Only one word can describe our appetite for burgers: insatiable.
We just can’t seem to get enough, and in as many different ways as possible. Here is a yummy case in point. One of the most recent entries into the south Charlotte market appears to be thriving in a location that went from slightly difficult to very challenging. At the far end of Ballantyne Village was a chocolate shop-turned-café called Solara. You almost have to know something is there, and now the parking area across from the restaurant is closed, as is much of the parking deck. It looks very odd and certainly makes parking for this location a real challenge, especially at prime times. Solara closed, and the space was vacant for quite some time.
The owners of The Melting Pot Restaurants decided to expand in 2009 by fashioning a modern fast-casual burger joint with high-quality food in a hip environment. The first Burger 21 Crafted Burgers and Shakes to open in North Carolina opened in that end space in Ballantyne Village off Johnston Road. This week marks its first anniversary, which tells you it’s worth the potential parking hassle. The interior space was completely renovated to take on the sleek Burger 21 look of fast casual; light and airy inside, with a good-sized patio for outdoor dining.
The concept is simple. Order and pay at the counter, get a number to place atop the salt and pepper shaker holder and get your soft drink from the dispenser. You can’t help but notice the line-up of 10 sauces available for French or sweet potato fries, or your sandwich, or whatever.
Burger 21 starts with fresh, 100-percent certified Angus beef, never frozen. And you can taste it. As the foundational product for which the place is named, it has to be good. The burgers are cooked to your preference. I like mine medium – not medium well and definitely not well. Why take a perfectly good beef burger and turn it into a hockey puck? OK, I know, that’s up to you, and that’s why they ask. Each burger was cooked exactly as requested, and at medium, it comes out tender, juicy and full of natural flavor (ask for it medium, you’ll thank me).
The next important item, once you have a decent burger, is the all-important bun. It needs to be soft, yet not too soft. I’m always disappointed when the bun can’t stand up to the burger and toppings. Burger 21 has very nice buns… Other places use potato buns, sesame topped white, Texas toast or even ciabatta, which is usually much too hard for a burger. You end up squeezing everything out. Burger 21 uses a soft brioche bun that is lightly toasted and one of the best burger bun options.
Speaking of options, there are 10 beef burger on brioche bun considerations. My favorite is the Bacon Cheesy. It arrives with lettuce, tomato, applewood-smoked bacon and your selection of American, cheddar or Swiss cheese. A really cool choice is the Tex-Mex Haystack – lettuce, tomato, applewood-smoked bacon, Gouda, guacamole, onion strings and chipotle jalapeño sauce. Another neat trick is the Memphis BBQ Pork Burger. The beef is seasoned with a Memphis dry rub, grilled and topped with barbecued pulled pork, crispy onion strings and tangy barbecue sauce on a bed of chili pepper slaw and pickled cucumbers.
The Black & Bleu is a burger that’s blackened and served with lettuce, tomato and applewood-smoked bacon, along with bleu cheese spread and crumbles. Also tasty is the Shroom, with lettuce, tomato, crimini mushrooms, onions and fontina cheese. Several selections offer something slightly different, whether it’s cheese spread or chipotle jalapeno sauce, making them deliciously different.
Chicken, turkey, veggie and even seafood burgers are available for the asking. The chicken and turkey burgers are hand-formed in house. Chicken Marsala is a fresh chicken burger with lettuce, tomato, sautéed mushrooms and onions, with Marsala wine sauce on a toasted brioche bun. The Cobb has fresh-grilled turkey, lettuce, tomato, bleu cheese crumbles, applewood-smoked bacon and avocado ranch dressing on a toasted whole wheat bun. The Greek is a veggie burger that includes lettuce, tomato, roasted red peppers, feta spread and pickled cucumbers on a toasted whole wheat bun.
You also can choose from two surf burgers. I really enjoyed the Spicy Thai Shrimp; a lightly fried shrimp burger with lettuce, tomato, sriracha aioli and sesame Thai slaw on a toasted sesame bun. Great flavors come together and the sriracha adds a tasty bit of heat. The other option is panko-crusted, lightly-fried sushi-grade ahi tuna with lettuce, tomato, sriracha aioli, caramel soy sauce, fresh avocado and pickled cucumbers on a toasted sesame bun. For a side to share, check out the Cheese & Ale Fries topped with chopped bacon and fresh scallions – really tasty. The sauce is excellent, and they follow through on their statement boasting piping hot fries.
Chicken tenders can be had in a sandwich or a basket. Craving a dog? The Great Dane is a 100 percent Angus beef frankfurter, grilled and topped with pickled cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, onion strings and remoulade sauce. You also can change it up with sliders: a four-pack of three of the most popular burgers are offered. And yes, if you must, you can get a salad. Seriously, there are four salad selections and they make a very nice presentation with obviously very fresh ingredients. The Chopped Cobb includes grilled chicken, bleu cheese crumbles, applewood-smoked bacon and chopped egg on a medley of romaine and iceberg, with fresh scallions, tomatoes and avocado-ranch dressing. The Sonoma Valley has mixed greens, bleu cheese crumbles, candied pecans, cranberries, grapes and tomatoes with raspberry walnut vinaigrette.
Cookies are baked fresh daily in house using premium chocolate, fresh nuts and no preservatives. To quench your thirst, Burger 21 has signature shakes, floats and sundaes, as well as wine and beer. The hand-spun shakes are really delicious. They have the expected flavors, and the chocolate shake is very yummy. They also offer key lime pie, bananas foster and chocolate peanut butter shakes, among others.
Burger 21 has done a great job of offering very tasty burgers and more at a good value. Most of the burgers go for $5.99 to $7.99; same range for the salads. Every Monday you can get a Bacon Cheesy Burger and a regular fry for $6.99, a really good value. The kids menu includes seven selections with a choice of applesauce, grapes or French fries and a kid-sized drink, all for $4.99 (Wednesday is half off for kids with an adult entrée purchase). The restaurant itself is very kid-friendly and should be great for families with young ones.
Burger 21 has a pleasing atmosphere, yummy burgers and more, at reasonable prices. And I certainly don’t mind waiting a few extra minutes for a crafted burger. What I do mind is what occurred on a most recent visit, and I’ll emphasize they were not very busy. By now you should be thinking service. When the food arrived, the combination server and bus person put down our plates and took our number even though I didn’t have my shake yet. I figured she was bringing it right back and we also asked for extra salad dressing. She didn’t come right back with the shake or the dressing. She didn’t come back at all. Now it’s the game you play when you have received your burger and you’re waiting for the hand-spun shake. You take a bite, eat a couple of fries and think surely it will be here any moment.
Halfway through my burger I got up and asked the shake-maker where mine was, and that we were awaiting extra dressing. He said he was making my shake. I sat back down to see the server wiping down a table; got up and asked her what happened to the dressing. She stopped and retrieved it. A minute later someone was looking to bring me the shake, but the number was gone and required waving them down. They just need to get the timing down and be able to deliver a shake with the burger or shortly thereafter, if not before.
Nevertheless, I still recommend you check out Burger 21. The burgers and shakes are consistently very good and I have faith they have the ability to deliver fast-casual service with just a little more attention. Go and enjoy our passion for the burger.