*Author’s note: I am changing the focus of this series to cover the best food options available in (mainly) Central Iowa. I’ll still seek out a good burger from time to time, but I believe I have found my favorite in the subject below. I’m also dropping the rating system, since each selection will be different in its tastes and I’m less opinionated on foods I hope to sample such as the city’s pho options and various Downtown Farmer’s Market stands. Hopefully, you enjoy the new format as much as the old as I continue my quest for the best food around.
Taste, because it is subjective, cannot be controlled or defined by science. While one person may enjoy a burger that is plump and juicy, a creation so large it must be squeezed and compressed before attempting your first bite, others find the charred and lifeless remains of a patty cooked well past done the only satisfactory way to consume meat. Both, of course are wrong, but live and let live, I always say.
Even so, I began a quest two summers ago, while living in Las Vegas, to unearth the nation’s greatest cheeseburger. To treat each offering consistently, I created then, and follow still, a ranking system based on the sandwiches’ three main components: meat, cheese, bun. During my initial round of discovery, I enjoyed fast-food fare like the Double/Double from In-N-Out (21/30), but left the restaurant chain, Steak-N-Shake, amazed they were so apparently popular after eating a meal that still ranks at the bottom of my list (13/30). Ultimately, Shake Shack, a relatively young yet rapidly expanding fast-casual franchise from New York, won round one with my first perfect score (30/30).
I recently moved back to Iowa and spent my first summer tasting some old favorites (B-Bop’s), some new hip-locations (El-Bait Shop Downtown and Brick City Grill in Ames), and even made the 60 minute trek east to visit the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Adair, home of Iowa’s Best Burger in 2016. While I could find merit in most of them (sorry, B-Bops fans, non-teenager me didn’t care for it much) none of them came close to my Las Vegas favorite.
Saddened by this, and with a rapidly expanding waistline, I abandoned my search for a suitable replacement until a friend convinced me to finally try Zombie Burger. I had avoided this popular East Village original mostly because I despise institutions that appear to value marketing over craft and I wasn’t going to fall for their gimmicks. I was certain, without ever seriously considering them as an option, that I would hate everything about their Hipster-pandering combinations of meat, accompaniment, and cheese.
I finally relented this past October and, because I live close, made my way to their Jordan Creek Mall location. As I navigated my way to the food court, I mentally prepared myself for the highly-overrated and annoyingly flashy meal I knew lay before me – I prefer flavor over pizzazz. Their façade was not what I expected from a place that promotes itself as “post apocalyptic chic” and I realized I had unknowingly passed the unassuming store front many times before.
I did my research online before visiting and needed little time to place my order. I avoided the pun-y named sandwiches – who wants to eat a burger with the name “T-Virus” anyway? – and ordered the basic two patty Zombie Burger - American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion and Zombie sauce.
I found an open table in the sparsely populated common area and waited for my number to be called. After a few minutes of observing the West Des Moines Wednesday afternoon mall crowd, my order was ready and I waded through the growing herd of customers to retrieve my basket of food. What I saw immediately whetted my appetite and it was all I could do to not sprint back to my table.
Their patties were thin and juicy with little charred bits of beef hanging out of the bun, inviting me to take a bite again and again. The cheese was so plentiful I didn’t feel the need to gnaw at the goodness left stuck to the wrapper. The bun was un-noticeable in my desired complimentary fashion. It was the perfect burger.
Watch your back, Shake Shack. The dawn of the apocalypse is on the horizon and ground zero is right here in the Heartland.