the burger: The Big Hat – double cheeseburger featuring cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion and house pickles. Custom add ons included bacon and a mustard based house sauce.
the bucks: $7.20
the coordinates: Austin, TX
My first impression of Hat Creek Burger Company took about 30 seconds. It more or less amounted to a slight glance to my left, as I drove north on a dusty restaurant row called Burnet road, surveying my new home base of eating. Playgrounds at restaurants were still a new and under appreciated X-factor for me. The bright red colors and logo screamed corporate branding. Even the shape of the establishment made my Spidey sense tingle with the presence of a chain restaurant. Turns out, while I bare little other resemblance to Spider Man – I was right about my initial suspicion: the Hat Creek on Burnet used to be an Arby’s. Besides sharing a similar baseline price point, the similarities thankfully end there. It may sound strange for you to hear this but Hat Creek Burger Company makes good burgers, not necessarily great burgers. I believe the true burger lover comes to Hat Creek for reasons beyond the food – like the playscape, the decent craft beers, the option of wine(recommended only in case of emergency), the flat screen TVs, and the general ambiance of the outdoor seating area whose appeal just increased exponentially with the arrival of Fall, in a now, somewhat subdued, sweltering Austin. Now this search is about finding burger gems that toe the line of quality and value, and it would be unfair to include Hat Creek unless it held true burger promise. Well, fear not my faithful, promise I did find. Wade deep into their crowd pleasing menu and you will find some sauces, respectable bacon, and a proud practice of pickling that are worthy of a burger add on. Oh yes, I am recommending add ons. As much as I preach against the ordering of extraneous or excessive burger toppings as they deter better taste and plunder your burger budget, it is equally criminal to ignore options and upgrades that will make you smile with Bang for your Burger Buck satisfaction. I suppose you now want to bite into these juicy upgrades. Well, start your scrolling.
Hat Creek cooks their burgers through. So it’s in your best interest to get all the vegetation at your disposal to ensure a juicy dining experience. On an earlier visit, an obliging manager was able to serve a burger “as close to medium” as he could get. Regardless, I was glad to have made the upgrade for cheese, as I find that ensuing punch of salt can enhance any beef burger cooked past medium. Hat Creek can definitely get their melt on. As much as I wonder if American was the queso call to make, one cannot have regrets for lack of melted cheddar – I mean it is practically glazed onto the patty:This fine melt job reminds me of my days ordering the “Flying Dutchman” from In-N-Out, which if you haven’t had the pleasure, is literally just meat and cheese served on wax paper – no bun. When beef and melted cheese come together in the plainest of scenarios, the edible aftermath resembles a decadence that could be placed up there with foie gras, but on a working man’s budget. My version of the Big Hat is far from a plain scenario, but that decadence of flavor brought forth by cheese bronzed beef is an important component to having a truly satisfying burger at Hat Creek. Though I won’t call it a substitute for cooking beef to internals temps of 140 degrees or lower, much like a Philly Cheesesteak with Wiz, cheesy beef rocks.I do love a burger joint that can accommodate requests, and the emphasis here is on burger joint. Though we live in the New World Order of Restaurants where Chef’s enjoy authoritarian rule and we, the willing subjects, pay heed to our overlords with slap happy grins on our faces like the good little foodies we are, one should take note that those are still restaurants. That level of establishment can make changes on a dime if deemed necessary. Such is not always the case at a burger joint where the dude behind the griddle ain’t exactly wearing chef’s whites and the manager needs to make a phone call to central command on whether they can serve burgers before 11am. In most Bang for your Burger Buck scenarios, the request of adding a custom burger sauce in lieu of the standard mustard/mayo/ketchup really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Then you realize that the person you just asked is rocking a headset because Hat Creek Burger Company has a drive thru. And that empty paper cup in your hand? That’s for the do it yourself soda fountain station. In fact the sauce I requested was sitting in a giant dispenser behind me. If I was to ask my Magic 8 Ball what the chances were of a typical burger joint of this stature obliging my request, I’m sure the words “not likely” would appear in the dark murky waters. But this is Hat Creek, where fast food doesn’t have to solely be the downsides we have come to expect. Maybe that’s why the bacon served up on the burger was actually crisp. And though I have as of late been enamored by the complimentary powers of a mustard based sauce and all things bacon cheeseburger, it was the manager who whole heartedly suggested that the mustard sauce was indeed the right call. While their counsel and my requests seem standard for Bang for your Burger Buck, they are still exceptional attributes to a burger joint like Hat Creek, specifically because of the price point they operate at.And speaking of price, all in, those upgrades of bacon and cheddar barely broke the $7 barrier. Equally important were the upgrades that came on the house, like the house made pickles, the mustard based burger sauce(which is one of three options), and an obvious set of skilled hands on the burger assembly line to make tweaks on the fly. The bottom line is a $7.20 bacon double cheeseburger with requests accepted and delivered with genuine zeal. That’s a “splurge” that can pop out of a lot of people’s wallets. Add to that the fact that I have made almost half a dozen trips now to Hat Creek, and you can best believe there’s Bang for your Burger Buck to be had there.
Now I can’t conclude without circling back to what must have been a semi jarring observation: Hat Creek Burger Company’s burgers are good not great. While initially a set up for Hat Creek’s other selling points, I feel I need to qualify why a “good burger” has been placed in the annals of Bang for your Burger Buck. And the best way to do that is by drawing a worthy comparison: In-N-Out. Over the years it has been a journey of mine to reconcile the passion so many have for In-N-Out with my own burger passion and my overall sense of being underwhelmed at the California burger staple. Part of the reason is that I grew up in the Midwest, reared on a more substantial albeit more pricey similar style of flat stack burger: Steak ‘n Shake. After 20 years of living in Los Angeles, I figured out not just the time and place where In-N-Out is unmatched(driving up Interstate 5 to San Francisco while being sandwiched by the typical dull batch of fast food burgers, while eaten in the car) but also how to engage their secret menu and hack my way to a more custom burger experience. Still, even with these acknowledged areas of In-N-Out enlightenment, I have to say that they too, are merely good, and not great burgers. And that’s totally fine for the price they offer. Now Hat Creek does run a little more, this is true. But Hat Creek offers things that In-N-Out does not like bacon, beer, HD football games and a two story slide that can occupy a toddler for at least a quarter of an NFL game. So go to Hat Creek knowing that you are in it for the special features as much as a solid burger experience. Go there knowing your burger experience will include a trip to the park and the sports bar, rolled into one. And while you watch your kid run off the milkshake and scream at the Jets for not going for it on 4th and inches, remember that you had went to In-N-Out, you would have just gone in, and then gone out. Hat Creek Burger Company, like In-N-Out serves good hamburgers. But unlike In-N-Out, they serve up a little more fun too.
Good burgers don’t sound that bad now, do they?
Hat Creek Burger Company
5400 Burnet Road
Austin, TX 78756