Cheeseburgers in Paradise
John F. Thomas, Tarrytown Magazine
Not too long ago I was a 6th grader visiting New York City for the first time. It was the furthest north I had ever been, a geographic barrier that I didn’t break until about 2 years ago. Everywhere we went people would ask us where we were from. I was always the quickest to respond, and proudly, that we were from Austin. After about the 50th time, my parents took me to the side and said, “John, when people ask where we are from just tell them Texas; no one knows where Austin is.”
“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.”
Fast-forward to 2020, and Austin is the epicenter of every major growth metric, and on everyone’s list of places to visit. Fueled by the Central Texas BBQ craze, the food scene has become as diversified as the state’s economy. By the mid 2000’s I could honestly say I had patronized every single BBQ joint within a 50-mile radius of Austin. Today, I probably haven’t been to half of the BBQ joints within Austin. A lot has changed.
However, we still have a little secret that has gone unnoticed and under-appreciated among Austin’s rapid growth. I am not referring to some secret menu, swimming hole, trail, or activity, but Austin’s vibrant cheeseburger scene. This article is written with joy and some sadness, but filled with hope. We have lost a couple great ones over the years; for me, starting with the iconic Holiday House and their burgers with bonanza sauce and shredded cheese.
One of the saddest moments of my life was when I got word that the Frisco was shutting down. About a year after they closed their doors, my wife and I were cleaning out our condo in D.C. and found a Frisco burger wrap. It still had a little grease on it from either the patty or their relish. I had the wrapper framed and it now hangs on our wall.
Hut’s was another of my favorites; however, their taste lost its appeal after about a decade of weekly Tuesday two-for-ones. I switched from their burgers to chicken fried steak, which was fantastic (and another Austin staple that is becoming harder to find). We have also lost Players, but can at least get something similar at Lions golf course.
I have never been to a city with as many outstanding burger establishments as Austin. Sure, one city might have one or two good spots and all judgements are inherently subjective, but you’d be hard pressed not to find multiple remarkable burgers in Austin. Rumor has it, even Maudies has a good cheeseburger — I have not had the courage to order one there yet, though, and probably will not.
However, there is a new kid on the block at the Commodore Perry Hotel. Their cheeseburger is great – the patty, brilliantly orchestrated of dry aged scrap from their ribeye steaks and mixed with ground brisket. The hood of the patty is topped with Deer Valley aged Cheddar from Wisconsin; condiments include “fancy sauce”, rendered bacon, caramelized onions, raw red onion, and house mayo; all delicately placed between a Pain Au Lait roll.
Many people are unhappy with the changes in Austin. German poet Friedrich Hölderlin phrased it best, “[w]hat has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.”
Despite the changes to the city, we must cherish what we still have. Not all is lost. The O.T. Special at Dirty’s; the Longhorn Special at Top Notch (I like subbing for shredded cheddar); Dan’s, and Hill-Bert’s to name a few (honorable mention to Culver’s, Short Stop, and Sandy’s). These institutions are the Gibraltar of old Austin, but without our acknowledgment and support, they too will fall.