At Stack Burger Bar, enticing fillings such as fried eggs and flavorful sauces make it easy to forgive the pedestrian buns
One could argue that Austin needs another burger place about as badly as it needs another taco trailer or unemployed guitar player. But there's always room and a crowd for anything done well in this city.
Taking a page from the successful Hopdoddy playbook, Stack Burger Bar offers gourmet burgers made from all-natural meats ground in-house and served with compelling toppings such as bourbon-bacon jam and fried eggs.
Housed in the longtime home of Saba Blue Water Cafe (and, briefly, M2) in the Warehouse District, Stack is the creation of Tre Dotson, who helped launch Maria Maria, and chef Octavio Benavides (Maria Maria, El Chile).
Saba regulars (and those who popped into M2) will immediately notice the aesthetic changes to the space. Stack blends the classical with the modern, featuring a bar area that looks like an art deco Italian coffee shop designed by "Metropolis" director Fritz Lang and a dining room sporting a nouveaux Western diner look accented by snow-white tables, barbed wire and pastoral scenes of fields and cows. The Western motif is enhanced, just this side of gimmickry, by servers and bartenders dressed in their own Western-inspired plaids and pearl-snap shirts.
About those cows. They stare at you from a back-lit photo that sits at the end of the restaurant. For some, the image of looking into the eyes of a relative of their lunch or dinner might seem unsettling, but something about the massive image speaks to me of the idea of "eating honestly." Stack furthers that concept by serving humanely-raised meats free of hormones and antibiotics.
Unlike most burger places in town, Stack offers an array of appetizers. A pair of crab cake sliders ($12) are the size of pressed golf balls and color of burnt gingerbread. It almost feels like cheating to serve the crab cakes on sweet slider rolls, as the bread can make anything taste great. But sometimes the bread hinders as much as it helps. The crab flavor fades into the small buns, but the housemade Old Bay tartar sauce and a frisee tossed in preserved lemon vinaigrette add a complex brightness that keeps the sliders from being all crackle and mush.
The plump, juicy Stack Wings ($8) are tossed in a habanero-spiced butter that will leave a sting on your lips. Saggy buttermilk onion petals ($4) could have used a hotter oil to help define a nicer crunch, but the dish did introduce us to the house sauce, a combination of mayonnaise, mustard, diced pickles, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and Bragg's Amino Acid.
The house sauce comes on several of the burgers, including the Henhouse ($9), a succulent patty of Buddy's chicken served with jack cheese and avocado, along with tomato, lettuce and grilled red onion. Cheese often seems an afterthought on chicken sandwiches, melted and lost to the bun, but the Henhouse, one of the best chicken burgers in town, offered thick, dripping strands of jack cheese.
A perfectly fried egg and thick, crisp bacon lend the Morning Glory ($10) its name, but if you had this thing for breakfast, you would need a nap before lunch. The sunshine of cracked yolk spills over the beef, encasing the burger in a maize-colored sheen and testing the fortitude of the bun. A sturdy Parmesan crisp rescues the increasingly soggy bread, but to be fair, this delicious mess of a brunch hybrid could probably soften a two-by-four.
One of the most popular burgers on the menu, the Triple B ($9.50), packs a holy Southern triumvirate of beef, bourbon and bacon for an overly sweet, savory and sloppy combination punctuated by the snap and slide of fried onions coaxed easily from their batter casings.
Bison makes its one appearance on the menu with the Brown Buffalo ($11), an excellent burger with a bleu cheese dressing and tangy buffalo sauce that give cream and kick to the burger without overwhelming it. Hearty bacon once again nudges itself into the flavor profiles, but the pig knows its place. Though we asked for the Brown Buffalo medium rare, it came out medium, not the greatest of grilling sins. But the temperature oversights did not end there.
We ordered the Southtown ($10) medium-rare, but it arrived medium-well, like a burger from a backyard party where the cook's too busy with guests or football games to monitor each patty. The dry burger lacked seasoning, and even the potentially dangerous "red light relish," composed of serranos, jalapeños, habaneros and ghost pepper powder, could not give life to this meaty mistake. The Southtown is the only burger on the menu with an accompanying pepper symbol indicating extreme heat, but the concoction we had did not warrant the warnings from our server and the suggestion we take the relish on the side.
The Son Goku ($11) must have lingered on the same space of the grill as the Southtown, because it too suffered from too much time over the flame. A rare ahi tuna burger, as we ordered it, should yield with no fuss to a fork and reveal velvety ribbons of fish, but this tuna required a knife and resembled ground turkey. The heat rendered the teriyaki glaze a subtly sweet lacquer.
All of the burgers come with a "handful" of fries that proved to be enough for me each time, enhancing the value proposition of the upscale burgers. Upgrade to the truffle fries or parmesan-herb fries for a few bucks, but the seasonings do little to add complexity to the thin, standard-issue fries. With everyone from Fudrucker's to Hopdoddy making their own buns, the plain bagged variety and the pedestrian fries keep Stack from reaching a level that could be considered exceptional. Dotson blames the lack of in-house fries and bun production on a lack of kitchen space.
The highlight of the dessert menu is the "adult" White Russian S'mores Shake ($5). The vanilla ice-cream based shake is full of graham cracker bits, topped with a charred, honeyed marshmallow and packs an undeniable Kahlúa and vodka punch. If the Big Lebowski had ever come across one of these, he might have lost any ambition of trying to recover that rug of his. It might just be my new favorite shake in town.
Stack is already proving to be a welcome addition to a downtown area that lacks many quality dining options in the under-$20 range. The need for more casual restaurants downtown was proved by the crowds at Stack when I visited both during the week and on the weekends. But Stack needs to be prepared to handle their prosperity. On a Friday night, when the restaurant could rightfully expect a crowd, the service hummed and the kitchen executed flawlessly. But a frigid weeknight saw Stack slammed suddenly with large parties, backing up the kitchen and leading to multiple overcooked burgers.
With a compelling menu, a relaxed vibe enhanced by a nice selection of tunes and an attentive staff overseen and supported by Dotson, Stack should have staying power among the bars in the Warehouse District. They just need to make sure they are ready for the customers, because it seems the customers are ready for Stack.
208 W. 4th St. 457-8225, StackBurgerBar.com
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: Monday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-$12. Entrees $7-$11.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Stack Burger Bar has a good vision, and as long as the keep their eye on the grill, should become a fixture in the Warehouse District.