Charlottesville, VA: Plenty of Right Answers at Boylan Heights

Today's reader recommendation comes from Adam Nettina of food review blog GrubGrade. He's also previously written a review of Devils Backbone Brewing Company in Roseland, Virginia. Thanks, Adam! If anyone else wants to share some burger intel, here's how to do it. —The Mgmt.

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Boylan Heights

102 14th Street Northwest, Charlottesville VA (map); 434-984-5707; boylan-heights.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Grass-fed beef steals the show, but customizable options ranging from turkey to vegan patties give new meaning to "multiple choice"
Want Fries with That? Sure, although the signature "fried potato salad" is more gimmicky than memorable
Price: $8.49 to $8.99; premium toppings of "Create a Burger" menu run at a dollar extra
Notes: Make sure you try the Boylan Sauce—it's not what you'd expect, and we say that in a good way

Early winter in a college town is full of iconic scenes. Coeds bustle down cobbled streets in the pre-Christmas shopping blitz, while alumni and locals huddle amid warm libations in stadium parking lots, waiting for the big game.

Oh yeah, and sandwiched between these scenes of youthful weekends is the mind-numbing anxiety of finals and term-ending tests.

Burger fans at the University of Virginia can relax though, because at Boylan Heights no answer is incorrect, and no burger—beef or otherwise—will leave you wondering what could have been.

Situated amid the popular "Corner" district a stone's throw from campus, Boylan Heights has a well earned reputation among Wahoos of all types. Hardcore bovine fans will love their commitment to organic, grass fed Angus, while vegetarians and even vegans can feel right at home with customizable takes on house-made and meat-free eats.

The ambience is a mix of sportsbar and gastropub—great for sports fans and beer drinkers—with flatscreen televisions giving a 360 degree view of the latest happenings from the college gridiron to the hardwood. The menu is extensive, and the atmosphere comfortable. Each table is adorned with the dreaded Scantron sheet, but these bubbles hold a welcoming number of options to customize your own burger. Beef and turkey patties round out the ground meat, but vegetarian and vegan patties are available as well. The cheese list is impressive—ranging from smoked provolone to goat—while premium toppings cover the spectrum of Virginia ham to a black bean and corn salsa.

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If you're feeling a little pre-test anxiety you might do as I do and consult the "regular" menu. One of the favorites is the Room 121, an organic beef burger with bibb lettuce, beefsteak tomato, bacon, diced onions, American cheese and Boylan Sauce. It's an upscale and extremely well balanced version of the classic American cheeseburger.

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While the default temperature of the meat is cooked medium well, the burger itself wasn't lacking in juices. The meaty, savory, slightly sweet notes of grass-fed Angus are the star here, but what I'm struck most by is the play of the smoky and salty bacon against the depth of sweetness provided by the Boylan Sauce. One bite and you know it isn't your classic Thousand Island hybrid. While manager J.R. Hadley wouldn't give up all the trade secrets, he let me know it's a barbecue, ketchup, and maple syrup hybrid that combines a touch of vinegar and hot sauce. Whatever it is, it delicious.

My only complaints are minor: The cheese stubbornly resists melting, while the bun—although fresh from the famed Albemarle Baking Co.—is overly buttery and too light in texture to contain the pool of burger juices and sauce. Normally this would detract from the experience, but the loosely formed six-ounce patty is just too good and renders any complaints a moot point.

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With so many choices at Boylan Heights, choosing just one burger is next to impossible, and indulging the collegiate sense of experimentation is encouraged. Aside from the Room 121 I also sampled the Valedictorian, the (gulp) vegan burger. I expected something hard as a rock, but the tremendously flavorful patty made of brown rice, carrot, and toasted pecan is moist and gives easily, providing a nutty and multifaceted contrast to the spinach and hummus accompanying it. Again, the complaints are minor. The 12-grain bun is a bit stale and forgettable, while the sun-dried tomato tapenade is overpowered by the hummus and absent in many bites. Still, for something that relinquishes the three best aspects of a burger (meat, bacon, cheese) it does an admirable job,and even manages to prove itself as a welcomed change of pace.

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Side options are numerous, but they're not as good as I expected. I found the tater tots to be a bit too crusty on the outside, while the curly fries lost their temperature quickly. Sweet potato fries were average—lacking any "wow" factor in seasoning—and came across as hard and burnt.

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The signature fried potato salad is just that—a fried crust enclosing a potato mixture that includes bacon and pickles. It's good, but it's not earth-shattering. Still, the glutton in me eats it all, mostly because it's covered in Boylan Sauce.

You know, with the kinds of choices available at Boylan Heights, there's really nothing to fear from seeing a Scantron in late November. Fill in as many bubbles as you want, and even try something new. Who knows, you might even discover the right answer wasn't the one you were expecting. Adam Nettina

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