Zombie Burger + Drink Lab
300 E. Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309 (map); 515-244-9292, zombieburgerdm.com
Cooking Method: Griddle smashed
Short Order: Great beef anchors a menu of innovative burgers—but don't overlook the classics.
Want Fries with That? Fries are old school, fried Brussels sprouts are new school.
Price: Zombie Burger, $4.99 single/$6.99 double/$8.99 triple; The Walking Ched, $7.79 single/$9.79 double/$11.79 triple; milkshake, $5 non-alcoholic/$8 alcoholic; fries, $1.99 side/$3.79 basket; fried Brussels sprouts, $5.49; fried pickles, $4.99
Welcome to Dead Moines. May we offer you a political caucus? A fried treat on a stick at the Iowa State Fair? How about...braaaaaaaains? No, Iowa hasn't lost it in the middle of another winter snowstorm, but, in an effort to diversify the state, it now counts zombies among its residents—burger-eating zombies.
Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, on the ground floor of one of downtown Des Moines' new mixed-use buildings, offers two different experiences with the same menu: a quick, counter-service side and a sit-down service side, which also holds the Drink Lab. Floor to ceiling windows provide a view of the city—or let you be on the lookout for a zombie invasion, charging down the street from the Iowa State Capitol building a block away.
A sign just inside the door reminds us to "Eat Burgers, Not Brains," and that's exactly the thing to do. The centerpiece of the menu is "Gore-met Bashed Burgers" in more than 20 variations, from the Flamethrower (Buffalo sauce, blue cheese, onion rings, ranch) to the Undead Elvis (peanut butter, fried bananas, bacon, American cheese, egg, mayo) and They're Coming to Get You Barbara (grilled-cheese-sandwich buns, American cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, zombie sauce). Burgers come with beef, but if that's not your thing, you can swap in chicken breast, grilled Portobello mushroom, or two different kinds of vegetarian patties.
You know the kind of burgers that make your red blood cells do a happy dance? That's the kind of burger I'm talking about here. Unless you're meat-averse, beef is the way to go. Patties are 1/4-pound, and you can include one, two, or three. They're "bashed" on the griddle—cooked smash style, which makes them too thin to specify temperature but produces a burger with lots of crisp edges. The burgers are made from the restaurant's own blend of sirloin, prime rib, and chuck. Well-seasoned and juicy, the patty is a standout.
The Zombie Burger ($4.99 single) is outfitted with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and Thousand Island-esque zombie sauce. This classic combination is well executed, making a burger that's more than the sum of its parts. Toppings are applied with restraint, letting that delicious beef show off, and the zombie sauce ties everything together. The bun is lightly toasted, pleasantly squishy, and had the eggy richness of good challah.
If a zombie was going to take down victims with macaroni and cheese, The Walking Ched (single, $7.79) is exactly how it would happen. Industrial-strength breading coats two mac-and-cheese croquettes, which serve as buns. The burger is decked out with more macaroni and cheese, a slice of cheddar, smoky bacon, onions caramelized and raw, and a dab of mayo binding the patty to the mac-bun. It's no surprise to report that the dominant flavors are cheese, bacon, and—you guessed it—more cheese. I was impressed by the engineering of this burger and the creamy school-lunch style of the macaroni, but I didn't love it as much as I loved the Zombie Burger—in part because the burger was overwhelmed by all the other action. Intrepid eaters would benefit from ordering this as a double or triple for better meat-to-mac balance.
The Drink Lab has an extensive beer program, plus Brain Freezes: more than a dozen milkshakes, spiked upon request, made with everything from cake to cereal to Kool Aid to Nutella. My s'mores shake ($5), with chocolate ice cream, marshmallow cream, and graham crackers didn't quite elicit my Girl Scout campfire days, but I was into the crunch of the grahams.
Fries ($1.99) are thin, golden and uniformly crisp, and a worthy sidekick to the burgers. But as much as I love fries, I would forego them in a second for the fried Brussels sprouts ($5.49) and fried pickles ($4.99). Halved sprouts are tossed in the fryer, where they develop toasty outsides, tender insides, and become the perfect mash-up of vegetables and junk food. The ante is upped with homemade sriracha mayo and garlic dipping sauces. (You will want to dip everything else on the table in these sauces.) Fried pickles are a textbook model of this Midwestern treat, and Zombie's pickles are cut in long slices, breaded, and served with ranch.
Zombie Burger + Drink Lab has been packing in the hungry hordes in Des Moines since fall 2011, and there's often a wait for burgers late into the night, but it's worth it. Here in Iowa, they're coming to get you: Caucuses. State Fairs. Snowstorms. Add zombies with great burgers to that list.
About the author: Jennifer Kikoler is a writer and editor who spent fall 2012 volunteering at a youth outreach NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; now she's posting dispatches from the mighty Midwest. She blogs at jenniferkikoler.wordpress.com.