15147 N. Scottsdale Rd., Suite 133, Scottsdale AZ 85254 (map); 480-596-1234; 3 other locations in the US; visit coalburger.com for list
Cooking Method: Coal-fired
Short Order: Coal-firing at this new upscale fast food chain makes for a juicy burger with a subtle hint of smoke
Want Fries with That? Sure; midsize, skin-on spuds are just serviceable
Prices: Backyard Burger (1/3 pound patty), $5.49
I walked into the Coal Burger in Scottsdale with a simple objective: find a decent burger restaurant in Phoenix. Ever since my big sister moved there a few years ago, I've hunted down a burger at least once per visit. I started out with a heartfelt story about a substandard burger at Delux Burger and then followed it up with another less-than-stellar meal at Zinburger.
The look of Coal Burger—higher-end fast casual—made me think it was cut from the same cloth. That is to say, another ready-for-replication burger gimmick that undermines the very thing it should be creating: a great burger. Instead, what I found was a restaurant concept that already has a few links in the chain and a burger that's worth your time. More than that, they cook their burgers using a gimmick that actually works.
The gimmick Coal Burger has latched onto is, you guessed it, coal. They've taken the coal oven famous at their parent company Grimaldi's Pizzeria (which is why there's a Grimaldi's next door; each Coal Burger is built next to a Grimaldi's) and turned it loose on their beef. They even call their restaurant a "burgeria." The oven is a ferocious looking thing that apparently burns at a heat just shy of a supernova. For this reason the burgers go in and out of the grill in just minutes.
On top of that, Coal Burger makes their commitment to ingredients a part of their brand identity. Their website reads: "we are committed to food raised natural, without the use of chemical pesticides and harmful fertilizers. Our beef is hormone free and pasture raised." This means the beef is all Niman Ranch.
Coal Burger has a standard list of pre-designed burgers, but the basic Backyard Burger that comes with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and CB Sauce was the one that caught my eye. It's a simple construction that I thought offered the most promise. Given the name I thought American was the apropos cheese choice.
While the pictures make the bun look a titch too big for my 1/3-pound patty (they offer a 1/2 also), it was actually the perfect measure against the rest of the ingredients. I really enjoyed the creamy sweetness of the CB sauce (Thousand Island-esque). The toppings were all fresh and hit the right "backyard" notes, but it was always going to be about the beef.
Coal Burger's patty was impressively juicy and well-seasoned. Despite being woefully overcooked, my burger was still full of moisture and flavor. (One imagines the young cooks often suffer the low margin of error of this high heat cooking technique.) I expected a deep smoke from the oven, but the char was standard and the coal-firing not particularly distinct. That said, there was still plenty to enjoy. I thought the flavors of my burger were pretty spot on and the ratio of meat to (a quality homemade) bun just right.
The fries weren't anything to write home about, but certainly these medium cut spuds get the job done. Mine came hot out of the oil without being oily. Add to that a nice amount of salting and you get a solid, if not special, order of fries.
I also tried the Coal Burger salad, which is dressed with a version of their CB sauce. The veggies were, again, very fresh, but more interesting was the way it summoned the flavor of a burger. Add a patty to this salad and you've a bun-free burger experience.
There's still room for improvement at this mini-chain, but on balance they are doing pretty well. I went to Coal Burger thinking I was going to get another Phoenix burger spot trying it's darndest to become a chain, only to realize that it already was one (albeit a small one). It's no surprise, as this fast casual spot is worth your time and, with the rational pricing, worth the money.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.