488 Flat Shoals Avenue, Atlanta GA 30316 (map); badearl.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Dark and smoky rock club is a favorite spot among locals for catching an up-and-coming band...or a top-notch burger
Want Fries with That? Sure, or branch out with a wide array of sides
Price: EARL Burger, $7, add $1 for cheese or bacon
I have long believed that a big part of what makes the burger truly great (perhaps uniquely so in our society) is that a truly great burger can come from pretty much anywhere. A linen-napkin bistro, a food truck, a minor league baseball stadium, a strip-mall chain restaurant, an airport food court, even your own backyard grill: They're each perfectly and equally capable of cranking out a kick-ass burger. So when it was suggested that one of the city's best comes from a nightclub, a rough-around-the-edges music venue, I shouldn't have been surprised. Turns out that The EARL, which has played host to nationally-known artists like Death Cab for Cutie, Bob Mould, Vampire Weekend, and Vic Chesnutt, dishes up a burger that totally rocks, too.
Playboy called it one of the country's ten best rock clubs. Paste Magazine named it one of the 40 best music venues in the US. But the particular accolade we AHT-ers care about came from the Wall Street Journal. In his 2007 article, Raymond Sokolov famously called Atlanta the home of the best burgers in America. In doing so, he singled out three joints, all within five miles of one another. First, the popular choice, The Vortex. There was the underdog, Ann's Snack Bar. The third place mentioned was The EARL.
The name stands for East Atlanta Restaurant and Lounge, but don't look for that on the sign out front. In fact, don't look for a sign at all. A punk-rock-black wall mural promising "Cold Beer," a few sidewalk tables, and the chords of tonight's sound check wafting through the open door are about the only cues that you've found The EARL. Inside, it's easy to believe you've guessed wrong. Dark, smoky, stripped-down and slightly sketchy, it seems like "fixing the place up" came to an abrupt halt the moment they first opened in 1999.
But those who persevere and order one of the three beef burgers on the menu are rewarded in spades. Each is a half-pound hunk of Black Angus served on a sesame seed bun and LTO-topped, with a pickle on the side. For a buck, add cheese (American, blue, Swiss, jack, cheddar, or provolone). Bacon? Another dollar... and so, so worth it, I might add. Chili? 75 cents. You can also add wasabi mayo for free. Those are all the toppings for the EARL Burger, but there's also a Guacamole Burger and a Blue Bacon Burger that come dressed pretty much as you'd imagine.
Purists may ding my EARL Burger for not having as much pink as you might like in a medium-rare burg, but this thing had juicy taste to spare under its noticeably-grilled exterior. "Really beefy" is what struck me most after my first bite of the burger. While a lot of burgers have that proper "mouth feel" and give you all the right sensations of cheesy, bready, toppingy, and generically meaty, I'd argue that too few burgers kick you right in the pants with a pronounced beefiness. On top of that, the super-thick bacon at the EARL hints at the kitchen's brunch prowess and is, as noted earlier, the best buck you'll spend all week.
The avocadopalooza on the Guacamole Burger is also worth special mention. The bun showed all the early warning signs of trouble: It seemed too big, too fluffy, the kind that will soak up too much juice and disintegrate too quickly. Wrong on all counts: This is a well-constructed burger holder.
For a joint that prides itself on being lean and mean, you've got a wealth of sides to choose from. "Fancy-Pants Sides" like Brunswick stew, fried okra, and onion rings are a one-dollar upgrade from things like a baked potato, tots, black beans and rice, and Cajun red beans and rice, but my table was quite happy with fries, of both the shoestring and sweet potato varieties. The sweet potato fries are sprinkled with cinnamon and accompanied by a side of cranberry-Dijon dipping sauce. It's similar to that opening act for your favorite band: a little strange-sounding, but ultimately an awesome surprise—kind of like the thought that a truly great burger can be found at a dingy rock club.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and recently penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.