Can you build a better burger? It turns out you can—and should. Lately, the all-American classic is getting a striking makeover, especially when it comes to the fixings, which are getting more adventurous, more gourmet, and more interesting.
In the quick-service category, where burgers appear on 36 percent of menus, that means thinking outside the bun about toppings, sauces, and condiments. By including toppings such as premium cheeses like smoked Gouda and Gorgonzola—these cheeses are up 23 percent on burger menus since 2013, according to a Datassential report on burger trends—and ethnic flavors like the ever-popular sriracha, restaurants are raising the stakes on one of the most universal menu items.
At Des Moines, Iowa–based Zombie Burger, which has two locations, that means stunt burgers piled high with everything from chicken-fried bacon to peanut butter. Between the regular menu and the special burgers of the week, Zombie has designed more than 200 burgers, like the Raygun—topped with Monterey Jack cheese, fried jalapeños, caramelized onion, bacon, guacamole, and chipotle mayo—and the Machete Kills Again, a Spanish-inspired burger that incorporated breaded and fried cheese enchiladas topped with pork carnitas, white queso, and guacamole.
Inspiration comes from other cuisines and pop culture, too. There have been burgers that riffed on Star Wars, the presidential election (the Monte Christie, a beer-battered and fried triple bacon cheeseburger named after New Jersey governor Chris Christie, appeared during the Iowa caucus), and The Walking Dead.
“We do pride ourselves on a great cheeseburger,” says Tom McKern, executive chef. “But as we started to grow, we noticed that our customer base really wanted stunt burgers as well.” The tamer specials just don’t sell as well, he adds.
While Zombie Burger’s clientele might be seeking a specific extreme experience, they do reflect a broader desire among consumers for more adventurous burgers. One way that trend appears in burger chains across the country is heat—and plenty of it.
At Washington, D.C.–based Burger Tap & Shake, each table is stocked with a bottle of sriracha. “That’s a huge component for us,” executive chef Jeff Tunks says.
Meanwhile, at Dugg Burger, which has locations in Dallas and Plano, Texas, and specializes in customizable burgers with a hollowed-out top bun, myriad toppings appeal to spice lovers.
“Customers really like hot menu items, so we’ve been doing a lot of pepper things, like ghost pepper cheese spread. We had a hatch chile week in September,” says Jeff Braunstein, managing partner at Dugg.
The trend toward heat has also asserted itself in the form of spicy Korean barbecue sauce and spicy Thai peanut sauce. For customers who “want to be more adventurous but aren’t there yet,” Braunstein says, he and his team experiment with familiar flavors, presenting always-popular guacamole spiked with chimichurri and whipping up bloody Mary ketchup (a New Year’s Day special).
Dugg offers 12 standard toppings—lettuce, grape tomato, dill pickle, Dugg sauce (a souped-up Thousand Island), ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, sautéed mushrooms, fire-roasted jalapeños, caramelized onions, crispy onion strings, and hickory-smoked bacon—alongside a rotating topping called the “Lucky 13,” which changes every day or two.
“It’s where we can try to attract people who are willing to try something new,” Braunstein says. On a given day, customers might find fried eggs, chipotle ranch, Lucky Charm marshmallows melted down with habanero (“The really adventurous people will try it,” he says), or balsamic Brussels sprouts (“Our general manager said it was probably the most popular overall”). And, of course, bacon is a reliable favorite: For a recent bacon week, Dugg had prepared bacon jam, candied bacon, bacon-cheese spread, bourbon-bacon slaw, and bacon aioli.
Indeed, from the bacon aioli at Dugg to the cilantro raita at Burger Tap & Shake, sauces are going way beyond ketchup and mustard, which is on-trend; Datassential found that 53 percent of consumers expressed interest in savory spreads. Balsamic vinegar is adding its tang to tartar sauce at Boston-based Wahlburgers, while there’s pesto at Michigan’s Moo Cluck Moo. Ranch is a crowd-pleaser at Dugg, where it’s a frequent Lucky 13—sometimes in variations like chipotle ranch—and Zombie Burger, where it graces the Trailer Trash Zombie (also topped with chicken-fried bacon and cheese curds).
Even the most basic of savory spreads, mayonnaise, is prime for revision.
“We’re all about the mayo here,” says Max Albano, corporate chef at Good Stuff Eatery, the fast casual founded by chef Spike Mendelsohn and based in Washington, D.C. “Everyone dipped their fries in something when they were younger.”
Good Stuff stocks a self-service dip bar with four mayos for personalized dunking: mango, chipotle, sriracha, and Old Bay. Those are all in addition to the specialty mayos that top the burgers themselves; the Prez Obama burger is topped with Applewood bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese, and horseradish mayo, while the Michelle Melt—a free-range turkey burger with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, ruby tomato, and lettuce—is dressed with Southlawn Herb Garden Mayo.
Simple or elaborate, fixings are getting upgraded right in-house. “People are looking for artisanal components for all of their toppings,” says Burger Tap & Shake’s Tunks. “So we take a real homemade approach to everything.”
The fast casual offers an all-purpose sauce, “AP sauce,” made with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, chipotle, and barbecue sauce, that’s so popular, customers often buy it by the pint to go. Tunks says the brand might explore bottling and selling it in the future.