50 Burgers, 50 Days: Top Notch

A burger a day all around Austin, plus an answer
to the pressing question: fries or rings?

When I was barely a teenager, I spent a a few weeks with my uncle at his motorcycle shop near Houston. I spent most of the day fouling sparkplugs on mini-bikes behind the shop, but the rest of the guys, they worked. Brad the mechanic had arms like the trunk of a cedar tree, streaked like  sap with chain grease.

At lunch, they wanted fuel, and they had about a half-hour to fill up. And filling up meant burgers and fries every single day, and shut up about your nascent taste for custom cooking, your "no pickles, light mayo, extra cheese." I got what everybody else got. I came to appreciate the basic drive-in burger with a slice of tomato and shredded lettuce, sour white onions and pickles from a 5-gallon bucket. If you've had a No. 2 burger at Sonic, you've tasted that same thing. It was fuel, then and now.

But it's OK to want more. 50 days of more.

Day 1: Top Notch
7525 Burnet Road. 452-2181, www.topnotchaustin.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

By Mike Sutter / Fed Man Walking / 08.11.11

Editor's note: Sad news as I learned about the passing of Top Notch co-founder Frances Stanish over the weekend at age 75. We debated whether to hold off launching our 50 Burgers series with Top Notch out of respect for her. But we thought it better to honor her memory by celebrating the place she started with her husband, the late Ray Stanish, 40 years ago. 

 

The burger: No. 2 cheeseburger ($3.45). Taste the charcoal? That's what Top Notch does best, the backyard grill taste that takes you back to your Dad's Weber. Dad's burgers were never this wide and flat and uniform. His were fat and irregular, charred to bits in some corners, bleeding in others. Top Notch just sands off the raspier edges of the memories. The bun is soft and smooshed, the cheese finds the roof of your mouth and the shredded lettuce and slice of tomato are just doing their jobs.

The place hasn't lost a step in its business since Frances Stanish and her family sold it to the Galaxy/Zocalo restaurant family last year, even though I miss her at the front register. You can still visit with her daughter there, and the dining room is still packed, the line creeping out the door for fried chicken and burgers. (Read my Statesman story about the sale here.)

 

Fries or rings? Rings, because they're irregular in that hand-dipped way, separating at the corners like veneer on an antique sideboard ($1.99/small). The french fries ($1.55/small) are the shoestrings most everybody uses. I watched a colleague drain a 32-ounce shake in one lunch hour, and that drink's smaller cousin, a vanilla malt ($2.39) was something special, with a darker color and more syrupy flavor than your average fast-food milkshake, a mix of grainy and creamy like home-cranked ice cream.

 

(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)