The scene: The burgers born at Dallas’ high-end steak specialist Knife were so popular they spawned their own mini-chain, with two Knife Burger locations in Dallas and Plano, and a third about to open in Fort Worth. Physically, the locations are very varied: The first Knife Burger opened a year ago in Legacy Hall, a massive new Dallas food hall that is one of the boldest of its kind in the country, as a simple white tiled counter/kiosk with a few stools, an open kitchen, and food served on metal trays you can carry to the market’s array of public seating. The second opened in October in the Shops at Willow Bend in Plano, along with a second location of the fine-dining Knife steakhouse. In this case, Knife Burger is a small annex to the sit-down eatery, with a service window opening into the interior of the mall. The Fort Worth location will be in Crockett Hall, another all-new food hall opening in December 2018, and the Knife Burger here is the anchor tenant and will be a larger version of the original.
The trio all serve what has been rated the best burger in Dallas, and No. 4 in all of the beef-mad Lone Star State by Texas Monthly in a recent burger cover story. It was written by Dallas food journalist Mike Hiller, who also runs the city’s No. 1 epicurean food site, EscapeHatchDallas.com (and writes for USA TODAY Travel). It was Hiller’s recommendation that led me to chef John Tesar’s Knife Burger, and he noted that to further complicate things, “he also serves half a dozen of the popular burgers at Knife, his modern temple to extreme dry aged beef, including several of the burgers served at the Knife Burger shops.”
So that brings the total number of places to eat these fantastic burgers to five, with very different atmospheres. The flagship Knife is in the chic Highland Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton boutique property in Dallas’ hot University Crossings neighborhood. It’s a modern place with lots of semi-open glass and pillar walls, bleeding out into the hotel lobby, with a glass-walled display for the 300-plus bottles on the long wine list, a behind-glass ageing room displaying cuts of meat, and tons of framed awards everywhere, including Best of Dallas, one from Esquire for being one of the nation’s best restaurants of the year, and even Tesar’s framed chef jacket from his appearance on "Top Chef."
Reason to visit: Burgers, any of the trio: Ozersky, Magic, Pimento.
The food: Knife and Knife Burger are personality-driven to say the least. Outspoken chef John Tesar first become famous cooking alongside friend Anthony Bourdain in New York in the 1980s, and ended up as “Jimmy Sears,” a fictionalized version of himself, in Bourdain’s famous breakout book, "Kitchen Confidential." He moved to Dallas and earned five stars at the restaurant in the luxury Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, amassed four James Beard Best Chef nominations and the stint on Bravo’s "Top Chef," and also authored a steak-centric cookbook fittingly titled "Knife." He developed a close friendship with famed food journalist, burger fanatic and Meatopia festival founder Josh Ozersky, and when Ozersky passed away suddenly at a young age, Tesar created a namesake burger in his honor – the very burger Hiller rated Dallas’ best and the first one I tried at Knife.
Despite his formal training at Paris’ famous La Varenne cooking school, Tesar did not gussy up the burger, but rather reinvented the fast-food burger of his childhood. He uses much better ingredients – especially the ground mix of sirloin and belly meat, 100 percent beef from famed 44 Farms, the same Texas ranch that supplies his dry-aging operation for his upscale steakhouse. Tesar did a lot of taste-testing and told me that, “A lot of our success comes from finding this meat. They are all pure black Angus and they are not fed much corn, but they also eat sorghum.”
The Knife Burger menu is streamlined, with just three real burger choices (there’s also a meatless patty), Knife Fries as the sole side, and five flavors of milkshakes. That’s it. The Ozersky is the most basic of all of all, but comes in two varieties, as a single or a double, both using generous 5-ounce patties atop thinly sliced raw red onion and topped with lots of perfectly melted American cheese. Tesar uses conventional but carefully chosen squishy supermarket-style buns, but he toasts them, a vital step that greatly improves the result. The burger is served with a few pickle slices on the side, and the Dallas Observer called it “completely genius in its simplicity.”
But it’s not really that simple, because Tesar takes a high-tech approach, partially steaming his patties first before finishing them on a flat-top grill, to get the perfect combination of crunchy flavorful exterior and moistness, and they are all cooked exactly as ordered in terms of doneness. They are mouth-wateringly pink inside, and when you think about the fast-food style burger, it usually never is. Tesar told me that, “It’s the pink that gives you the psychological enjoyment of meat, but most places overcook it,” and added that, “If you look at the history of great burger places, like White Castle, they cooked the burger on top of the onions, which really steams it.”
The burgers themselves are spot-on delicious, it’s just a matter of which to choose. The version that made the Texas Monthly Top Five in the state was the Pimento Cheese Burger, which tops the big patty with an equally generous 3-ounce glop of homemade pimento cheese, spiced up with Tabasco sauce, along with sautéed red onions, tomato slices and a single leaf of bib lettuce to keep the bun – toasted, always toasted – from absorbing juice and getting soggy. As Hiller wrote, “The result tastes like the Fourth of July, a family reunion, and a summer picnic all rolled into one.”
These are some great burgers, with a perfect combination of crispy sear and juicy meatiness, and the few additions, such as the pimento cheese and the standout bacon on the Magic burger, the third option, are all perfect. The Magic is served on a Thomas’ English muffin with sharp cheddar, lots of tasty bacon, tomato, lettuce and onion. The Knife steakhouses serve all three as well, but add a few more and sometimes specials – I had a mind-blowing rendition of a basic bacon cheeseburger, my personal favorite, topped with three layers of excellent bacon. At lunch you can opt for one with truffle mayo, while at dinner toppings get fancy: a slab of pork belly with collard greens and jalapeño mayo or a slice of beef short rib with collard greens and horseradish mayo.
The french fries are fresh and very good, not quite great, but certainly worth having, and like the burgers, very reasonably priced. The shakes are solidly satisfying and complete the picture of a throwback American burger joint. Texas is a big state with a lot of burgers, but fans will be happy they took the time to seek out Knife Burger, while those with more rarefied tastes will appreciate the gourmet version at Knife steakhouse. As Hiller told me, “Tesar is a burger wizard who knows how to combine top-quality Texas beef, a squishy bun and a few simple condiments into one of America’s best burgers.”
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, for burger lovers.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)