On a month-long burger hunt that took me from Ocala to Inverness, I explored some of our area’s best burger offerings. These were my personal favorites.
A hamburger is the epitome of Americana—but this beef between a bun is in no way comparable to a demure slice of apple pie. Like an ice cream sundae, a hamburger symbolizes the freedom of choice. “You want a brownie sundae or a banana split?” corresponds with “You want a hamburger or cheeseburger?” or “Medium rare or well-done?” or “Mustard or ketchup?”
After eating my way through the juiciest patties, baskets of sides and the occasional chocolate malt, I’ve found 10 drool-worthy burger stops, five in Ocala and five worth the drive. Like Odysseus on his journey to Ithaca, my burger odyssey wasn’t all smooth sailing—nor was it pretty. During my quest, I smudged barbecue sauce on blouses, forgot ballpoint pens on cushioned booths, unintentionally left a decimated heap of a mess on my plate after eating “today’s special” and feared a napkin shortage before taking my last bite.
All for the sake of finding a good hamburger, here’s the beef of my labors.
Hungry Bear Drive-In
420 SE Osceola Ave.
“The Drive-Thru Burger”
This little joint, which is over 30 years old, is an Ocala landmark. The out-of-towner may drive past this brick shack without a glance, but true Ocalans know this drive-thru is worth a pit-stop to satisfy the pit of your stomach. With Baby, Mama, Papa and Grandpa options to choose from for your hamburger or cheeseburger, there’s a meal that’s just right for everyone. Ridged french fries, onion rings and corn nuggets are sides, but the sweet potato fries (cinnamon sugar optional) with a peanut butter malt are highly recommended. The food is cooked to order, but the wait is worthwhile. Nothing beats being handed a brown bag with grease seeping through the bottom. One word: irresistible.
2701 SW College Rd., #A02A
“The Fast-Food Burger”
Is it really a fast-food burger? Five Guys’ ground beef patties are made fresh with no freezers on the premises. Boasting over 250,000 ways to order a burger—and I don’t know about you, but I’ll take their word for it—their hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon burgers and bacon cheeseburgers can be hidden under a pile of pickles or jalapeno peppers, drowned in ketchup or steak sauce, or stuffed with all 15 toppings and condiments. (You’re gonna need a bigger mouth for this option!) Fries, which are made Five Guys’ style and Cajun style, are generously scooped into a bag, burying the foil-wrapped burger. Weary of going comatose with your beef? A “little” option is available—but even that may not save you.
Cody’s Original Roadhouse
2505 SW College Rd.
“The Plain Ol’ Cheeseburger”
With a tangerine-colored truck parked outside, tubs of peanuts when you walk in and scores of memorabilia causing your neck to pull a 360 (a flying pig weathervane?), Cody’s is the haunt to visit for its fun atmosphere and plain good food.
At Cody’s, you have your basic burger: a thick patty on a toasted bun, with a bubbly melted slice of American cheese. You can get it sans cheese and with french fries, but it’d be a sin to pass on the onion rings. These jumbo-sized golden rings are piled high on a stick, resembling a kid’s toy—though it’s certainly not child’s play to devour this tower. You can share it when you pair it with your ol’ cheeseburger. The choice is yours.
3375 E Silver Springs Blvd., # 103
“The Diner Burger”
A good diner’s hard to find, especially in the south where the summer heat can cause potato salad to spoil. But Darrell’s Diner is like an old-time New York diner, where the servers call you “hon” and serve up your eggs any way you like them. The same goes for the half-pound burger, served with potato salad, pasta salad, coleslaw or cottage cheese, not to mention the onion rings or fries.
Extras on your burger with a patty bigger than its Kaiser roll include bacon or cheese, while pickles are left on the side. Regulars joke with the staff, but newcomers may be too indisposed to fraternize. It’s impolite to talk with your mouth full, ya know!
The Mojo Grill
103 SE 1st Ave.
“The Blues Burger”
You can get back your mojo with the 10-ounce ground Angus—the biggest hunk of beef on this list—at this bluesy joint. With mood lighting, Cajun cooking and live music on the weekends, it’s like a piece of the Big Easy implanted in the heart of Ocala.
Of all the burgers on the menu, the “Soprano Burger” will have you singing an entire octave higher once you get your mouth around this beauty. The sundried tomato-infused beef is packed in its bun with a tomato, pickles, lettuce, provolone cheese and garlic mushrooms. Don’t be surprised if you see juice dripping down your arm as you reach for a waffle fry.
(and well worth the gas money)
Pudgee’s All American Hot Dogs
7220 S Florida Ave, Floral City
“The Hot Dog Stand Burger”
It’s the kind of place you’d be inclined to raise an eyebrow at. A rundown trailer next to Ron’s Flooring Center, you may turn your nose up driving by this local favorite—a big mistake. Pudgee’s little hot dog stand has a truckload of gotta-have finger food to choose from. And when I say finger food, make sure you grab extra napkins.
A hot dog stand, sure, but the made-to-order burgers are a must. Try Pudgee’s “Smack Ya Mama Burger”: a hamburger with barbecue sauce, cheese and grilled onions as the fixings. The “handful of fries” is enough to share. Dip them in ketchup… or vinegar. (This one’s for you, New Englanders!)
Glenview Country Club Restaurant
3194 Glenview Road, The Villages
“The Country Club Burger”
At the other extreme, the Glenview Country Club has a refined atmosphere with polished wood floors, hunter green curtains and upholstered chairs. Don’t let this fool you. Glenview’s burgers are a hunk of messy love that will need more than a dab from the cloth napkin folded on your lap. The “Name Your Own Burger” option allows you to top the 7-ounce Angus beef with up to three toppings. Want a mushroom and Swiss? A black and bleu? My personal favorite: pimento cheese, sundried tomatoes and bacon. Fries are an option, but the mesquite-seasoned kettle chips more than suffice.
110th Street Grille
10901 US Hwy 441, Belleview
“The Packs-A-Lot-Of-Crunch Burger”
What do you get when bayou and beach collide on 110th street? Paradise. The “Paradise Cheeseburger” is like a party on a bun. You have the usual fixings of lettuce, tomato and onion, but then there’s the tumbleweed of haystack fries held hostage by the creamy American cheese. Try wrapping your mouth around this crunchy nirvana. And when all else fails or remnants are leftover, wield your silverware from their designated jar.
The homemade kettle chips are a nice side—and a perfect replacement for haystack fries if you couldn’t restrain yourself from inhaling the cheesy tangle off your burger. Don’t feel guilty if you’re unable to answer your server when she asks you how your meal is. Just nod, and take heed of the onion or tomato plopping back onto your plate.
12189 S. Williams St., Dunnellon
“The Tiki Bar Burger”
Nothing beats a burger and a beer, right? How about a burger and a beer at a tiki bar? Behind a bait and tackle shop is the Blue Gator, an outdoor family-friendly restaurant by the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers where you can listen to live music while enjoying a beer or wine. Order the “Spicy Ranch Cheeseburger” with tater tots you can pop into your mouth between gulps of lager. Green chilies fried in batter, pepper jack cheese and everything else drenched in ranch dressing will engulf you in burger bliss. You can also order french fries and sweet potato fries as sides. But if you’re a ranch lover, get the gator bites. The servers recommend ranch dressing with the appetizer, and there’s plenty of that where your burger came from.
B&W Rexall Drugs Restaurant
214 US Hwy 41 South, Inverness
“The Retro Burger”
There’s a retro diner hidden in Inverness, and it houses a monster. If a burger were named after Frankenstein’s Monster, I’d call it “The Bürgermeister,” but B&W has simply dubbed this burger the “Monster Burger.” It’s the original diner burger with Swiss and American cheeses, tomato, lettuce and onions that will fly onto your companion’s plate as you take your first bite. An ice-cold Coca-Cola or chocolate malt will help quench your thirst from snacking on ridged potato chips and a side of fries. You’ll be pulled back to an old Woolworth’s five and dime as you chow down on this burger.
Why should you sacrifice your lust for beef when your tummy’s not up to par for a hefty 7-ounce burger? Answer: You shouldn’t! After eating Goliath-sized hamburgers, my tummy wouldn’t forgive me if I failed to mention the slider. Satisfying enough for the salivating carnivore, merciful enough on your waistline, these mini-burgers prove size doesn’t matter. It’s all in the taste.
Beef ’O’ Brady’s
Order: “Smokin’ Jack Sliders”
It’s three times the charm with three Black Angus sliders. The trio is decked out with pepper jack cheese, pickles, fried onions and a special smoky mayo. You’re in good hands when it comes to beef at Beef ’O’ Brady’s.
Steak ’N Shake
Order: “Steakburger Shooters”
These little guys can be dressed with chipotle, A1, buffalo sauce and more. Indecisive? No need to fret! Combine with the “3 shooters n’ fries” option to have a go at the sauces you love spread on these pint-sized steakburgers.
Order: “The TK Slider Basket”
There’s more to this place than its extraordinary service. The burger menu’s “Classic ‘Big Arse’ Hamburger” is certainly a highlight, but the slider basket is also up for grabs. You can get thrice the amount of beef, buns and cheese.
Boo-hoo To Eating Things That Moo?
I totally feel for you vegetarians when a menu is free of choices for the herbivore’s soul. Here’s a shortlist of restaurants where meat eaters and veggie lovers can coexist.
Order: “Zucchini Cake Minis”
Besides serving turkey sliders, Ruby Tuesday’s also offers meat-free burgers. The new “Zucchini Cake Minis” are made with all the usual fixings plus roasted red peppers, feta cheese and Ruby’s mayonnaise.
All burgers can be transformed into a veggie burger by substituting the patty with a 100 percent soy Boca burger, but the “Streamliner” is an award-winner not to be missed. Outstanding additions include a wheat bun substitution, fried egg, grilled mushrooms, bell peppers and onions.
Order: “Veggie Burger”
Its name is self-explanatory, but this isn’t your average veggie burger. The meatless patty’s key ingredients are brown rice, mushrooms, wheat and veggies. Get it with fries, coleslaw, kettle chips or even one of Mimi’s signature freshly baked muffins.
You Want Fries With That?
Seasoned, crispy, sometimes devastatingly soggy, fries are the old standby for a burger side. It’s a pairing like peas and carrots, peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, corn beef and cabbage. You get the picture. The innovative quick-frying method discovered by the Simplot potato company and McDonald’s researchers in 1965 enhanced McDonald’s success while also popularizing french fries at fast-food chains. In the span of McDonald’s history, the size of the serving changed as well. The original “large” fry was 2 ounces. Today, what was once “large” is now “small.” A “large” fry is now typically 6 ounces.
If you’ve ever driven cross-country, you may observe a regional difference when it comes to the contents of your burger. Find yourself saying “Hold the ketchup” in New York City? Are you swiping off the mustard after driving through a joint in Atlanta? Personally, my ideal roadmap would have red X’s where mayonnaise is slapped on without warning. People are so particular about their condiments it’s almost as though their preference is a reflection of their character. Suppose there was a zodiac called The Table of Condiments…
Ketchup: You’re a cautious individual but desire a little more sweetness in your life.
Mustard: You’re spry and optimistic and tend to be indecisive.
Yellow Mustard: A bit of the conservative, you don’t like change.
Honey Mustard: You’re kindhearted and moody.
Mayo: You’re gross. Just kidding. You indulge in life’s pleasures and are thoughtful and giving.
Barbecue Sauce: You’re carefree and a wild child.
Soy Sauce: You have a routine but crave a little more excitement.
Steak Sauce: You try to hide it, but you’re quite sensitive.
Horseradish: You’re a pushover.
Ranch Dressing: Creamy on the outside, zany on the inside.
Bleu Cheese: You live dangerously.
Hummus: You’re caring and down to earth. Get it? Down to earth?
Relish: You are sophisticated, easygoing and a little selfish.
Salsa: You’re temperamental, adventurous and a great dancer. Ole!
Guacamole: You’re unconventional and daring.
Chili: You take chances and don’t mind getting your hands dirty.
Lox: You belong on a bagel.
Kiwifruit on your burger, mate?
Some may think a few of the burgers listed below are out there—probably the ketchup or yellow mustard squeezers—but I’m sure the rest of the world would say the same about our burgers. (A donut burger, America? Really?)
United Kingdom: Our English cousins go for their burger fix at the chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The “Kiwi Xmas Burger” includes turkey, ham, avocado and kiwifruit salsa.
Australia and New Zealand: Of course you’ll find the kangaroo burger Down Under, but falafel, lamb, venison and cod are choices found at Fergburger, which specializes in gourmet burgers.
Japan: Teriyaki burgers and shrimp burgers are menu items at the chain Lotteria.
Korea: The native dish kimchi is served on the “Kimchi Burger” at Lotteria, along with the “Paprika Bacon Beef Burger” and “Burning Squid Burger.”
India: At Nirula’s, a favorite is the “Nutty Paneer Burger,” which is made of cheese and walnuts.
Pakistan: McDonald’s “Shami Burger” is a lentil and minced lamb patty topped with onions, scrambled egg and ketchup.
Shake, Rattle & Roll
You could say a hamburger is a sandwich. I beg to differ. You could also say a bun-less patty is a hamburger. That is not a hamburger, it is a McDonald’s breakfast sausage. Enter the roll, aka the bun, as essential to the burger as the opposable thumb.
Kaiser roll: Sometimes sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds, this roll is the most dependable when it comes to big beef and overflowing condiments.
Potato roll: Soft and sweet, golden in color, the potato roll is perfect for a slider bun.
Wheat roll:Often chosen as a healthier substitute to its white counterpart, the wheat roll is light brown and fiber rich.
Onion roll: With bits of onion interspersed throughout the bun, this roll is both sweet and savory.
Deconstructing Your Burger
If a hamburger patty is made of beef, then why do we call it a hamburger instead of a “beefburger?” Like frankfurters from Frankfurt and wieners from Vienna, the hamburger derives from Hamburg’s ground beef. Hamburg steak, so-called because it came from cows raised in Hamburg, Germany, was brought to America by German immigrants in the 17th century. The “hamburger steak sandwich” of the late 1800s became the wholesome “hamburger” in the 1920s and a picnic favorite during summer holidays.
Before the bun: Thinly sliced bread is used to sandwich beef patties with ketchup and mustard as condiments. Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and sliced gherkins soon follow.
Late 1800s: Burgers finally get the same treatment as hot dogs and have their own buns manufactured.
1900s: Mayonnaise is commercially produced. It is unceremoniously inducted onto the shelf of burger condiments.
1916: Walt Anderson, co-founder of White Castle, sells burgers for a nickel at his hamburger stand in Wichita, Kansas. Later, he’d set the standard for hamburger chain restaurants.
1918: “French fried potatoes” is shortened to “french fries” by this time.
1920s: A slice of cheese morphs the hamburger into a cheeseburger.
1930s: Up until now, there is no record of lettuce and tomato included on a hamburger.
Post World War II: Ranch dressing, salsa, soy sauce and barbecue sauces are the new spreads on the block.
1948: Richard and Maurice McDonald open McDonald Brothers Burger Bar Drive-In in San Bernardino, California. The familiar golden arches wouldn’t be erected until
1954: Franchising would begin the next year under Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s System, Inc.
1970s: Onion rings become french fries’ contender at food chains such as Dairy Queen and Jack in the Box.
1993: Max Shondor introduces the Boca Burger.
2000s: The “Fleur Burger 5000” is offered at the Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas at the price of $5,000, champagne included.
Sources: Hamburger: A Global History, Andrew F. Smith (Reaktion Books)