Legendary Burgers in the American South

#FoodieScore’s Matthew Tessnear ranks his 10 favorite burgers ever

Burger Illustration 2

Nothing quite defines my culinary life like the experience of savoring a delicious cheeseburger enjoyed at a unique restaurant in the American South. It’s that very activity that provides a lasting snapshot of my childhood and my young adulthood in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the region. Maybe it’s a hereditary drive to find every great cheeseburger out there, thanks to my dad’s equal enjoyment of a delicious burger. Certainly, my love for cheeseburgers has never waned, and it’s only grown stronger since marrying my wife Molly, who’s become my #FoodieScore partner in crime.

My all-time favorite take on the American beef burger comes on a hearty bun with melted cheese. The cheese is non-negotiable, and I will tell you there is no such thing as a hamburger. Every other topping is unnecessary, but I do enjoy just minimal lettuce and a light dose of mayonnaise, which I find brings out the flavor of the meat, bread and cheese.

There are so many great restaurants across America that have perfected their own unique cheeseburger, but the South is the only region in which I’d consider myself a burger connoisseur because it’s the only section of the country that I’ve frequented enough to become an expert. I’ve sampled—ahem, devoured—hundreds of different restaurant burgers across the South, and now for the first time I’m proud to share my very favorites with you. These are my top 10 burgers in the American South, until I try my next new cheeseburger, at which time the list immediately is subject to change with the insertion of another classic.

 

Betty Bombers

The Classic Bomber at Betty Bombers in Savannah

 

  1. THE CLASSIC BOMBER
    Betty Bombers
    Savannah, Georgia

It’s always my first choice to enjoy a cheeseburger that, in some way, accents the key elements of beef, bread and melty cheese, even if it includes additional toppings. Betty Bombers does just that, serving up a burger cooked with ever the slightest grilled crust on the bottom and gooey cheese on top. The veggie toppings are just the right kind of dressing that don’t disrupt the essentials. On top of everything, you get to enjoy this delightful sandwich among World War II relics that celebrate the “Greatest Generation,” in a restaurant located inside the local American Legion post headquarters.

 

Burger Bar

“Move It On Over” at Burger Bar in Bristol

  1. MOVE IT ON OVER
    Burger Bar
    Bristol, Virginia

Burger Bar has captured an expert flavor combination with the smoky barbecue sauce, grilled onions and your choice of cheese on the “Move It On Over.” And I must suggest you try it with a side of sweet potato fries accompanied by a sweet aioli for dipping. This stop also offers a sea of memorabilia about country music legend Hank Williams who, legend has it, was last seen alive outside the restaurant.

 

 

  1. CHEESEBURGER
    Steak-Out
    Birmingham, Alabama

Steak-Out has the ambiance of a fast food restaurant that just so happens to deliver. So you wouldn’t expect to necessarily get one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat. But that’s exactly what they do. You get a premium-beef burger and high-quality toppings that tastes like it came off the grill at a high-end steakhouse. You can even get a baked potato as a side at this place. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a restaurant or burger joint that so expertly blurs the lines between fast food and fine dining. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my own photo of the delicious Steak-Out Burger.)

 

Phillips Grocery

The Cheeseburger Single at Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs

  1. CHEESEBURGER SINGLE
    Phillips Grocery
    Holly Springs, Mississippi

It’s just fun to enjoy a cheeseburger inside a more than century-old building that once housed a lively saloon. On top of that, Phillips serves up a funky little cheeseburger with a standard topping combination I’ve never found anywhere else. The single gives you just the right amount of beef to enjoy the dressing of mustard, pickle, onion and muenster cheese. Well done, Phillips. It’s just an extra treat that you also get to enjoy the place’s general store feel with its furnishings of antique relics of the past.

 

Pawley's Front Porch

Kiawah at Pawleys Front Porch in Columbia

  1. KIAWAH
    Pawleys Front Porch
    Columbia, South Carolina

Pawleys exudes a college-town vibe in its location in the Five Points neighborhood, cozied next to the University of South Carolina campus. The shop’s burger menu salutes the state’s great resort island destinations, and it just so happens to include a tribute to my favorite getaway locale of all time, Kiawah Island. The burger’s topped with one of my favorite cheeses, brie, as well as marinated portabella mushrooms, and fire-roasted peppers. This is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers I’ve ever put in my mouth.

 

Cal Dreaming

Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger at California Dreaming in Charleston

  1. BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER
    California Dreaming
    Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of the classic/basic/house cheeseburger style that emphasizes the meat, bread and cheese, a set of toppings with sweet barbecue sauce and bacon is my all-time favorite, and no one does that combination any better than California Dreaming. It’s the perfect amount of sauce and a generous helping of perfectly crispy bacon. There are a couple of California Dreaming locations—which also give you the feel of a fine-dining experience with their snappily-dressed servers—but the Charleston location has consistently had the very best burger of them, and it easily has the best setting with a panoramic view of the river harbor near downtown.

 

Al's Burger Shack

Kenny J at Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill

  1. KENNY J
    Al’s Burger Shack
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Al Bowers knows Chapel Hill (he previously worked at another local legendary restaurant, Merritt’s Store & Grill) and he knows a delicious, creative burger. His joint, just down the street from the University of North Carolina, tops its delicious patties with fun toppings like those on the Kenny J, which is both distinctly North Carolina and Southern with its Cheerwine barbecue sauce, not-too-spicy pimento cheese, grilled onions and bacon. I must also praise him for not completely splitting his buns, which allow the sandwich to envelope its toppings, making the burgers easier to eat. Additionally, he caters to your size preference with the buddy bite, Al and Big Al sizes. And if all of that is not enough, he may serve the most flavorful French fries (with sea salt and rosemary seasonings) I’ve ever had alongside a burger.

 

 

  1. EXTRA SHARP CHEDDAR STEAK BURGER
    McGuire’s Irish Pub
    Destin, Florida

Adjacent to the white-sand beaches and emerald-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find that this joint, with money taped everywhere, offers quite the valuable burger. McGuire’s calls its creations Angus Steak Burgers, and the quality is so good you’ll feel like you’ve got a tender steak on your bun. If that’s not enough for ya, try the $100 Grand Burger of Filet Mignon, caviar, merlot sauce and imperial champagne. Seriously. I’ve never sampled the high-dollar version myself because I haven’t seen a way to top the Angus Steak Burgers. (Sadly, I haven’t had a McGuire’s burger since 2006, and that was before everyone carried a high-quality camera phone, so I have no personal photo here. I need to fix that soon with a trip to Florida’s beautiful panhandle.)

 

Lankford Grocery

Old Fashion Hamburger (with cheese) at Lankford Grocery & Market in Houston

No. 2 OLD FASHION HAMBURGER (WITH CHEESE)
Lankford Grocery & Market
Houston, Texas

In this restaurant tucked into a friendly neighborhood between the Fourth Ward and Midtown sections of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you’ll find a remarkable cheeseburger that offers the freshest overall combination of toppings I’ve ever eaten on a burger. I enjoyed the softest bun, the greenest, leafiest lettuce, the crunchiest, most flavorful onion, and a fresh beef patty that is second in quality only to the No. 1 sandwich on this list. I’ve discovered that not all of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” spots are legendary in quality. This one deserves that status.

 

Kim's Kitchen

Cheeseburger at Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley

No. 1 CHEESEBURGER
Kim’s Kitchen
Stanley, North Carolina

Kim Millman’s cheeseburger has topped this list throughout my life because of a steady diet of the most important ingredient in a burger: the beef. You won’t top the fresh, hand-pattied, perfectly cooked beef on a Kim’s cheeseburger. You also get a substantial sandwich that’s an incredible value for your money, while adhering to Sheldon Cooper’s (of Big Bang Theory fame) burger formula that prizes the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly table visit from Kim herself while you’re dining in this community fixture between Charlotte and Asheville.

Where do you get your favorite cheeseburgers? Share with us in the comments section, or share with #FoodieScore on social media. Follow @FoodieScore on Facebook and Instagram, or @Foodie_Score on Twitter.

Foodie Travels: The Real Deal, Spartanburg, S.C.

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The name says it all, folks.

The Real Deal crafts Philadelphia-style (Philly) cheesesteaks. And the combination of lightly toasted bun, tender seasoned beef, melty cheese and other toppings…well, it melts in your mouth.

We learned about this foodie stop from an Upstate S.C. resident while talking over a meal at a bed-and-breakfast inn. That should’ve been our first clue to take his advice, right? If you’re talking about other food while enjoying food, it’s a foodie match and a suggestion worth pursuing.

Less than a week after the recommendation, we made the short trip down I-85 to Spartanburg for a Saturday afternoon treat. We almost drove right past the restaurant and its simple signage, so pay attention on your route.

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Inside, the cooks behind the counter greeted us and told us they could tell we were first-timers by the way we studied the menu. I should’ve known the cheesesteak would be good by the cooks’ observations.

Molly and I both ordered the Liberty Bell, a cheesesteak with onions and melted cheese. She added mushrooms, and I added green bell peppers.

We decided to enjoy our cheesesteaks in the restaurant. I might not have known that was an option until the cook asked “for here or to go?” At first glance, it looks like a take-out-only place, but a step around the corner reveals a few tables for dining in.

Waiting on the food was a sensory experience all around. The walls are covered (and I mean covered) in photos of patrons. The cling-clang of the cook’s sandwich assembly rings. And the smell of cheesesteak ingredients wafts.

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Now, I must confess, when these cheesesteaks came to our table, we were so excited that we started eating without sharing a blessing for our food. In two years of marriage, we’ve never completely forgotten to pray for our meal, but these cheesesteaks were so inviting that we didn’t say a word of grace. Just “mmm” and “mmhm.” We realized it moments later and paused for a prayer.

Molly’s enjoyed an authentic Philadelphia-made cheesesteak, and The Real Deal was the next best thing, in her assessment. She also enjoyed that she could order Kool-Aid as a drink at this foodie destination.

There aren’t many places to get a cheesesteak in the South, and even fewer places offer such a sandwich that’s worth its price. I’m not a big fan of dining out to eat a sandwich because I often feel I can make something just as good at home and pay less for it. Not so at the Real Deal.

We’ve made cheesesteaks at home, and they were good. But they weren’t The Real Deal. If you like a cheesesteak, this place must be on your list.

The Real Deal

1311 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Carolina Cafe, Gaffney, S.C.

“Get there early.” That’s the advice we received from several sources about the Carolina Cafe, off Highway 11 in the Upstate of South Carolina. And when we rounded the corner and saw the parking lot of the place at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday night, we understood.

We were told to expect a 40-minute wait for a table for the two of us, but it only took 15 minutes before we were seated in a cozy, but very chilly, corner of the restaurant. That pleasant service surprise was the first of many fond moments during our dinner experience.

img_8314Warm yeast rolls and fresh honey butter arrived at the table along with our drinks, another check mark for a great dining outing. It’s always a plus when you get delicious bread with a meal; it’s a type of free appetizer, if you will.

The menu offers a little bit of everything you’d expect to find at a nice casual American family restaurant in the South. There are burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks, seafood, ribs and more.

Molly ordered the shrimp and grits, one of her favorites. The grits were creamy, and the shrimp were plump, flavorfully sautéed and generously portioned. It was also a great deal at $10.99. You’ll often pay closer to $13 or $15 or more for this dish. And I often have a hard time justifying that cost, unless I’m eating premium shrimp and grits in a coastal area.

img_8316I decided to try the beef tips – a less-fussy compromise for a steak. As much as I love a great cut of beef, I often find my steaks come with too much fat, or not enough bites, not cooked as well as I like, or too much price for what I’m eating. I’m not saying any of those apply at Carolina Cafe, but restaurants in general have led me to the beef tip. And the version at this particular establishment was very satisfying: a great portion for $10.99, served alongside a flavorful baked potato.

We both got salads as part of our meals, and they were just as satisfying as the rest of the entree. Nice portion, fresh ingredients and just the right amount of dressing on the side. Outback Steakhouse serves one of my favorite side salads, and the Carolina Cafe’s salad matches it.

img_8323Our visit was a special date night on the spur of the moment, so we decided to order a dessert. Our choice: the $4.99 Caramel Apple Cheesecake. The piece we shared was a rich and creamy cheesecake, filled with small pieces of flavorful apple, topped with a caramel sauce layer and covered with pecans. Along with the Graham cracker-style crust, it was one of the tastiest cheesecakes we’ve sampled in recent memory. And we love a delicious slice of cheesecake.

Carolina Cafe impressed us at every turn, from that very first glimpse around the highway corner. The restaurant was full of families and couples all night, and a crowd was still waiting outside when we left. The recommendations we received to try this place were spot on. Similar to a well-known pancake house’s slogan, when you come to Carolina Cafe hungry, you leave happy.

The Carolina Cafe gets a $-$$ on our price scale of $ (cheapest), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ (expensive). You can go $ with burgers, or you can go $$ with steaks and shrimp. As always, it’s your choice!

Carolina Cafe

211 Old Metal Road, Gaffney, S.C.

CarolinaCafeGaffney.com

Foodie Travels: Sunny’s Donuts, Gaffney, S.C.

Pay careful attention as you near the intersection of Granard, Logan and Yale streets in Gaffney, S.C. You don’t want to miss this.

It looks like a convenience store and gas station, and it is. But Sunny’s Quik Stop offers so much more on one corner of the shop.

Look for the blue and orange-yellow sign that announces “Sunny’s Donuts.” It’s flanked on each side by “Voted Best Donut Shop in South Carolina” signs. And you know you’re in South Carolina because one of those signs offers University of South Carolina Gamecocks colors and the other Clemson University Tigers colors.

Most importantly, inside you’ll find a donut display case that offers a plethora of tasty treats. There’s everything from basic donuts to bear claws to peach fritters and more. If I had to liken the donuts to something familiar for everyone, I’d say they’re more Dunkin’ than Krispy Kreme. But don’t let that deter you if you have a hard allegiance to a brand and product. This place is special, and with all of the establishments you’ll find on #FoodieScore it’s all about the one-of-a-kind angle.

The shop and its owners have a unique story behind them. You can read more about that here.

There is a convenience store in the other part of the building, but the Donut wing is what makes this a destination more than just a stop on the highway.

Many of the treats you choose will provide more than you’re able to eat in one sitting. So bring the family or a group of friends, prepare to take some home and go ahead and make plans to come back when you get to Gaffney.

Unique donut shops and bakeries are commonplace in big cities, but they’re somewhat of a rare breed these days in some small towns in the South. Don’t pass this one.

Sunny’s Donuts

720 S. Granard St., Gaffney, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Hyman’s Seafood, Charleston, S.C.

Along with New Orleans and Savannah, Charleston ranks among my favorite cities to visit and experience exquisite Southern cuisine. The South Carolina lowcountry has been a getaway destination for my family for 30 years now. Though there is an overflowing plate of dining possibilities in historic downtown alone, my visit to Charleston is not complete without a lunchtime stop at Hyman’s Seafood.

A line of hungry guests begins forming just before 11 a.m. most days at the Middle Street restaurant, just about a block off the northern end of the old market corridor. But with an extensive old wholesale goods facility now fitted for restaurant seating, Hyman’s handles the crowd pretty well.

It’s not a place where you can really savor the experience of lowcountry dining without spending a little bit of money on multiple courses. And it’s worth putting down a few extra dollars to get the complete package.

For our family, that starts with an appetizer of fried okra, which comes crunchily breaded and with a taste so fresh it leads you to believe it was grown and picked right there on the grounds, carried into the kitchen and fried just minutes before reaching your table. There are other local delicacies available as starters as well, such as boiled peanuts and fried green tomatoes.

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My typical main course always seems to be shrimp and grits. It’s a dish and city pairing that are, in my opinion, among the most iconic in the country. There’s no better place to eat shrimp and grits than in Charleston, S.C., and Hyman’s has my favorite. It’s a hearty bowl of the creamiest, hottest grits, covered with what seems like 20 large, plump, tasty shrimp. To make the most of it, you must top your dish with cheese and bacon for full effect.

A visit to Hyman’s means fried oysters for my dad, and the seafood specialty is among his favorite in town or anywhere. Hyman’s offers a large variety of broiled and fried seafood items and combinations, including a daily specials board of fresh fish options, all served with delicious side items.

One of the best things about Hyman’s Seafood is that it offers choices for people who aren’t big seafood eaters. You can even order from the menu at Aaron’s Deli, a companion restaurant right next door.

With so many chic new places in such a culinary city, it’s difficult to visit Charleston in a short period of time and try all of the hot spots. Hyman’s is my go-to spot because it’s a city institution where you can eat a variety of delicious iconic dishes special to the region. If you give it a try, pay particular attention to where you sit and which celebrity’s name is on a plaque at your place, and be sure to visit at a time when you’re not in a hurry to best surf the crowd and enjoy the experience.

Hyman’s Seafood

215 Meeting St., Charleston, S.C.

hymanseafood.com

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Foodie Travels: Pawleys Front Porch, Columbia, S.C.

Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (or DDD for short) resoundingly succeeds in sharing some of the most tasty, interesting and American restaurants from coast to coast. The show has served as a locator map for restaurants Molly and I have visited across the country, and it’s been a primary source of dining ideas for a couple of our trips this year alone.

When we planned to hit the road for a recent summer trip through South Carolina, Molly explored DDD options on our route. That’s how she discovered Pawleys Front Porch, an American food restaurant in the Five Points community of Columbia, not far from the University of South Carolina campus and the confluence of interstates 26 and 77.

Pawleys is a well-known burger spot in Columbia, receiving praise beyond just the Food Network. One of my mom’s friends even suggested it as her first choice when she learned we’d be traveling right through the South Carolina state capital.

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As if the menu’s primary reliance on cheeseburgers wasn’t enough to reel me in, this place names its specialty burgers after South Carolina islands. That’s a major selling point for me, since my family has frequented Kiawah Island south of Charleston for nearly 30 years as our vacation haven.

There’s a Kiawah burger on the menu, and that was naturally my easy choice. Along with an incredibly well-seasoned beef patty, I enjoyed the Brie cheese, fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms as my toppings. And the burger was more than a mouthful in each bite.

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Other island options include Fripp, Edisto, Wadmalaw and Sullivan’s, with a wide range of toppings that make each burger a special experience. But that’s not all that we enjoyed about this place.

When Molly and I can travel to a restaurant that offers me a burger and her a Mexican food option like a quesadilla or taco plate, we’re especially happy. Pawleys delivered on those options, including a special shrimp taco offered on the day of our visit.

With burgers and a mixture of other food options, Pawleys has an atmosphere you’d almost expect to find at a more coastal location. There is a front porch with seating, as you’d expect with the name, but there’s also inside seating in an all-American restaurant kind of environment with college-aged wait staff members, which you’d expect with the location proximity to USC.

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We usually order water for drinks, but with that in mind this is a place where two can eat well for about $20. When we left, our stomachs were full, our tastebuds were happy, and I didn’t have any reason to complain about pricing or service. Give it a try if you’re traveling through the middle of South Carolina. I’ve had burgers from Greenville to Charleston to Myrtle Beach, and Pawleys’ was the best in taste, creativity and price.

Pawleys Front Porch

827 Harden Street, Columbia, S.C.

pawleysfrontporch.com

Foodie Travels: Cupcrazed Cakery, Fort Mill, S.C.

A whisk handle, the smell of icing and a counter full of cupcakes greet you at the door of Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. This baked goods factory has received praise on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” competition show, and you quickly understand why when you enter their space, just off I-77 a few miles south of Charlotte.

We discovered Cupcrazed on Instagram, and we’ve liked and commented on the business’ foodie posts for months. On a recent trip through South Carolina, we stopped in for the first time.

The atmosphere is like a cross between a cozy coffee shop and a big-city bakery. Colorful decor, including room for a few patrons to sit around tables and on couches, awaits, as well as an employee at the counter.

This is the kind of place where it’s helpful to stand in line to have time to make your selections. In addition to cookies, brownies, cake pops and cakes, an assortment of cupcake options awaits each day. Be advised that specialty concoctions change daily, but there are always the classic vanilla, chocolate, carrot cake and other options.

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When you’re interested in more complex flavors, it can be a tad difficult to decide what choice your stomach wants to make that day. So, step back and take a minute. We had to select between Cookies and Cream, Reese’s Cup, Key Lime Pie, S’mores, Triple Chocolate, Raspberry and a variety of other unique flavors. You should know that these aren’t basic cupcake flavors. My S’mores cupcake came with a Graham cracker topping, a toasted marshmallow and a fun-size Hershey bar on top.

Individual cupcakes at Cupcrazed are $3, but you get a bit of a deal if you want to buy a half-dozen or dozen and share. Six cupcakes will cost you $15, essentially giving you a free cupcake. Twelve cupcakes will cost you $30, meaning you’re paying for 10 treats and getting two for free at that rate.

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We enjoyed a cupcake each on our visit and then took four cupcakes to our family to share. One cupcake at a time will more than fill your need for a sweet treat, but later that day or the next, the memory of that delicious cupcake makes you wish you had bought more while you were in the bakery. Luckily, this place is easy to find in a shopping village less than a mile off the interstate. That’s a good thing because the Instagram posts each day make me a bit Cupcrazed.

Cupcrazed Cakery

936 Market Street, Fort Mill, S.C.

Cupcrazed.com

Foodie Travels: Bantam Chef, Chesnee, SC

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(By Molly)

Back in June, we decided to take a Gaffney/Chesnee foodie adventure. Part of my side of the family is from Union, South Carolina, so I’ve spent some time in the area traveling through. We found a restaurant decorated in 1950s memorabilia – an Elvis Presley mannequin, a 1950 Studebaker, tons of model cars, license plates, and classic black and white tile floors. It’s called the Bantam Chef and its burgers and offerings are well known in the area.

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I had heard of it because the owner’s brother owns a second Bantam Chef in Union, where my grandparents and dad used to eat when he was younger. They usually got food to go. I had never been to either restaurant location. So for me, it was a bit of a homage to my grandparents’ love for the hometown establishment.

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Matthew tried the Studebaker Cheeseburger and I tried a regular cheeseburger. And their fries were to die for! Here’s Matthew’s review of the burger at Bantam Chef. 🙂