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.

Eating Through a Weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Regardless of your college sports allegiance, the central North Carolina city of Chapel Hill offers plenty of reasons to visit. From its tree-lined driveways and iconic main street named for Benjamin Franklin to its incredible culinary and arts scenes, there’s plenty to see and do without having to think about sports and mainstream entertainment.

On a recent visit, Molly and I had a chance to enjoy some of the best in vintage local fare. There are plenty of upscale, chic restaurants to try in Chapel Hill, but on this trip we stuck with some of the specialty joints known for their history and/or their simplicity. Here’s what we discovered and recommend if you find yourself in Orange County’s iconic city. And as a special tip, unless you have a friendly local place to park, check out the parking garage on East Rosemary Street, if you’re staying a while and walking around. It might eliminate any search for a metered spot on the streets.

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Time-Out

Open since 1978, this place is exactly what you’d expect of a 24-7 joint in a heavily populated and heavily hungry college town in the South. As if the hours didn’t already tell you this joint caters to the up-all-night youth culture, just glance at the menu. You’ll find a collection of Southern barbecue, chicken, biscuits, casseroles and pies. The most notable menu item: the “Man vs. Food Special,” named for the restaurant’s appearance on the Travel Channel show several years back. The special offers a gigantic (seriously) biscuit with a piece of boneless fried chicken topped with a slide of cheddar cheese, along with a generous side helping of macaroni and cheese and a drink. Come late. Come hungry.

Time-Out

201 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

timeout247.com

 

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Sutton’s Drug Store

When you Google this restaurant, the information that first appears under the name says, “A Destination.” That’s been true since way back in 1923. This place is special. You can get burgers, hot dogs, breakfast, or you can sit at the counter and enjoy a vintage soda or shake. And if you’re in a hurry, stop just inside the door and select from a shelf of dozens of vintage sodas in the bottle. If you’re a regular or a celebrity, chances are your photo is on the wall. If you’re a visitor and have time to sit down and eat, take in those photos and breathe in the atmosphere.

Sutton’s Drug Store

159 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

suttonsdrugstore.com

 

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Al’s Burger Shack

If you like fresh, hip, boutique burger spots, you’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Al’s Burger Shack, which is on the west side of Chapel Hill headed toward neighboring Carrboro. Al’s was the exception to our “longtime fixture” rule on this trip to town, as it’s only been open since 2013. But this place – which we saw in a New York Times travel piece on Chapel Hill – has a special burger selection every day the doors open, and the regular menu includes options for burgers with a wide variety of toppings, from guacamole to Cheerwine BBQ sauce, from spicy pimento cheese to onion jam to a roasted garlic aioli. And you can get any burger in two sizes: the Al size which is large, or the “buddy bite size,” which allows a hungry eater like me to try two burgers for a good price in one visit. Molly particularly enjoyed how this place folds its buns around its burgers to keep everything in your sandwich from sliding around. And don’t turn your nose at the idea of crinkle-cut fries: these are topped with a delightful rosemary seasoning that will please your tastebuds. Expect to sit outside at Al’s as indoor space is limited, but there’s a canopy covering the patio seating.

Al’s Burger Shack

516 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

alsburgershack.com

 

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Merritt’s Store & Grill

Since 1929, Merritt’s has served the local community, and today you get a very specialized back-in-the-day, regular-kinda-place feel when you walk in the door. In other words, this is not your average restaurant, and they don’t serve your average sandwich. Nope, this place is known for its BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato), and with good reason. You get a generous helping of bacon, fresh vegetables and your choice of fresh bread. There are even topping options like guacamole. Your sandwich comes neatly wrapped in thick, plain wrapping paper, held together with a piece of masking tape. Those are your signals this place is unique for its time now. You can expect a short line to order and a long line to receive your food and find a seat (limited inside, more out front, don’t miss the seating out back) at Merritt’s. But it’s completely worth it. You also have your choices of chips and drinks to accompany your sandwich, but let’s be honest: This place is about getting a superior BLT.

Merritt’s Store & Grill

1009 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

merrittsstoreandgrill.com