Twelve cheeseburgers in two weeks. It's not anything I'd recommend to anyone who has any concern for their arteries, or who wants to live to be, say, 40.
But in a burger quest, it must be done.
The impending invasion of Sonic and Burgerville launched my burger mission. The Sonic Drive-In chain is scheduled to open its first South Sound location in late April on Puyallup's South Hill. Burgerville, announced plans to come to the Tacoma market this year.
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My assignment: test the pulse of our smaller, independently operated burger joints. I hit pavement and visited eight burger joints. I also detoured to three high-end restaurants with decadent interpretations of the classic American burger. Finally, I pointed the car eastward to mull a restaurant with a commanding view and 50 burgers on the menu.
Did I miss your favorite? Want me to write about it? Comment here or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I might need some time to purge my arteries, but I'll be back on the burger trail soon enough.
Pictured here: The El Gaucho burger. Photo by Peter Haley/The News Tribune
Note: All restaurants listed here accept credit cards except Pick Quick, which only accepts cash.
Pick Quick Drive In
Where: 4306 Pacific Highway E., Fife;
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays
I judge all burger joints by key standards: patties should taste beefy and leak burger juice when squeezed, and fries should have a crispy exterior yin to a creamy interior yang. Veggies should be crisp counterparts to a sturdy bun and meaty patty, and condiments should be complimentary, not overpowering.
That being established, Pick Quick nails it. The cheeseburger ($2.70) was burger perfection with a quarter-pound fresh, juicy patty, melted American cheese, a grilled bun slathered with sweet relish, mustard and mayo and stuffed with crisp, sliced fresh onions, shredded lettuce and a thick, juicy slice of tomato. The burgers skew sweet with sweet relish, sliced pickles and onions giving it a taste unlike any other burger produced at the places I visited. The fries ($1.95) were fresh-cut. Although more limp than I typically like my fries, they had the unmistakable flavor of fresh potatoes. When smothered with chili, shredded cheddar cheese and diced onions ($3.55), the limp fries become magical. Pick Quick has a 1950s sensibility to it – from cash-only payment to the trash-free picnic table area (extra Mom points for cleanliness).
Little Holland Drive-In
Where: 5008 Center St., Tacoma;
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
It's the crunch that makes Little Holland's burgers better. Extra love from the grill gives the bun a toasted texture that provides a sturdier base and better texture than what I ate at other burger places for this story.
The Little Holland cheeseburger ($2.95) came with a beefy, fresh patty that played meaty against the crunchy, toasted bun, the crisp shredded lettuce, thick-sliced tomato, diced onions, gooey American cheese and a sweet smear of Mikie sauce. Even the Mighty Mike –a bonanza of triple meat, double Canadian bacon, double Swiss, lettuce, tomato and onions, $5.50 – stayed solid to the final bites. Better buns make sturdy burgers.
Little Holland fries are crispy-creamy but otherwise pretty standard freezer fries. Little Holland will stay put while their site is developed, and they intend to lease a space in the new building there when it's finished.
Where: 1201 Division Ave., Tacoma;
Hours: 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
If you call yourself a Tacoman, then you've huddled outside Frisko Freeze at midnight in the freezing rain waiting for a "beefburger." It's the burger joint I fondly remember from my youth, although the quality seemed better then.
There was nothing bad about the cheeseburger ($2.70) I sampled, but it wasn't memorable. The quarter-pound fresh, all-beef patty was tasty, but it lacked juice. Too much mustard overwhelmed my palate, but I appreciated the crispy lettuce and onions (no tomatoes, though). Maybe I imagined this, but didn't they serve fresh-cut fries when we were kids?
If so, those have been replaced by freezer bag fries ($2.20). And the fries tasted like chicken, fish and old oil. Despite my beefs, this is the place I will keep returning to for two reasons: the killer chocolate malt shakes ($3.15) and nostalgia.
Where: 1201 S. Sprague Ave., Tacoma;
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays
This is just an OK burger joint, but not in the same league as local favorites Pick Quick and Little Holland. The half-pound double cheeseburger ($3.99) came with two quarter-pound freezer patties with a miniscule amount of burger juice each, American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and too many condiments made it super sloppy. The freezer-bag fries ($1.55) were crispy and quite similar to those served at McDonalds, but the fries had a shelf life of just a few minutes before they went limp.
SIT-DOWN BURGER JOINTS
Mary's Burger Bistro
Where: 2301 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays
The burgers at Mary's are good, but it's the fresh fries that keep me coming back. The cook grilled the ª-pound freezer patty to just the right degree of doneness. I also liked that I got to pick my cheese for my burger ($4.99) and that burgers here come on sturdy, toasted Kaiser buns. I was not charged extra for the two pieces of hair with my burger (ahem). Be sure to grab a bottle of fry sauce to go with the deliciously crispy fries ($2.29, large). The fresh-cut fries are crispy and delicious, but they have a short shelf life.
Where: 4008 S. 12th St., Tacoma;
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays- Saturdays
This small burger joint had obvious growing pains on my opening-day visit - the credit card machine wasn't working, the staff disorganized and my order took too long. Despite that (it was their first day, after all), this place has its heart in the right place: fresh meat ground on site and fresh-cut fries. My burger was a thick, juicy patty with identifiable chunks of meat, which I really appreciated. I liked the free upgrades: grilled onions, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, pickles, green peppers and grilled mushrooms. Fries are fresh, hand-cut and crispy-fried but get a chewy texture upon cooling.
Where: 282 Highway 410, Buckley;
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
For kitsch, Wally's delivers. It's one of the last drive-in joints where you can pull up, order into a crackly box and wait for car service. But even someplace that's kitschy and fun is not worth a trip if the burgers and fries are average.
The patty on the cheese charburger ($4.29) was, indeed, charred - so much so that there was no juice left. Fries are of the freezer variety.
My advice: Order a shake and the dynamite fish and chips ($10.99 for two pieces).
Where: 308 E. 26th St., Tacoma;
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
This is a no-frills place with a fun name and a penchant for deep-frying hot dogs and Twinkies. My cheeseburger ($4.48) was decent but nothing more than what I can do at home with a freezer patty (they use prefab patties).
Where Friesenburgers does well by diners is choices. Cheese choices include American, pepper jack, blue, cheddar or Swiss, and upgrades include mushrooms, bacon and egg (between 48 cents to $1.18 each) and a choice of grilled onions or fresh. The steak fries came out of a brown freezer bag. The fry cook did them justice with a prefect balance of crispy-creamy. They were a good vessel for the fry sauce with a peppery/horseradish bite.
BURGERS WORTH A DETOUR
International Burgers & Pizzaria (NOTE: THIS RESTAURANT CLOSED IN 2010)
Where: 17136 Highway 410, Bonney Lake
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Fifty burgers means big variety. International burgers & Pizzaria in between Sumner and Bonney Lake is one of those places that takes a simple concept to the extreme with a menu that offers everything from a meaty American cheeseburger to a Japanese style Kobe burger, a Black bear burger, kangaroo burger, lamb burger, llama burger, yak burger and even a calamari steak burger. The list goes on and on and on.
The exotic meats are a holdover from the previous incarnation of the restaurant, which was called the Baron Manfred von Vierthaler Winery and Restaurant. They specialized in unusual meats – and so does International Burgers, obviously. And menu items that are previous nods to the winery are still on the menu – just in burger form (think schnitzel burger and bratwurst burger).
The impressive menu takes serious time to peruse, and the sweeping views of the valley and nicely decorated dining room make this an experience, rather than a mere burger excursion. The prices skew higher than an average burger restaurant, but the ingredients and quality command it.
I went simple with a deluxe burger ($7.95). The beefy 1/3 pound Angus beef patty was juicy and arrived medium, just as requested. The cheese choices are impressive –American (white or yellow), brie, blue, cheddar, gouda, mozzarella, pepper jack, provolone or Swiss – but I stuck with cheddar. The lettuce, tomato, dill pickle and tangy-sweet house sauce were delicious ornaments. I upgraded my fries to sweet potato fries for a surcharge and was rewarded with sweet, crunchy fries.
My dining partner opted for the American style Kobe beef burger ($14.95). The recommended provolone cheese was a solid flavor companion. The burger was delightful to the last juicy bite. I’d go back again and again for this burger. (NOTE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED, 2010)
FANCY BAR BURGERS
I call it the Pacific Avenue burger trifecta. Located along a seven-block stretch of Pacific Avenue, three high-end restaurants make the town’s most decadent burgers – Pacific Grill, Sea Grill and El Gaucho.
And here’s the tip diners can savor: These burgers are just a few bucks more than what you’d pay for burgers and fries at Little Holland or Frisko Freeze. The catch (and there always is one): the burgers are bargain priced only during happy hour.
So plan your meal time accordingly.
Here, then, a look at three burgers for discriminating palates, all conveniently tucked into a small stretch of Pacific Avenue:
1. El Gaucho: 2119 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-882-0009, www.elgaucho.com. Happy hour is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close Monday through Friday; 10 p.m. to close Saturday and 4:30 p.m. to close Sunday.
El Gaucho Burger ($8): This towering bacon cheeseburger might make you swoon with its height and towering list of ingredients. A juicy half-pound ground sirloin patty – certified Angus beef – comes on a substantial roll. Your server will ask you how you like yours (for me, “medium” – a little pink in the center). Toppings are thick sliced bacon that lends such a delicious smoky flavor and is a natural pairing with the pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli that has just a bit of a tongue sting. Red onions, tomato and iceberg lettuce add crunch between the layers of goo and smokey goodness. It comes paired with crispy, perfectly golden fries that taste exactly like they’re supposed to – like potatoes. I would have liked some kind of dipping sauce or even ketchup for my fries, but none was offered, and I was halfway through my fries before my server returned. (Priced $16 on the regular menu)
2. (NOTE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED) Sea Grill Burger ($7): Like its counterpart at El Gaucho, the Sea Grill burger errs on the side of massive. It’s a ginormous bargain, really. I don’t know why anyone would do the Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru a few blocks away if they knew this mammoth meaty burger was just down the street for seven smackers. The ½ pound, juicy burger was sandwiched between two of my most favorite things — a big dollop of gorgonzola cheese and two smoky slices of prosciutto. The patty came just as requested – medium. I let the burger sit for a moment while I enjoyed a few of the crispy golden fries (nothing too remarkable, but solidly good, and came with a side of catsup), and the gorgonzola cheese melted into a delicious, pungent cheese bath over the fat, juicy patty. It was pure burger heaven. Again, I can’t say enough about what a great value this burger is during the happy hour discount. (Priced $9 on the regular menu). NOTE: THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED
3. Pacific Grill: 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-3535, www.pacificgrilltacoma.com. Happy hour is 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close Monday thourgh Friday and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close on Saturdays.
Pacific Grill’s cheeseburger sliders ($5.50): Coming in at $5.50, these are the lowest priced of the bunch, but also the least filling. Still, what a great value they are, and the flavor outrageously good. Two small dinner rolls are stuffed with juicy sirloin patties, aged white cheddar and a smear of house sauce similar in flavor to a Russian dressing. While the sliders skew small, you’ll forget about that because of the perfect accompaniment that comes with the sliders – Pacific Grill’s garlic herb fries. If French fry nirvana could be achieved, these would be it. Crispy, thinly cut fried potatoes are served in a tasty, salty pile with whole cloves of golden-brown, fried garlic and sage leaves and rosemary needles that are turned crispy, crunchy and herbal-ly delicious from a trip in the fryer.