50 Burgers, 50 Day: Downtown Burgers

A burger a day all around Austin, plus an answer to the pressing question: Fries or rings?
Day 28: Downtown Burgers
350 Trinity St. 476-7100, www.downtownburgers.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.07.11
The burger: Remember when gas was knocking on the door of $5 a gallon? Steve McDermott does. After a lifetime in the restaurant business, he was making a go at bringing electric cars to Austin. His office was a trailer across from the Austin Convention Center, at least until the city told him he couldn’t run a business like that from a trailer.
To understand how strongly he pushed back, it helps to know that McDermott started a business in 1989 in Lake Geneva, Wisc., called the Original Chicago Pizza Co. It helps to know that place is still in business, using McDermott’s recipes even after he sold the place to drive from Los Angeles to North Carolina looking for a warm place with a big lake, a search that landed him in New Orleans for six months, then in Austin in 1993. He worked construction before the electric car idea took hold.
So when the city said he couldn’t run his car business from a downtown trailer, he lobbied for and got an ordinance change, reasoning that if food trailers could do it, why couldn’t he? Then he decided to become one of them.
In a wood-sided trailer he built himself and painted a glowing orange-red, McDermott and his brother Desmond started Downtown Burgers in December 2009. The menu is simple: burgers, fries, sodas, with combo deals starting at $5.95. He caters to downtown office workers and thrives on South by Southwest business. Last year, a phone messaging service called GroupMe requisitioned McDermott’s trailer, and he handed out 2,500 grilled cheese sandwiches in three days to people who downloaded GroupMe’s phone app.
McDermott cooks his burgers over an open flame, on a charbroiler with lava stones. “It’s better than something from a flat grill, where it sits in its own grease,” he said.
I agree. This is simplicity on a bun, but more than that. The meat makes a backyard world’s worth of difference. And did you ever shred the iceberg for a backyard barbecue? No. Full-leaf here, and big rings of red onion and a trio of bright red Roma tomatoes, with jalapeno and pickles, all tracked on an order sheet. On a sesame seed bun with fries and a soda, it’s $6.45.
Fries or rings? No choices here, and they’re standard food-service fries, but perfectly cooked in clean oil. Have you tried to make fries in a trailer? I have, and getting them right is an accomplishment.
Coming soon: The McDermotts are planning to open another trailer, possibly as early as the first of next year, in a parking lot next to the Austonian at Second and Congress. He’ll build the trailer, just like he did this one, possibly with metal sides to look like a diner. Called, and brace yourself: Downtown Diner. Pancakes, waffles, salads — you know, diner food, except at picnic tables on Congress Avenue.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Waking)