Who’s got the best burger and fries in and around Dexter?
Dexter, being the hub of pubs, should have some pretty good fare around town. Over the course of recent weeks, I conducted my own pub crawl of sorts around Dexter and west Ann Arbor to see how the burgers and fries stacked up against one another.
I headed out bright-eyed and empty-bellied to be both delighted and disappointed. And I certainly was. Spoiler alert: I just can’t wait to mention the new place I found in Dexter, hidden away out of sight. Visiting it has the feel of belonging to a secret, elite underground club, and no they don’t serve burritos.
A Bit About Burgers & Fries
Before We Love Dexter, before Foggy Bottom Coffee House, I did a tour of duty in the fast food industry for Wendy’s. Part of my responsibility was conducting inspections, lots and lots of inspections. Understandably, burgers were a big deal.
I was constantly checking for burger patty doneness, texture, taste, appearance, and if the sandwich was made correctly. Hamburger is the John Goodman of foods. On its own, it has no flavor. It counts on the surrounding ensemble of condiments and buns to carry the act. The meat patty provides texture and fat.
The fat added to ground beef provides the grease. Fat/oil is important in any food because it spreads the flavor components around the buds in a viscous coat of deliciousness that is slow to leave. The better the fat, the more “loaded with flavor” the food seems to be. This is why leaner hamburgers with 10% or less fat content just aren’t that good.
Like burgers, fries get their flavor from seasoning. Eat an unsalted fry and you wonder why you can feel it but not taste it. The texture of a good fry is crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. A common short-cut mistake restaurants make is pulling the fries out of the fryer early. They look done to the cook but quickly go limp, usually soon after the plate is set down in front of your watering mouth. This annoys me to no end.
I excluded fast food, chains, and diners because they are all price driven with compromises made in quality to achieve specific price points. I forgot to include Weber’s Inn and the Quarter Bistro. If they have great burgers and somebody wants to tell us about, please chime in.
My grading scale is one I use for everything in life from Netflix originals, to food, to people:
- 0 = Launch it on the next rocket to Mars and leave it there.
- 1 = Yes please. More.
- 2 = Diner scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”
A happy life is full of 1’s.
Now Walk with Me
Notes: Thick, juicy patty. Good flavor, but couldn’t pick up any grilled char flavor. I suspect the uniform grill lines on the patty were added in the meat processing which is common with frozen patties from a commercial supplier. Not a deal breaker when executed well, and this was. The patty itself was bland like almost all burgers, relying on the bun and condiments. I’d order it again. The fries were crisp, just right. Fries, I was to learn, seem difficult for a lot of restaurants to execute properly so I appreciate it when done right.
Score: Burger 1, Fries 1
Aubree’s in Dexter
Notes: My first surprise. Aubree’s has multiple locations, but I don’t consider them a chain. I went in with low expectations thinking burgers would be an afterthought to pizza and not handled well. I was happy to be wrong. The patty was a frozen product similar to the two pubs, but cooked just like I wanted – medium rare and juicy. The sandwich was made correctly. Fries were firm and seasoned. The pizza place gets a big thumbs-up for its burger.
Score: Burger 1, Fries 1
Red Brick Kitchen & Bar
Notes: Another good surprise because, honestly, I didn’t want to go back after the last three visits. None were a good experience so I gave up. If it weren’t for this article, I wouldn’t have returned but they won me back! The burger patty had a nice, hand-made look. There a saying in the restaurant industry: “You eat with your eyes first.” How the food looks on the plate goes a long way in creating a predetermined bias as to how it will taste. This burger looked great – juicy, medium rare, and correct. The fries were really delicious, coated and crisp. Add to this some friendly and attentive service and it was a great experience. They’ve switched my story. I’ll be happy to visit again, maybe take the laptop and do some writing.
Score: Burger 1, Fries 2
Notes: You’ll want this burger. It’s one of the few patties that stands along without anything else. The ground beef is a customized blend for Carlyle Grill consisting of prime rib, chuck roast, and brisket with salt, pepper, and proprietary grill seasoning. Take a stand-alone burger, add some condiments and a brioche bun for an impressive collaboration of flavors. I couldn’t help think, Where have you been all my life? You can’t get this burger anywhere else. The fries are thin “shoestring fries” that stay crisp all the way to the end of the meal.
Score: Burger 2, Fries 2
The Session Room
Notes: Huge disappointment and I have to keep in mind this article is a family show. Open a year and a half now. I’d heard the food wasn’t good, but it had gotten better as of late. I was looking forward to visiting. Burger was raw in the middle, burned dry on the outside. This happens when you throw a frozen patty right onto the grill. Made wrong. I asked for a correction, but the waitress never got back to me to fix it. She was generally indifferent and inattentive. Being meek, I didn’t press it further. It was a Sunday afternoon and I counted 11 customers there besides us, all served by a bartender and 3 wait staff.
Instead of fries, they serve chips. The chips I got were the ones when you pour what’s left in the bag out – mostly crumbs. How hard is it to mess up chips? For this article, I order an extra hamburger patty at each stop, plain, so I can look it over and taste it on its own. The Session Room charged me $10 for the extra patty leaving a bad taste of a different kind in my mouth. Frozen patties cost the restaurant about a buck each. Other restaurants charge just a few dollars for an extra patty. I will never go back to this place.
Score: Burger 0, Fries/chips 0
Notes: My expectation with anything Zingerman’s is to pay a high price for hype and vibe, and in the end have a good, but not great product. In this case however, their burger absolutely lived up to the Zingerman’s hype. It was a great burger. Like Carlyle Grill, it is a burger that tastes great without anything else on it. I asked the secret and Ari said it was seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. Add the bun and condiments and it was freaking fantastic. The fries on the other hand were undercooked – limp and greasy, inedible noodles.
Score: Burger 2, Fries 0
Notes: The grill marks were unevenly crossed suggesting they were genuine. The waitress explained the patties are delivered fresh daily from their market. Freshness does make for a better burger. Freezing begins to break down certain fat structures reducing its catalytic affect on taste. It was a good burger, but still dependent on accessories.
Score: Burger 1, Fries 1
Fillmore Bar & Grill
Notes: I’m a big fan of the Fillmore, but I’m afraid they fell flat on this visit. Their burger is not one thick patty, but two thin patties. Having the same owner as A&W, I suspected A&W patties. The waiter explained the patties were custom made from short rib, chuck roast, and ribeye with some seasoning. Sounds great, and I’m sure it is, but unfortunately the patties were overcooked – charred, dry, and flavorless. As overcooked as the burger was, the seasoned fries were undercooked. Limp and greasy. It’s apparent the Fillmore has a potentially remarkable burger, but in this visit it was all poorly executed. It was a slow Monday night with not many customers and plenty of staff.
Score: Burger 0, Fries 0
Jolly Pumpkin Artesian Ales & Kitchen
Notes: Check out the new place to eat in Dexter that is not Mexican food. The formerly “Null Taphouse” on Bishop Circle has added a kitchen and changed their name. Great drinks, great vibe, great staff, and now great farm-to-table food. The patty by itself is really, really, (to infinity) good. It is the only burger I liked on its own more than with the condiments. Juicy with a touch of grill char. When I took the first bite, I almost wept. The meat is locally sourced, grass fed, and fresh. The fries were clean and crisp, just how they should be.
Score: Burger 2, Fries 1
My Thoughts, Not Yours
These are my opinions based upon a single visit, a frozen moment in time. I wouldn’t take anything in this article as the last word for any place. There are lots of places to get a good burger and fries around here, but in my opinion the best combination is at Carlyle Grill with Jolly Pumpkin and Zingerman’s nipping close at their heels.
But really, when it comes right down to it, the best burger of all is the one you like.