4499 South Cobb Drive SE Suite C, Smyrna GA 30080 (map); 770-801-9660; uscafe.net
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Neighborhood sports bar with loyal following offers popular half-pound burgers and killer lemon pepper wings
Want Fries with That? If you like Five Guys' fries, you'll dig these; other sides also available
Price: Superburger, $5.39; Double Meat US Burger, $5.39
Start a conversation with Atlanta carnivores about favorite local burgers, and you'll quickly see who's the most popular in town. The same names do pop up over and over, but every now and again an out-of-left-field suggestion sneaks into the mix. Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a trend. And when I hear a couple dozen times that there's a legit contender for the top spot at a place I'd never heard of, I'm overdue for a visit.
After finally making my acquaintance with US Cafe, I'm not ready to anoint them with any "Best Of" titles, but I'll admit that they've carved out a nice little niche for themselves within the city's burgersphere.
Inside the dimly-lit, 20-year-old Smyrna sports bar (a newer, shinier outpost opened recently in Buckhead), there was a glimmer of hope when I retrieved my appetizer order of lemon pepper wings, a "specialty" of the house. With a heavily-seasoned crunchy skin, they surprised me in a way that a chicken wing hasn't in ages. As a bonus, you can customize your wings by specifying x-crispy, xx-crispy, or even xxx-crispy upon ordering. Drab strip mall or not, I can think of worse ways to spend an NFL afternoon than hanging out here with a platter (or bucket) of these.
Burgers and potato-based sides followed soon after. Beef eaters (US Cafe also serves a mean turkey burger, apparently) have three base models to build from: the quarter-pound US Burger and two half-pound options. The Double US Burger is just like it sounds (two four-ounce patties, both cheesed), or go with the popular Superburger, a single half-pound patty. Either costs $5.39.
The two are wildly different in presentation, right down to unique buns. The Superburger on the left was unusually large in diameter (sorry, I don't carry a tape measure in my burger bag), especially when compared to the Double Meat Burger on the right. The Superburger clearly had some structural issues, nearly falling apart upon a simple halving for its autopsy shot. The photos don't lie; that bottom bun vanished in a hurry, soaking up every drop of moisture from the beef as well as a hefty layer of tomatoes and pickles. Both burgers' interiors showed the uniform color of most thin diner burgers cooked on a flattop. (No doneness preference was asked.)
The burgers come standard with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard, and mayo, but you can personalize yours with a basic list of toppings and cheeses, or even have it tossed in the wing sauce of your choosing. I found the beef on both burgers to be flavorful and extremely juicy, although the Superburger had some hidden gristly bits. Maybe it was just an anomaly with that one burg, but that's a pretty quick and decisive turnoff. Given that and the bun problems which seemed to plague the larger-diameter Superburger more, I much preferred the Double.
The fries at US Cafe are immediately reminiscent of Five Guys. Hand-cut spuds, deep golden brown, nicely-seasoned, the kind that no one at the table will be able to resist sampling. Cajun seasoning is a free option, but the standard fries are so good on their own, why mess with them?
I'm also a sucker for sweet potato tots. Nothing at all wrong with these, but after being so awestruck upon my first encounter with them at Vortex last May, I now recognize them as a widely-available commercial product that's going to taste the same wherever they appear. Certainly not bad...but not nearly as special as I once thought they were.
As predisposed as I might have been to dismiss US Cafe as "not special" either, I warmed to it as the evening progressed. They've managed to cement a rep with the locals as both a sports bar and a family hangout spot, a place where you're just as likely to see a Little League team sucking down hand-scooped milkshakes as you are a table full of dudes knocking back a pitcher of Yuengling during the game. There's patio seating, video games, even pool tables waiting for you in the game room. Cheap prices, better-than-average burgers, and did I mention the insanely good lemon pepper wings? Maybe it's partly because they're in a part of town without a wealth of great eats that they've lasted 20 years (although Muss & Turner's exceptional burger is, I must point out, just down the road), but US Cafe also does plenty of things right. A legion of loyal and vocal fans can't be all wrong.