In 2018, Al’s Burger Shack topped TripAdvisor’s list of the best burger restaurants in the U.S. What makes this two-unit operation out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the best? A few things, says owner Al Bowers. First, the size is just right—not too big, not too small, but perfectly loaded with innovative yet nostalgic topping combinations. Take the Carolina favorite Bobo Chili Cheeseburger, for example, with chili sauce, slaw, chopped onion, mustard, and cheese. “Almost everybody has had that slaw, chili, and mustard combination on their hamburgers,” Bowers says. The Kenny J features bacon, grilled onions, North Carolina Cheerwine soda barbecue sauce, and spicy pimento cheese. “The meat is a superior product. We just try to stay out of the way of it with toppings that are fun and familiar,” he says.

Looking to the future, Bowers thinks the piled-high burger trend will pass in the next couple of years and the industry will get back to basics. “I don’t want a knife and a fork with my burger,” he says. “I want to pick it up in my hand and eat that rascal.”

One of the major draws of Al’s is Bowers’ personality and the Southern charm of it all. His staff’s passion is just as contagious, and many of his burgers are named after good friends: Bobo is from junior high, and Kenny J “fashions himself a basketball player.”

“We just do our thing and don’t get too crazy with it,” Bowers says. “I think people can relate to that.”

Menu Innovations, Story