We Americans love our hamburgers. We eat almost 50 billion each year.
Florida is third in the nation when it comes to the number of burger joints. Not all those burgers are the predictable beef patty with standard fixings, though. In fact, some folks get downright inventive when it comes to crafting memorable burgers, combining imaginative ingredients for wildly delicious creations.
With this in mind, I set out on a quest to find our area’s most unique burgers. Although one story can’t possibly include all of them—you may want to do your own tasty research!—consider this your go-to list of local burgers that are not to be missed.
The Blue Wagyu
You may have known it as Artisinal Dish, but this locally owned, European-inspired, deli-style establishment changed its name to The Blue Wagyu in 2015 to emphasize their savory mainstay: humanely pasture-raised, local Wagyu beef.
My friend, Jean, and I were already fans, so going there to eat burgers was hardly a “chore.” We settled into the over-sized, comfy armchairs and breathed in the wonderful aroma that permeates this friendly, laid-back eatery. We then promptly devoured three different burgers.
We settled on the Shigeshigetani as the most deliciously unique. Half the fun is just saying the name, which is pronounced “shiggie-shiggie-tani.” (Say that fast three times. If you have trouble pronouncing it, just point to it on the menu! Burgers are named after famous Wagyu bulls, by the way.)
This burger has none of the usual ingredients; there’s no ketchup, mustard, mayo, tomato or lettuce, but you won’t miss them. The Shigeshigetani is a burger of contrasts, perfectly compiled to bring out the flavors of each ingredient.
On the bottom bun (a brioche bun made in-house) is a mound of mild cilantro slaw and just enough creamy garlic aioli sauce to add some tang. Atop the burger is a heaping spoonful of blackened onions, slow cooked for hours to make a decadent reduction that resembles a black onion marmalade. The bright red sriracha sauce seeping into the bun is the final addition. We loved the combination of sweet onion backed up by the salty heat of the sriracha. The sprinkling of fried shallots adds a delightfully crispy crunch.
The star, of course, is the quarter- or half-pound (your choice), hand-formed patty of Wagyu beef. These cattle, originally from Japan, have a totally different type of fat and marbling than traditional U.S. beef breeds. This healthier fat melts at a lower temperature, resulting in remarkable flavor and tenderness.
“Part of the story is educating the consumer,” says chef, cattleman and co-owner Greg Mullen, who takes great pleasure in sharing the merits of Wagyu beef.
Take our advice and order the 50-50 fries, half russet and half sweet potato. They’re hand-cut and fried to that just-right degree of doneness: tender inside, yet crisp outside, and topped with a scattering of sea salt.
If you possibly have room for dessert, ask if they’ve made any double chocolate flourless cookies. Warm from the oven, these are positively amazing.
Close Second:The Sanjirou, featuring chili fire kale, crispy fried shallots, caramelized bacon, chili aioli and a fried egg
The Blue Wagyu
6998 N. US HWY 27, Ocala
The St. Croix
Walk into Brooklyn’s Backyard and you can’t miss the friendly, laid-back feel. Cozy patio furniture, a pergola with twinkle lights, wood deck, porch roof and even real trees in the center of the dining room all add up to a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere. There’s even live music on Friday evenings.
The eatery started out as a pizzeria when owners Tim and Janice Thomas opened in 2010 in their original location on 14th Street. (They’ve been in their current spot since November 2013.) Patrons still love the pizza, but now there’s a whole lot more to choose from, including some amazing burgers. You can even create your own burger and get as inventive as you like.
“We go through as much as 360 pounds of beef a week,” says Chef Jeremy Zajac, who’s always looking for new ways to put a creative spin on a dish.
My friend Jan and I showed up hungry. Good thing we did.
The St. Croix, like all their burgers, is presented with a steak knife stuck through the top bun. We opted to cut ours in half.
Their flagship burger, the St. Croix, was inspired by a memorable meal Tim and Janice had at a tavern in Christiansted on the island of St. Croix. It begins with a half-pound of ground chuck hand-pattied with seasonings and minced onions. The beef is blackened and topped with a slice of cream cheese, fried banana peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion and sweet Thai chili sauce.
I love it when ingredients come together for a one-of-a-kind taste, and that’s exactly what happens with the St. Croix. In addition to the perfectly cooked burger, you have the crunch and zip of banana peppers, the zesty sweetness of chili sauce, the smooth creaminess of cheese and the saltiness of blackening seasoning. I’d never tasted anything quite deliciously like it. No wonder this has become a menu standout.
Every burger comes with one side, and it doesn’t have to be fries, even though theirs are cut fresh each day and are excellent. We went crazy over Grandma’s 3-Cheese Mac & Cheese, which leaves “regular” macaroni and cheese in the dust. It’s ultra rich and cheesy, and the toasted bread crumb topping is the perfect finishing touch. (Honestly, I could make a meal out of the mac and cheese, no offense to the burgers, but it’s that good.)
Close Second: The Angry Orchard, featuring homemade apple compote made with Angry Orchard Cider, bacon, Brie cheese and Angry Orchard aioli
2019 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
The Tex-Mex Haystack
When Burger 21 opened in Ocala in late February, a whole new style of burger dining came to town. The only free-standing unit in the Burger 21 chain, the Ocala franchise is owned by John Usher, Mike Signorelli and Ken DePasquale (whom you likely remember as owner of the long-standing Carmichael’s Restaurant in town).
The partners pulled out all the stops on this location, and it shows. Built on the former Carmichael’s site, the building has a trendy, urban vibe and even features a full liquor bar.
Upon entering, place your order at the “taker” station, and then head to a table. A “mover” brings your food out, and you’re the “eater,” so that’s where the fun begins.
The Tex-Mex Haystack is a visual delight before it ever hits your mouth. Like all their burgers, it’s made with one-third pound of fresh, never frozen, Certified Angus beef, and then the goodies are piled on. In this case, applewood-smoked bacon, Gouda cheese, guacamole, crispy onion strings, chipotle-jalapeno sauce, lettuce and tomato all stacked on a butter-toasted brioche bun.
This baby was a good 5 inches tall, so I had my hands full (literally!) trying to take a civilized bite. I have yet to figure out how to eat a burger this scrumptiously juicy without needing a ton of napkins. I finally gave up and just dove in. (The fact that there’s a napkin dispenser at the table helps. I also appreciated the fact that a hand-washing station is located near the entrance, so you can easily tidy up before and after eating.)
Fries are a la carte, which means you can order exactly the amount and type you want. We went for the full pound of “half and half,” meaning half regular fries, half sweet potato fries. Oh, did I mention the sauce station? I saw no need to add anything to my tasty burger, but boy was it fun to spice up the fries with the different sauces. Take our word for it: The toasted marshmallow sauce with the sweet potato fries is a winner.
Absolutely save room for one of Burger 21’s signature milkshakes—with whipped cream, of course. Rich, thick and ultra creamy, they’re hand-made to order.
From the great food to the super friendly staff, this is a spot the whole family can enjoy. Plus, you have to love a place that donates 10 percent of its sales to a local charity on the 21st day of each month. That alone makes me want to come back for another burger.
Close Second: The Shroom, featuring crimini mushrooms, onions, fontina cheese, lettuce and tomato
3105 E Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
The Big Kahuanna
I’d been hearing about a burger I had to try at The Lunchbox, a popular downtown spot known for tasty, fast breakfast and lunch. So on that recommendation, I ventured in one afternoon and ordered the Big Kahuanna.
It did not disappoint.
The Lunchbox is already known for its fresh, never frozen, half-pound steakburgers made from ground chuck and sirloin steak. Owner Josh Snyder takes it to a whole different level with the Big Kahuanna.
Topping the sizzling hot burger is a slice of tender ham, topped with a slice of melty Swiss cheese and grilled pineapple. A generous splash of teriyaki sauce adds to the “island” taste theme. Tomato, lettuce and mayo round out this burger creation, which was inspired by a Hawaiian-style pizza.
Even “smushed” down so I could try to get every layer in my mouth at once, this impressive burger is a good four inches tall. After the first scrumptious, ultra-juicy bite I realized this was going to require a lot of napkins. And it did, but I savored every mouthful. The teriyaki is a brilliant addition and really adds the finishing touch.
Fries are a standard burger accompaniment, and The Lunchbox serves regular and sweet potato fries, as well as curly fries. I opted for the potato salad they make fresh every day, which was creamy and had just the right amount of tanginess.
Wash it all down with a big glass of their perfect sweet tea and you’re good to go.
When you enter The Lunchbox, you’re literally walking right into the kitchen; the grill is just on the other side of the counter. A nostalgic collection of lunch boxes from earlier times adds an appropriate decor in the dining area, which is super casual and staffed by friendly, efficient servers. Put that atmosphere together with the tasty faire and it’s easy to see why so many people make this a regular stop.
Close Second: The White Elephant, featuring their bacon cheeseburger served between two halves of a grilled Tast-T-O donut
103 SE 1st Ave., Ocala
The Billy Burger
Shuckers Bar & Grill
Some things stand the test of time. Shuckers Bar & Grill is one of those. This Ocala institution has been around since 1982, and although it’s well known for oysters, they also make a mean burger.
Definitely the most unique burger on their menu is the Billy Burger. All the burgers at Shuckers contain a half pound of beef, but that’s just the starting point for this particular creation. It’s a bacon cheeseburger with the traditional fixings (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle), but instead of a bun, it’s nestled between two (yes, TWO!) grilled cheese sandwiches.
I figure a man had to have come up with this one… all that meat, all those carbs… it’s been on the menu since well before the current owners bought the establishment. As manager Jamie Chavez put it, “It’s ambitious.”
When they placed the Billy Burger in front of me, complete with a substantial mound of hot fries, I said the first thing that came to mind: “I don’t think I can finish this.”
“Nobody finishes the Billy Burger,” smiles Jamie. (Sounds like a definite challenge to some hungry guys out there.)
And so, with the AC pumping out cold air and “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” cranking from the jukebox, I gave it my best shot, but she was right. I didn’t come close to finishing.
I loved the perfectly grilled, crisp outside, gooey inside grilled cheese instead of a bun. Whoever came up with that idea was onto something. It’s the classic white bread/American cheese combination and works just fine with the hearty burger.
At a neighboring table, regular patron Doug “Radar” Vandeursen watched me fail to master the Billy Burger. “It’s a lot to handle,” chuckles Doug, who typically orders it once a month.
“I brought my nephew here from New York City,” adds Doug. “He said it was the best burger he ever put in his mouth.”
I’m not sure if they have a NYC version of the Billy Burger up in the Big Apple, but I’m glad to know Ocala is on the map for such a uniquely satisfying burger.
Close Second: The Buckmaster, featuring cheese cooked right in the burger, topped with bacon, cheese and a fried egg
Shuckers Bar & Grill
408 SW 16th Street, Ocala
It’s possible to build the perfect burger, according to Charles Michel, Oxford University chef and prominent food scientist. As he explains, we “taste” food with all of our senses, so what makes something delicious isn’t just how it tastes in your mouth. The best burger should engage all five senses. Next time you put a burger together, make sure it includes:
Ideally has nine (wow!) layers and should be visually appealing
The sizzling beef patty, the crunch from lettuce, onion, bacon, pickle
The tantalizing aroma of all ingredients together
Eat it with your hands, never a knife and fork
Savor the combination of flavors with the goal of tasting each ingredient in every layered bite
You may even want to crank up your favorite music, as that’s proven to enhance the pleasure of eating.
Want to make your own unique burgers at home? Here are some suggestions for toppings beyond the typical ketchup, mustard and mayo. Your burgers will never be the same!
Try some different toppings:
Avocado, Swiss cheese and sprouts
Honey mustard, Brie cheese and Granny Smith apples
Mango chutney, cucumber and fresh spinach leaves
Fried egg and bacon
Fried green tomatoes and mayonnaise
Swiss cheese and grilled pineapple
Mix up your own sauces:
1 part sriracha hot chili sauce : 2 parts ranch dressing
1 part yellow mustard : 1 part mango chutney
1 part sun-dried tomatoes (finely chopped) : 2 parts mayonnaise
2 parts olives (finely chopped) : 1 part Greek yogurt
1 part chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (puréed) : 4 parts ketchup
1 part basil pesto : 2 parts mayonnaise
1 part lime zest : 4 parts mayonnaise
Sources: huffingtonpost.com, delish.com