Atlanta: Scratch Your Itch for Outstanding Diner-Style Burgers at Scratch... fresh
12872 Highway 9 North, Suite 110, Alpharetta GA 30004 (map); 678-393-9059; scratch-fresh.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: Unassuming strip mall mom-and-pop dishes out superb diner-style burgers, killer breakfast, and serious desserts
Want Fries with That? They're frozen, but good, and even better doused in the house Burger Sauce
Price: Scratch Burger, $4.79; Triple Burger, $5.79, cheese, +60¢; Cheeseburger Biscuit, $2.69
The longer I do this job of professional cheeseburger-eating, the more I truly appreciate a great diner-style burger. Sure, the fancy-pants linen-napkin restaurants and gourmet burger boutiques have their place, and I enjoy lots of them. But like the way your favorite blue jeans or your go-to pair of Chuck Taylors feel when you slip them on, there's something comforting to the soul about a juicy, sloppy burger topped solely with things you can pronounce, served in a no-frills setting where the primary goal isn't to razzle-dazzle your palate with culinary acrobatics, just to fill you up and send you off with a smile.
Scratch... fresh is a quirkily-named mom-and-pop (literally) joint squeezed between a barber shop and a dry cleaner in a don't-blink strip mall in the northern 'burb of Alpharetta. Ask most of the commuters who breeze past this stretch of highway twice a day where to get a burger nearby, and many will point you toward the Five Guys around the corner. For shame, burger aficionados. You can do better.
As the name implies, owner Kelley Hughes and her family strive to make as much of their menu as they can in-house. Burgers start out as an 80/20 blend that they receive several times a week. The staff hand-rolls the beef into 3.3-ounce balls that are then patted out when you order and griddled up on a flat top.
The char job is exceptional and the salt-and-pepper seasoning is superbly rationed, resulting in a burger juicy enough that I didn't mind at all not being asked my doneness preference. Like so many thin diner-style burgs, it's well done, but in both senses of the phrase.
The burgers are available as single, double, or triple-patty affairs ($3.79/4.79/5.79), and come bare unless you start customizing. Six kinds of cheese, chili, bacon, and ham are all add-on ingredients, but there's an impressive list of freebies, too: everything from lettuce, tomato, and onion...to kalamata olives, artichokes, and cucumbers.
Truth be told, Kelley will dress your burger pretty much any way you want it, whether it's on the menu or not. One customer requested a peanut-butter-and-bacon special and another regular likes all 20 toppings on his double-bacon-cheese.
Feel free to get sassy with sauces, too. Kelley and her crew brew up a few novelty condiments like chipotle mayo and Tabasco ketchup, but the one to get is the Burger Sauce. The pleasantly salty, deep caramel brown sauce has a Worcestershire-and-soy base, but that's all I could get Kelley to divulge. The rest is a top-secret blend of 17 other ingredients in a recipe so complicated that Kelley's daughter told me she still can't make it without the written instructions. I found myself adding more of the Burger Sauce to individual bites of burger, even after dousing the whole thing upon receipt.
It's also a killer dressing for the french fries. Solid if unspectacular on their own, the fries are admittedly frozen Ore-Idas (premium extra-long 3/8"-cut) only because of a lack of storage space in the tiny kitchen. But they're fried nicely, with a crisp exterior and liberal salting. Burger Sauce, however, takes them someplace else entirely.
If I hadn't been scared of getting busted by Kelley during her numerous table runs to check on customers, a bottle of Burger Sauce would have totally come home with me for a full lab analysis and possible mass production. (For personal bathing use. Don't judge me.)
Both burgers at my table rocked hard: my double with American, bacon, grilled mushrooms, and LTO, as well as my brother's triple with blue, pickled jalapeños, lettuce, and tomato. Excellent beef and fresh toppings, all. The Engelman's buns are simple 3.5-inchers that don't make much of an impression, until you realize that's the point. This is a minor character of a bun, unassumingly playing its bit part in the background and letting the real stars of the show shine. Sometimes less is more.
And while I don't keep stats on such things, I'm fairly sure I set a personal speed record for inhaling this fantastic burger.
My only ding on the burger is that it seemed small...at first. The moment I was done with mine, I immediately regretted not ordering the triple-patty model, and I seriously debated going back for seconds—until I spied the dessert menu. The rainbow of syrup pumps behind the counter tells you that Scratch takes their hand-dipped/hand-spun milkshakes seriously, letting you choose from 11 flavors or even combining them at will.
But the sweet that gets top billing is their signature Peanut Butter Pie. A made-from-scratch recipe (naturally) handed down by a dear family friend, the PB pie is a two-layer treat, with peanut butter crumbles separating the custard base from the crust, and a Cool Whip stratum on top, finished with more crumbles. Best of all, a "slice" is actually a quarter-pie wedge. (Maybe downsizing that burger was the smart play after all.)
And if all that's not enough, Scratch serves full breakfast, too: eggs made to order, omelets, and country biscuit sandwiches stuffed with stuff like sweet ham, fried chicken, or egg and sausage.
Of particular interest to top-of-the-morning AHT'ers will be...wait for it...the Cheeseburger Biscuit ($2.69), a single patty with your cheese of choice nestled in a homemade biscuit. Nothing revolutionary, I suppose—except IT'S ACTUALLY COOKED IN THE AFOREMENTIONED BURGER SAUCE/NECTAR OF THE GODS. Oh, and it's served personally by the owner as early as 7 a.m. with a healthy side of first-name-basis chitchat and good-natured college football smack talk.
Yeah, try getting that at a celebrichef-driven bistro. Or from Five Guys.
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 for AHT, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and 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.