t good—it was tasty—it just came off a little flat. In a blindfold test, most people probably wouldn’t have guessed at the presence of avocado (though it was nice and fresh). The overwhelming reaction to the burger was a shrug, followed by a quizzical look at the patty: “Wait, what’s in there?” Guesses ranged from parsley to cilantro to chicory, but no one could say for sure. There was definitely something blended into the ground beef, and it imparted a flavor that, while not offensive, wasn’t exactly endearing, either. Overall, this sturdy burger topped with tomato, green-leaf lettuce, red onion, bacon and cheddar probably would have benefited from a pint of one of the Tap Room’s many fine beers—not unlike our tasters. —Steve Haruch
Bobbie’s Dairy Dip$6.35 with small order of sweet potato friesThere’s something about the kitschy decor at the classic drive-in burger joint Bobbie’s Dairy Dip that just makes the fare that much tastier. But away from the ambient glow of Wendell Smith’s neon sign across the street, the no-frills hamburger was lackluster, to say the least. The surprisingly dry beef patty was topped with the typical lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayonnaise, but a handful of jalapeños added a welcome kick. Given the time of year, we’ll overlook the sorry excuse for a tomato, which was light pink, mealy and flavorless. The tasting team was unexpectedly underwhelmed by the burger, but we’d like to think this dining experience was an anomaly, and that perhaps the burger simply does not travel well. So we recommend soaking up the nostalgia at this pink-and-green pastel paradise while dining on the patio. Be sure to add a side of sweet potato fries to your order, along with a dish of delectable soft-serve ice cream, which has a butterfat content you’re better off not knowing. —Sarah Kelley
Cheeseburger Charley’s$4.25Poor, overlooked Cheeseburger Charley’s is like the United States Post Office of cheeseburgers: while others may offer more flash, toppings or flavoring, CC’s delivers an above-average burger with assembly-line efficiency and consistency. The bun, while satisfyingly toasted, did crumble after cutting for the taste test. Perhaps a little dry. The fresh, never frozen, patty is the thickness of a deck of cards and grilled over flames in a speedy five minutes. We found the burger to be a degree toward medium-well, with no sign of pink. The cheese is placed on the burger seconds prior to its removal from the flame, giving it enough time to ooze over the edges and solidify. The grilled burger has a carbonized surface and a smoky flavor that exceed fast-food expectations. But it’s the Your Way condiment bar where Cheeseburger Charley’s shines, with a bounty of toppings to pimp your burger beyond the predictable burger-stand fare. —Rob Williams
Red Robin$8.49With a mess of shredded lettuce, floppy onions, tomatoes, pickles, cheddar, mayo and a smattering of the chain’s sweet-pickle relish and ketchup concoction—not to mention the fried onion straws we added in a moment of gluttonous glee when everyone else seemed to be doing it—the burger was a bit over-accessorized. The too-sweet marriage of crispy onions and all that relish goo made the thin patty difficult to suss out. When we gave in to gravity and let the toppings slither out of the semi-soggy sesame seed bun, we found the beef an unfortunate afterthought, leaving the taster who schlepped across town to pick it up to beg, “Isn’t anyone going to taste my burger?” Our guess is the maddened dash back to the office was this burger’s demise. It’s too drippy to travel well, so it’s best to tackle this one in-house. (Imagine Chili’s with an arcade.) Dine-in bonus: Red, the restaurant’s yellow-beaked mascot, makes booth-side appearances that are sure to scare the bejeezus out of the wee ones. —Elizabeth Ulrich
The Palm$10 with friesDo you remember that date you had a few weeks ago when you looked across the table at the other person and realized that while there was nothing really wrong with your companion, you just weren’t feeling it? Well, don’t ring up The Palm and try their burger. It’s just not that special. It’s as if the legendary steakhouse, content in offering a superstar menu of reliably tasty dishes, simply outsourced the production of this mainstay to a junior chef. The Palm’s burger lacked the flavor, creativity and pure deliciousness of some of our upscale selections and the old-fashioned bite and heft of some of the more standard offerings we tasted. The burger, though grilled, was rather wispy, and the beef had no sizzle or substance. It was neither dry nor juicy and only decent in looks and taste. With standard toppings of lettuce, tomatoes and onions, none of which seemed particularly fresh, the burger didn’t have anything else going for it either. Worst of all, The Palm’s burger is not even a cheap date. Coming in at $10, the offering was more expensive than nearly all our selections, and while it’s just good enough to appease our hunger, it certainly won’t have us coming back for more. —Matt Pulle
Capitol Grille/Oak Bar$12.50 with crispy fries, fresh fruit, smoked-bacon-and-charred-onion potato salad or Southern cole slawThe hefty price tag and list of toppings—confit onions, oven-cured tomatoes, Point Reyes blue cheese—would suggest the Capitol Grille burger is only for blue bloods. But before you reverse snobs peer disapprovingly over your discount eyeglasses, keep in mind it was one of the heftier slabs of beef in our competition, and the unusual condiments blended quite nicely. (Of course, of all the curdled milk options, blue cheese is the most polarizing, and might be a deal-killer for many.) Our test version was a little drier than some previous incarnations, which contributed to its first-round demise. And like a Rotier’s or Brown’s Diner burger, it loses some of its appeal when removed from its natural environment—the stunning and timeless Hermitage Hotel. (Instead of eating in the restaurant, try the adjacent Oak Bar, one of the coziest hideaways in town. Also, the burger increases to $16 on the Grille’s evening menu, but stays the same on the bar menu.) Despite its relatively lackluster performance here, we’ll certainly revisit its unique charms—quite likely on a late Sunday evening or Christmas Eve, as the Oak Bar serves late into the night, 365 days a year. —Jack Silverman
Brown’s Diner$4.65How could a burger cooked in a restaurant that looks like a trailer in full post-tornado splendor be anything but good? Don’t ask us. Brown’s burger was just that: good. Not a mind-blowing burgasm of taste, but good. In its natural habitat at the bar at Brown’s, in proximity to the perspicacious Daphne, the smell of dozens of burgers grilling side by side in hot and happy harmony is intoxicating. When one of those juicy babies finally makes its way to your trembling mitts—with thin sliced pickles harpooned to the seedless white-bread bun with a toothpick—nothing tastes finer. Unfortunately, in conference room captivity, these burgers don’t taste so sweet. The fatty meat made for a juicy burger, despite being slightly overcooked, but one that had a somewhat oily flavor. Topped with ho-hum condiments and flimsy shredded lettuce that added neither flavor nor crunch, this burger wasn’t in it to win it. It wasn’t bad, just good. At this level of competition, good just isn’t enough. —P.J. Tobia