When we first reported on Hopdoddy Burger Bar and its plans to open on South Congress Avenue, comments predictably reflected a profound reluctance to pay $7 to $10 for a burger with no sides.
And I'll admit that my eloquent reaction to the first bite was, `Wow, I expected more … stuff.' That was the lamb burger ($8), with the modest beginnings of a Greek salad and just a thin stroke of feta cheese on less than half the bun. And the Terlingua ($7) hardly had enough chili to make a proper shirt stain.
Do I need a burger where the first hand-held bite is just for show and the rest is a job for the old knife and fork? The Bubba in me says, yes, as a matter of fact I do. I want a hat-full of stuff to squeeze out every time I take a bite. I want a bib, a spoon and for you people to move back, please, because this is my private messy time.
But after six Hopdoddy burgers with five different proteins (not all at once), my less-is-more side - the side that appreciates a balance of flavors and a nice clean shirt - is all right with the Hopdoddy school of burger building. What you give up in bulk, you gain in taste and civility. That lamb burger tasted like shawarma cut right from the spit for a gyro, and the Terlingua had just enough Frito-pie flavor to highlight the coarsely ground beef instead of rolling right over it. They didn't gush or disintegrate. They would work on a first date.
I really did want less from the Buffalo Bill ($9), with ground bison meat, blue cheese, bacon and Frank's hot sauce. The bison seems like it's beside the point underneath the whole buffalo-wing treatment, the one that turned the once-lowly chicken flipper into a sports-bar superstar. That lean, mean buffalo meat has nothing to hide, and I could learn to love it with just some lettuce, tomato and melted Cheddar.
If less is your thing, a burger with beef, lettuce, tomato and onion starts at $5. If less is not your thing, the surprise winner of the More Award is a tuna burger ($9) with a rounded filet as rosy as watermelon, seared top and bottom, the center close to raw. It's dressed with a light wasabi spread, sprouts and a splash of teriyaki, topped ingeniously with batter-fried sheets of seaweed for crunch. It's a sushi roll doing a kabuki turn as a burger, with a soft, brioche-style bun standing in for rice. Complain about the $9 price tag if you must, but not to me. A $9 sushi roll with this much tuna - not to mention construction and flavor this clever - would be a bargain at any decent sushi bar. It was so good the first time, I had to go back during a mobbed First Thursday party night on South Congress to see if the first one was just a sexy decoy. It wasn't, but that time the teriyaki sauce turned things soggy.
But before this turns into a girlfriend letter, let's admit that you can never sound cool saying the name of this place. Try it. `Hop ... doddy.' It sounds like an Old West name for saddle leather or sour mash. I'm told it has to do with beer (hops) and a name given to Angus cattle in Scotland. I'll forever be more comfortable saying `that fancy burger place across from the Continental Club.' Or, `You know, where Cissi's Wine Bar used to be.'
The black-glass facade is left over from Cissi's more contemporary look, but the inside suggests the place Hopdoddy would rather be, one that's been around since the cosmic cowboy days. Photos of Willie Nelson and Austin bluesman Pinetop Perkins and Continental Club favorite Patricia Vonne look down from walls of distressed brick. The tables are bar-height on concrete floors, and traffic flows in front of an elliptical bar on the way to the fast food-style ordering line. When it's busy, the line is like an obstacle course for customers and staff alike, who weave in and out with trays of food, guided by numbers hanging from the paper-towel racks at each table, which they'll reserve for you as you wait in line. Between the dodging, the milling and the commotion, I felt like I was in a nightclub until I finally got to sit down.
Speaking of nightclubs, the Continental Club also shows up as the namesake for a turkey burger. And one night I was there, the club showed up in the form of owner Steve Wertheimer himself. That same night, populist radio rabble-rouser Jim Hightower joined the crowd. In the short weeks since its October opening, Hopdoddy has managed to plant a boot in old South Austin territory and a Chuck Taylor in that world's more urbane incarnation at the same time. Credit that to the team behind it: Moonshine restaurant partners Larry Perdido and Chuck Smith and the team of Guy Villavaso and Larry Foles, who created the Roaring Fork, Eddie V's, Z'Tejas and others. Last I heard, those places were doing all right.
Let's talk about that turkey burger ($8). The coarsely-ground meat is flecked with sun-dried tomato. It holds together with juice and personality under provolone and bacon, holding its own against a restrained basil pesto and peppery arugula, all on a bun knobbed like a tractor tire with sunflower seeds, oats, almonds and sesame seeds. The farm metaphor works, because Hopdoddy is a do-it-yourself enterprise. They bake their own buns, grind their own beef, blend their own chipotle ketchup and horseradish honey mustard, make their own ice cream, conjure their own hemp-seed veggie patties and cut their own fries from smooth Kennebec potatoes.
Those potatoes turned into skin-on shoestring fries that were salted just right, crisp and clean, except when they weren't. On a third visit, they were flecked with acrid brown bits from overworked fryer oil. The $4 large order is big enough for two, and a single order for $2 is plenty for one. Two bucks will also buy fountain soda, which is a great deal here, with fountains for cane-sugar-sweetened Dublin Dr Pepper and Maine Root orange, lemon-lime, root beer, even a version of that Mexican cola we drink way too much of. For $5, a chocolate shake had the straw-friendly consistency of the ice cream you swirled around in the bowl as a kid, only instead of sugary chocolate syrup, you get the almost vegetal bitter kiss of dark chocolate.
I like the local beer lineup, but I'm suspicious of beer in schooner glasses, because it's too easy to make a short pour with a big fluffy head. At $4 or $5 a glass, I want every drop of the 16 ounces I paid for. Because even if I buy into the atmosphere and the less-is-more burger balance, I'm still full-on Bubba when it comes to beer.
When we talked in September right before Hopdoddy opened, Perdido kept coming back to a central thought. `We're looking forward to being a big part of that South Congress community,' he said. So far, so good.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
1400 S. Congress Ave., Suite A. 243-7505, www.hopdoddy.com .
Rating: 8.3 out of 10
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Prices: Burgers $5-$9. Fries $2-$5. Salads $4-$7. Ice cream floats and shakes $4-$5.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Full Bar. Local beers on tap from Real Ale, (512), Independence, Live Oak and Thirsty Planet, plus Shiner, St. Arnold and Guinness from points elsewhere at $4-$5 for a 16-ounce schooner. Cocktails made with fresh juices include margaritas, a black cherry hard limeade and a tequila-citrus-pomegranate sangrita at $5.50-$7, with local and organic upgrades for $1-$2. Two red and two white wines (including McPherson sangiovese from Texas) for $5-$8 a glass.
Wheelchair access: Yes
What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.