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Charlotte’s Growing Burger Scene

With so many great burger places around the Queen City, someone had to try out some of the best places to let you know where you can get your next scrumptious burger.

With so many incredible burger stops sprinkled around the city and more cropping up regularly, we set out to find the very best combinations packed between two buns. From decades-old dives and drive-ins to high-end eateries, here are 19 Queen City burgers you’ve just got to try.

City Staples

1. The Super Boy at South 21 Drive-In

South 21 Drive-In doesn’t have to put up old stuff to be retro; all the time-treasured spot has to do is leave up its original decor. In 1955, three brothers, Sam, Nick and George Copsis, who had recently emigrated from Greece, opened the original South 21 on South Boulevard. Five years later, the restaurant found a new home on Independence Boulevard, where it’s still managed by family members today. The Super Boy is the mainstay’s most iconic burger. It’s dressed with simple toppings—lettuce, tomato, mustard and onion—but you can add cheese and other toppings, too. When Food Network featured it on 2009’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” host Guy Fieri “beefed up” his Super Boy by ordering it Carolina-style, with chili and a tangy slaw. Any toppings combo is winning. The beef has that great griddle flavor, and the ingredients are always fresh.

2. The cheeseburger served “All the Way” at Brooks’ Sandwich House

Brooks’ Sandwich House is legendary among Charlotte restaurants. Since opening in 1973 in NoDa, it’s earned the reputation of serving high-quality burgers at jaw-droppingly low prices. It’s been dubbed the home of the best burger in Charlotte on many occasions and has been featured on the Travel Channel’s “Burger Land.” Owned and operated by identical twin brothers David and Scott Brooks, this small burger joint is the same as it was when their father opened it more than 40 years ago; the only thing that has changed is the color of the building. Brooks’ is nestled on North Brevard Street in NoDa, where it’s open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast (which we highly recommend, too) and lunch. If you have trouble finding it, just look for the small red building with the line outside the door. Brooks’ is a cash-only establishment, so swing by the ATM on your way. Once you make it through the door, place your order at the counter, grab a number, and await the magic. Outside, patrons can post up at a long, tall picnic table or enjoy their burgers on the go. For the classic Brooks’ experience, order the burger ($3.50) or cheeseburger ($3.75) “all the way,” with mustard, onions and homemade chili. These three simple and unwavering ingredients have made the Brooks’ specialty a standout in Charlotte.

3. The Zack’s Special at Zack’s Hamburgers

Named after the original owner’s youngest son, Zack’s Hamburgers is a family-run, walk-up food joint that has been a Charlotte staple since opening in 1975. The building, located on South Boulevard, was originally the home of Bell’s Burgers, which opened in the early 1960s, followed by Big-E Hamburgers in the late 1960s. Zack’s hasn’t changed much since its inception, which is what gives it much of its charm. Calling on the original recipe, the go-to burger here is the Zack’s Special: a double cheeseburger piled high with two ground beef patties, two slices of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, Duke’s mayonnaise and special sauce (Zack’s spin on Thousand Island dressing) on a toasted bun and served with french fries.

4. Build your own burger at Mr. K’s Soft Ice Cream

Don’t let the name fool you; Mr. K’s Soft Ice Cream, which first set up shop in Charlotte in 1967, is so much more than a frozen treat stop. A tiny joint situated along South Boulevard, the family-owned and -operated diner served up swirly ice cream cones and yummy burgers through one of the city’s worst natural disasters (Hurricane Hugo in 1989) and received Charlotte Center City Partner’s Settlers Award in 2010. The accolade recognizes pioneers and entrepreneurs in the city. Although desserts are the main draw, Mr. K’s burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches have made a name for themselves over the decades. First, choose the size of burger (1/3-lb, 1/4-lb or a double patty) with or without cheese (options are American, blue, cheddar, pepper jack, provolone and Swiss) and then add the toppings you like: A1 sauce, banana peppers, grilled onions, jalapeños, ketchup, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, onion, pickles, relish, sauerkraut, tomato, slaw, spicy mustard and/or Texas Pete.

Flavorful Fusion

5. Cody Zeller’s “Hoop there it is!” at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar opened in 2010 beside SouthPark Mall. The concept fuses two niche products—sushi and burgers—seamlessly. This restaurant has become the Charlotte gold standard among playful and popular restaurants—a point that’s underscored by the almost-constant wait diners can expect. From the spot’s two TVs by the bar (one plays Western flicks, and one shows Japanese monster movies) to the Japanese language recordings in the bathrooms and the food itself, The Cowfish’s approach to fusion fare is innovative and witty. With a great burger menu and equally great sushi menu, you can’t go wrong here. A fan favorite burger, “Hoop there it is!” is named after Charlotte Hornets star Cody Zeller. The half-pound beef burger is stuffed with hoop cheese (get it?), fried pork tenderloin, lettuce, pickles and sweet Indiana mustard sauce (Zeller played college ball for the Indiana Hoosiers) on a brioche bun. A percentage of proceeds for each burger purchased supports the Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. Add some sushi on the side to complete the meal. More adventurous eaters shouldn’t miss out on one of The Cowfish’s most unique offerings, “Burgushi,” which is the cutting-edge union of burgers and sushi in one dish. The best option for newbies is The Cowfish Bento Box, a combo meal that includes a mini hamburger with American cheese, pickles and chopped red onion alongside sweet potato fries, Thai cucumbers, edamame and your choice of a four-piece sushi roll (California, spicy tuna, vegetarian or Philly-style).

6. The Ding Dong Style burger at Pinky’s Westside Grill

Pinky’s Westside Grill was founded on the west side of Charlotte by Greg Auten (formerly of the Penguin in Plaza Midwood) in 2010. Converted from an old garage called Triple G Automotive and still featuring an old VW bug on the roof, Pinky’s exudes an eclectic style, both in terms of its décor and menu options. To spread the tasty wealth, a second location opened in Huntersville in 2013. One of Pinky’s craziest menu items has a fittingly quirky name: the Ding Dong Style burger. This balanced mashup of salty and sweet ingredients from around the globe includes crunchy peanut butter, honey-cilantro slaw and hot Sriracha sauce atop a burger of your choice. The peanut butter and spicy Sriracha give the burger its Thai characteristics, and when combined with the sweet honey, the medley of flavors packs a major punch for the palate. Plus, the slaw delivers an additional sweetness and crunch. The Ding Dong Style burger is a perfect meeting of Southeast Asian and American flavors.

7. The Spicy Thai Shrimp burger at Burger 21

Burger 21 is the brainchild of the owners of The Melting Pot restaurants. The menu features beef burgers, seafood burgers (Spicy Thai Shrimp and ahi tuna), chicken burgers, turkey burgers and veggie burgers. Though you’ll find Western-style staples among the offerings (bacon, cheddar cheese, barbecue), the menu is filled with influences from different continents. One such item is the Spicy Thai Shrimp burger, which transports your taste buds across the world to Southeast Asia and, specifically, Thailand. This crispy shrimp-filled “burger” patty comes doused in fiery Sriracha aioli, sesame Thai slaw and pure Sriracha and topped with lettuce and tomato on a brioche bun. Fittingly, Burger 21’s menu is filled with delicious milkshakes that beg to be paired with one of the artisan burgers. Flavors range from chocolate hazelnut to salted caramel pretzel, strawberry shortcake, espresso and more.

Points for Creativity

8. The “Crunch” burger at The Liberty

Located in the heart of South End on South Boulevard, The Liberty, which opened in 2009, is known for its chef-driven American cuisine, hearty beer selection and 30-plus wines by the glass. When it opened, The Liberty’s goal wasn’t to be the best burger joint in town. But in 2011, when it tied with Brooks’ Sandwich House for the accolade of the city’s best burger,” as awarded by The Charlotte Observer, the burger culture became part of The Liberty’s identity—and that hasn’t changed. The large sign proclaiming “Best Burger in Charlotte” still hangs outside the restaurant’s doors. In a city where burgers dot most menus, boasting the best is a tall claim, but no burger aficionado should overlook The Liberty. The must-try here is the “Crunch” burger, whose powerplay ingredients are spicy pimento cheese, sweet onions and smoked bacon. They mingle with a patty topped with aioli sauce, lettuce and tomato, a pickle and a stack of crispy housemade potato chips. The end product is amazingly juicy (with a bun that can stand up to that juiciness). Order a cold brew to soak up every level of taste layered on this bad boy.

9. The “GFY” burger at Cowbell Burger & Whiskey Bar

A super-cool gourmet burger lounge in Uptown, Cowbell Burger & Whiskey Bar is a music and burger lover oasis. The owners of this popular spot, which boasts a small-batch whiskey bar that’ll knock your socks off, make their musical icons known. Legends like John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley inspire the décor and the menu. Cowbell’s array of artisanal burgers call on 100 percent USDA choice cuts of chuck and beef brisket, hand-ground by a fourth-generation butcher. Options of beef, turkey, pork and veggie patties are handmade daily. We love the “GFY” burger, whose price tag points to its grandeur. $20 seems a bit steep, but one bite in proves it’s worth every penny. A grass-fed beef patty sourced from the Tar Heel State comes between an onion kaiser roll and is topped with flavorful fois gras, fresh arugula, salty prosciutto, a sweet apricot marmalade and a tangy Creole mustard sauce. No ingredient in this full-force lineup plays second fiddle, but the combination isn’t overwhelming; the flavors come together in perfect harmony. Of course, no plate is complete without a serving of the Montreal-style poutine Disco Fries—mozzarella cheese curds, skin-on fries, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions and a robust brown gravy. Put on your blue suede shoes and wear your loosest pants. Bonus: with great music and nightlife, this spot also falls into the late-night hangout category.

10. The Truffle Mushroom Swiss burger at Smashburger

With more than 350 locations in everywhere from Charlotte to Saudi Arabia, Smashburger’s prevalence points to its popularity. In the Queen City, Costwold and Stonecrest outposts keep burger-hungry patrons coming back for more. This no-frills joint features sit-down casual dining and ultra-fast service (the burgers are prepared in about six minutes). Appropriately, we love a no-frills burger that leaves the fanciness to the taste. The Classic Smash pairs a fresh, never frozen beef patty with quintessential toppings—lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup and American cheese—plus the spot’s signature Smash Sauce on an egg bun. More ornate plates include burgers dressed with chili (try the Carolina Chili burger), haystack onions (try the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar burger) and zesty guacamole (try the Spicy Jalapeño Baja burger). And though this place does “simple” as well as any, it’s also a master of interesting flavor combinations. Competing profiles come to life in the Truffle Mushroom Swiss burger, which spotlights mouthwatering beef, aged Swiss cheese, sautéed crimini mushrooms and truffle mayonnaise on an egg bun.

Curbside Kitchens

11. The green chile cheeseburger at Papi Queso

While Papi Queso, which is effectively a conveyer of melted cheese (the essential ingredient in almost everything on the menu), is known for its grilled cheese sandwiches, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to believe this food truck is also capable of cooking up a fantastic burger. Host Guy Fieri drooled over the truck’s gooey, cheesy concoctions during an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and we can’t blame him. While you’re pretty much obligated to try one variety of grilled cheese (the Pig Mac’s macaroni and cheese, overnight pork shoulder and bourbon-soaked onions, anyone?), we also recommend the green chile cheeseburger. Chargrilled Angus beef, poblano relish, chili mayonnaise and a white cheese blend marry to make one of the tastiest, spiciest burgers out there. For added flavor, the towering dish is drizzled with a New Mexico burger sauce. Among other times, you can find the truck parked Uptown during the lunch hour for “Grilled Cheese Fridays” and on Friday evenings at Sycamore Brewing for Food Truck Friday.

12. Sunny Farmhouse burger at Bleu Barn Bistro

This is what we call farm-to-truck fare. Chefs Tara Diamante and Brenton Ebersold launched their Blue Barn Bistro food truck concept in May 2014. The two, who are both Johnson & Wales University-trained, specialize in farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients and natural flavors. On a menu that features Peruvian pork belly tacos, spicy goat cheese grilled cheese sandwiches, local veggie plates and more, there’s one beefy star: the Sunny Farmhouse burger. For this burger only, it seems appropriate to say that when you hand over your $8, you bought the farm. An all grass-fed beef patty shines beneath a bed of mixed greens, heirloom tomato, pickled red onion, Swiss cheese and mustard on a whole grain bun. For an extra dollar, you can add a sunny-side-up egg on top. Follow the truck’s website to find out where it will be parked. And if you’ve got a big event coming up, consider Bleu Barn Bistro for your catering needs.

Late-night Bites

13. The Moo & Brew burger at Moo & Brew

Seated along Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, the aptly named Moo & Brew delivers on two big promises: beef (that’s the “moo”) and beer (that’s the “brew”). And with late hours (it’s open until midnight, daily), large TVs, cozy tables and an outside row of seating that scoots up to the inside bar, it’s also a great place to post up and watch the big game. Just beware: There’s a North Carolina Tar Heels’ stronghold here. The menu boasts an array of deliciously sloppy burgers that make one thing clear: You’ll have to abandon all hopes of keeping your hands clean. Though beef is the king of the menu, you’ll also find salmon, turkey, bison and black bean burger offerings. Served on a potato bun, the Moo & Brew signature burger pairs a sizzling beef patty with brew-braised onions, brew chili and simple yellow mustard. Because you’ll want to scoop up every drop of chili that falls on your plate, pair this baby with a side of the hand-cut Chili Loves Cheese fries.

14. The Full Blown Hemi burger at the Diamond Restaurant

Since 1945, the Diamond has been a staple in in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. It started as the Diamond Soda Grill, a Southern diner owned by the James family. In 1984, it was sold to Gerry Pistiolis, who kept the restaurant’s good ol’ home-cooking concept alive for years. In its most recent reincarnation as the Diamond Restaurant, which opened in 2011, the spot’s new owners (formerly of the Penguin) paid homage to its culinary history with 1950s décor while also incorporating many elements from the former Penguin menu. It, of course, includes some of the classic burgers. The godfather of all burgers is the Full Blown Hemi, which is made up of three beef patties, totaling a full pound of meat. Try it Southern-style, with chili, mustard, onions and coleslaw. Add cheese and bacon to go “all the way.” The Diamond stays open until 4 a.m. on the weekends, which means you can get one of these mammoth burgers to satisfy late-night cravings.

Hair of the Dog

15. The Hangover burger at Bang Bang Burgers

In what’s becoming the global stamp of approval for Charlotte burgers, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has also visited Bang Bang Burgers for a segment on the popular show. Host Guy Fieri tried the pimento burger and the fried sweet potato brie burger on set, but rest assured, he would have tried the rest of the hearty burger combos on the menu had the entire episode been devoted to Bang Bang Burgers. Here owner and chef Joseph Huang (originally from Taiwan but raised in the U.S.) pieces together a menu of creative concepts that have far-reaching influences. Asian-style items, like the Seoul 2.0 burger (sliced pickles, greens, kimchi with sesame oil, grilled pork belly and bulgogi sauce) are featured alongside Americana-inspired eats, like the Cowboy burger (sharp cheddar cheese, bacon and homemade barbecue sauce). Diners also love the infamous Hangover burger. It starts with a solid foundation of high-quality Black Angus short rib and chuck produced by New York City’s Pat La Frieda. Then it’s topped with cheddar cheese, a fried egg, grilled onions, potato bacon hash and the restaurant’s secret Bangburger sauce. All meat at Bang Bang Burgers is prepared to a temperature of medium unless otherwise requested, which gives it just the right level of flavor, tenderness and juiciness.

16. The Kickstand Burger at Kickstand Burger Bar

Thanks to a hearty selection of gourmet burgers and craft beer, Kickstand Burger Bar has become a Plaza Midwood mainstay since opening in 2010. As its moniker implies, Kickstand carries a cycling theme (nice, since Charlotte’s cycling community is so strong) throughout its menu. The Cross-country burger, the Trek, the Hungover Cyclist and the Morning Ride are all favorites, but none are as popular as the signature Kickstand burger. The Kickstand is served with a blend of freshly ground custom beef, sundried tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic and piled with cranberry chutney, caramelized onions and baked brie. Lettuce and tomato are available upon request. Finish it off with fresh fries, sweet tots or Kickstand’s popular fried pickles. You may feel like going for a bike ride after eating this hefty burger. One of our favorite Kickstand menu items pays homage to a well-known Charlotte philanthropy effort—24 Hours of Booty, a 24-hour cycling event that raises funds for cancer research. The eponymous burger (a turkey patty on wheat bread with pimento cheese, avocado and jalapeño cilantro spread) was created with the help of the event’s organizers. All year-round, $1 for every Booty
burger sold supports 24 Hours of Booty charities.

17. Bacon Cheeseburger on Steroids at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar

The homegrown burger joint Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar originated in Charlotte’s Dilworth neighborhood in 2007, but the chain now operates more than a dozen locations and has plans to open more. Despite its prolific growth, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar continues to win the hearts and appetites of Charlotteans with inventive signature burgers that run the gamut. The Bacon Cheeseburger on Steroids is one of the best. For starters, bacon is mentioned four times in the description. An all-beef patty is seasoned with bacon salt and topped with three slices of crispy jalapeño bacon, three slices of applewood smoked bacon, a layer of bacon mayonnaise, melted Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles served with a side (try the hand-cut fries). With all that bacon, there’s no need for breakfast; just come for lunch, and you’ll get two meals in one. We also love Bad Daddy’s for its beer selection and neighborhood feel, which makes sticking around well after lunch and dinner (Friday and Saturday night hours are until 11 p.m.) a must. Drink specials are offered regularly, and multiple TV screens fill the place.

Meatless Masterpieces

18. The Fire & Brimstone Burger at  Living Kitchen

With a culinary philosophy centered on the art of nourishment, Living Kitchen, which operates two Charlotte locations (one at Atherton Mill in South End and one in South Park) and two more in Research Triangle Park, specializes in the art of living foods by focusing on raw, vegan, organic and plant-based cuisine. The cooking staff purchases seasonal produce multiple times a week from local farmers in order to ensure that the freshest ingredients are always used. With two “burgers” (neither actually contains meat) on the menu, Living Kitchen is the place to go for local, fresh flavors like you’ve never experienced. Try the Fire & Brimstone burger for a vegetarian option that packs a little heat. The gluten-free, quinoa-millet veggie burger is spiced with chipotle sunflower hummus, onions, cucumber, guacamole and a homemade hot sauce served atop your choice of bread or wrapped in a collard green leaf with one side item. The classic veggie burger also features a gluten-free, quinoa-millet veggie burger but is dressed with a lemon-parsley sunflower hummus, onion, tomato and guacamole. Add on a fruit-filled smoothie or juice for an extra burst of energy. Who knew eating a burger could feel so good?

19. Cowboy burger at BEAN Vegan Cuisine

Everything at BEAN Vegan Cuisine is, you guessed it, 100 percent vegan. But that doesn’t mean the menu is limited; on it, you’ll find (meat-free) barbecue, Buffalo chicken, chicken and waffles, and all the things you’d expect to be off limits for vegans. We personally love the Cowboy burger, which is as hearty as the name implies. Sandwiched between two buns is a pile of seitan bacon strips, gooey Daiya cheddar cheese, crispy onion rings, pickles, barbecue sauce and ranch dressing. Add “Pimento Cheesish,” chili, queso or mushrooms for $1 each. This place is proof that you don’t have to sacrifice taste just because you sacrifice a few ingredients. Located along Independence Boulevard, this haunt is the perfect fuel stop before heading to nearby Bojangles’ Coliseum or Ovens Auditorium for a game or show.

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This story was updated in June 2017.