Legendary Burgers in the American South

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

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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.

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Foodie Travels: Kim’s Kitchen, Stanley, N.C.

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Remember a time in your life when something you loved suddenly was gone? What if, one day, it came back?

That’s the experience I’ve had with Kim’s Kitchen Family Restaurant in Stanley, N.C. I grew up eating Kim’s Kitchen food with my family. Mom and Dad even delivered my favorite meal, the Kim’s cheeseburger basket, to me in Alabama, South Carolina and other parts of North Carolina. Then, in 2013, Kim’s Kitchen closed, as owners Kim and Clyde Millman pursued retirement and opportunities to travel together.

Four long years passed without a delicious Kim’s cheeseburger, the best burger I’ve ever had because of its fresh, hand-pattied beef, melted cheese and soft bun. It’s a generous sandwich, with one juicy patty and any toppings you like. I’ve talked up the Kim’s burger everywhere I’ve lived, and any other cheeseburger I’ve eaten has come with a side comparison to the measuring stick that I enjoyed at her restaurant.

Earlier this year, my family heard that Kim’s would reopen in the coming months. It felt like a dream, but not as much of a dream as actually visiting and enjoying a cheeseburger on day one of the renewed Kim’s Kitchen.

 

We’re so glad you’re back

It was almost surreal for this foodie to watch Kim greet her loyal customers as they streamed through the doors on re-opening day. My parents and I walked to a corner table and pulled up three chairs in what felt like a flashback to 1997 or 2007. But it was 2017, and it was real.

Not much has changed as far as décor goes. The wood-colored walls, the tables and chairs, the front counter, the kitchen window, the swinging doors to the dining area. All just as we left them several years ago.

Kim always walked around the restaurant to visit with her diners, and that hasn’t changed either. She stopped at our table and hugged me as we awaited our lunch, and then she proceeded to give out hugs all around the restaurant. “We’re so glad you’re back,” customers kept saying. Kim and her staff shared the same sincere sentiment in each conversation. If the first day of a new era of Kim’s Kitchen was an indication, the revived local dining icon hasn’t missed a beat.

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That’s the taste

When our order came to the table, the anticipation reached its highest peak. I ordered the sandwich I enjoyed so many times in the past: cheeseburger with lettuce and mayonnaise and a side of fries. In fact, that exact order with those toppings has become my standard test of the cheeseburger a restaurant makes, anywhere I go. I figure if they can’t make a solid basic cheeseburger, there’s not much hope for the remainder of the menu.

Dad ordered his favorite cheeseburger toppings, too: chili, mustard and onions, with a side of broccoli casserole (you can get fries, or you can enjoy one of the restaurant’s other side items with your sandwich). Mom had her customary chicken filet sandwich with fries.

Dad took a bite. “That’s the taste.” Those were the first words out of his mouth after tasting his first Kim’s burger in several years. Well said, Dad. Soon afterward, I took my first bite and felt the same way. The cheeseburger was just as delicious as I remembered.

Mom said later that she could’ve accompanied me and Dad and just watched us enjoy our meal. It would have been worth it, she said, just to see the smiles on our faces. We were home because Kim is home.

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What you’ll find at Kim’s

Kim’s is about the cheeseburger for me, but there’s so much more on the menu. You can enjoy a wide variety of sandwiches with accompanying sides of fries, onion rings, potato salad and more. There are also salads and daily specials of meat-and-three-style plates. And ask about the dessert specials that are available.

Just as important as the food, though, is the hospitality and tradition at Kim’s Kitchen. The Millman family has invested more than a quarter of a century in the Stanley-area community. For that reason, walking into Kim’s feels like walking into a dear friend’s house. And now it feels like that good friend has come home after moving away for several years.

I can’t wait to enjoy my next cheeseburger, and I hope to see you there. After all, it takes both outstanding restaurateurs and outstanding customers to build a legendary #FoodieScore spot, and that’s just what Kim’s Kitchen has become over all these years.

 

Kim’s Kitchen

106 Mariposa Road, Stanley, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, TX

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Earlier this year, Molly and I took a 2,500-mile round-trip road trip to Houston, Texas, for the wedding of one of her best friends. Of course, we looked forward to the beautiful occasion and the chance to share in a most special day. I also saw the trip as a chance to try a few local restaurants in Houston and a few along the way.

Along with a chance to try Texas brisket barbecue, authentic Tex Mex, Texas-sized pecan pie and a variety of Asian, Cuban and other ethnic foods that Houston offers, I had to sample at least one spot known for its local cheeseburgers. The bride offered us a list of great food options to try during our visit, and I supplemented those choices with a little research of my own. That’s when I found Lankford Grocery & Market, a decades-old Houston institution located between the city’s Fourth Ward and Midtown districts.

On our first full day in Houston, we visited Space Center Houston south of the city’s downtown. On the way back toward town, we rolled through neighborhoods and around the corner home of Lankford Grocery & Market, which is also listed here among Texas hot spots on the roadtrip food site roadfood.com. I was concerned about parking options after seeing online that the restaurant looks like it sits on a full corner with not much on-street parking. Turns out, parking was no issue. Right past the restaurant, there’s a street with ample space for 20 or so cars to park underneath shade trees. Once we parked, we got out and took a short walk around the corner and into our lunch spot.

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The restaurant was busy because it was lunchtime on a Friday, but there’s plenty of seating inside and outside, so we had no trouble getting seats in the corner. A waitress arrived shortly with menus and our adventure began. It was a memorable experience best summed up by these words from Molly (and I paraphrase because I’ve forgotten the exact quote): When you can get a cheeseburger and I can get Mexican, we won’t find a better place to eat than this. And I completely agree. In addition to American favorites like the cheeseburger, Lankford capitalizes on the Tex Mex connection of the state to offer delicious Mexican food favorites as well.

Molly ordered and consumed as much of Lankford’s Super Taco as she could. It was a heaping of Mexican food on top of crispy tortilla shells. I ordered the original cheeseburger and a side of fries and finished the whole plate. It was the best cheeseburger I’ve had since my favorite cheeseburger joint of all time (Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.) closed about five years ago. The meat was hand-pattied and incredibly fresh. The bun was soft and hearty to support the patty, cheese and delicious toppings.

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In addition to the food, the atmosphere personified the local joint: regulars trading conversation with the waitresses and cashier, a take-out line with as many people as were seated in the restaurant, businessmen in suits stopping in for lunch, loosening their ties and removing their sunglasses, and a kitchen churning out plate after plate of tasty treats.

Everything about this restaurant was a winner. The atmosphere, the parking, the location, the history, the spot on the Food Network and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” TV show and, most important, the amazing food and memorable cheeseburger. If you’re ever in Houston, check out Lankford Grocery & Market.

Lankford Grocery & Market, 88 Dennis Street, Houston, TX, lankfordgrocery.com

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