Testing out some local takes on an American classic
Burgers are my second favorite food ever. (Watch this space for a future food battle to find out my favorite). Few things are more American than the classic hamburger. Add cheese, bacon, condiments, and vegetables, and you have yourself the ultimate food palette. If you aren’t wrapping both hands around it, opening wide to devour it, and using stacks of napkins to clean up after it, is it really a burger? Not for me.
Six restaurants, six burgers. Who serves the best burger in Knoxville? You be the judge!
The Market Cheeseburger at Not Watson’s Kitchen + Bar
Some burgers need to come with a roll of paper towels. I love a cheeseburger that has you washing your face before you leave. The word that leapt from my mouth after my first, third, and fifth bite of Not Watson’s Market Cheeseburger was moist. This burger is one of the most moist burgers in Knoxville. That image from old commercials of eaters dabbing their face with napkins after every bite of their cheeseburgers comes to mind here. Not Watson’s Market Cheeseburger could start a paper shortage. Luckily, they use cloth napkins. Standing tall on an Ace Bakery burger bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles, Tillamook cheddar cheese, and Not Sauce, this feels and tastes like a true pub cheeseburger. The Not Sauce added a hearty zip, rounding out the experience. It was so zippy, in fact, I asked for more to dip my fries into.
5 Market Square
The Black Bean Burger at Sunspot Cafe
When I told people I was doing a Burger Battle, someone said I needed to throw one monkey wrench into my steady diet of classic cheeseburgers. I’m a carnivore, plain and simple; I’ve turned my nose up at any burger called Impossible or Beyond. How could a meatless burger be anything close to ground sirloin? Then I tried Sunspot’s Black Bean Burger. When chefs speak of complex flavor profiles, I find myself searching Google for a clue as to what that means. But now I think I’ve figured it out. This burger has so much going on that it’s hard to home in on what exactly you’re experiencing. Quinoa, beets, and mushrooms make this burger’s base. Add arugula, guac, chipotle mayo, and a pillowy bun and this becomes transformative. Could I actually be a closet vegetarian? I don’t think so, but this has definitely opened my eyes to the impossible, great beyond.
2200 Cumberland Avenue
The No Name, Not On the Menu Burger at J.C. Holdway
Let’s get the biases out of the way: J.C. Holdway is one of my top three favorite Knoxville restaurants. I love this place. The constantly evolving menu is exquisite from top to bottom. So let’s scan that menu and find the cheeseburger. That’s odd; it’s not there. We all like to be part of the secret. We want the knowledge others don’t have. Well, now you know: you just have to ask! So, if it’s at J.C. Holdway, it must be a gourmet burger laden with unpronounceable ingredients, gold dust, and fireworks, and is $54, right? Not exactly. It is simply a two-patty, American cheese, Dijon mustard, Dukes mayonnaise, white bread bun cheeseburger. Simple and perfect, just the way Chef Joseph Lenn liked his cheeseburgers as a kid. And if that’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me. It’s a cheeseburger that almost has me forgetting about all the incredible food actually on the menu. Almost.
501 Union Avenue
The Cheeseburger Platter at Litton’s Market, Restaurant, and Bakery
Ask anyone where to get a burger in Knoxville and Litton’s is their first answer. There is not a more traditional restaurant for the classic hamburger. Walking through the front doors, you are transported to 1946 when Litton’s opened; its walls display more Knoxville and Fountain City history than the McClung Museum. While Litton’s is well known for the Thunder Road burger, I chose to leave off the added goodies and stick to the basic Cheeseburger Platter, though it was anything but basic. You can taste the tradition in every bite. Years of perfecting the char of the beef, the heartiness of the bun, the cut of the tomato, and the crunch of the onion, have you shaking your head slowly in admiration after your first bite. How can it be this good? Are they going to judge me if I order a second one right away?
2803 Essary Drive
The Vol Burger at Sam and Andy’s West
Sam and Andy’s has been a Knoxville institution since 1946. Moving from the Cumberland Avenue Strip to Farragut in the 1980’s, they have served Vol Burgers to several generations of east Tennesseans. This is the quintessential lunch counter, two-fisted, food-falling-off-your-face pure American cheeseburger. No pretense, no fluff, just a big strong hunk of meat. Melting cheese, a thick-cut tomato slice, creamy mayo and mustard, and a heap of onions make this burger a beast. I have an old saying, which is, “Onions are how you remember a cheeseburger,” and the Vol Burger is absolutely memorable. I’m a voracious eater with a healthy appetite, and I found myself contemplating whether to stop chowing down with a couple of bites still to go. What a burger.
11110 Kingston Pike
The Classic Bacon at The Stock and Barrel
The Stock and Barrel has become the go-to place for outrageous, over the top, mouth-watering burgers. And while I don’t mind the bells and whistles, you can tell a lot about a burger place if they can make the simple cheeseburger great. The Stock and Barrel’s Classic Bacon stacks Mitchell Farm beef with bourbon onions, pickles, tomato, greens, cheddar, mayo, and—the kicker—Benton’s Bacon on a flour-dusted bun from Flour Head Bakery. Built like a geological formation, this burger looks too big to consume, but the bun gives way to your two-handed grip and the first bite takes you to Burger Heaven. The smoke of the bacon, the zing of the pickles, the heartiness of the beef, and the toast of the bun play together like a string quartet. If this burger is the platform for all the other wacky burgers on the menu, then bring on the bells and whistles.
35 Market Square