Chattanooga, TN: All Aboard for Loaded Burgers at Urban Stack
Urban Stack Burger Lounge
12 West 13th Street, Chattanooga TN 37402 (map); 423-475-5350; urbanstack.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: Historic building houses downtown's best burgers with some crazy toppings
Want Fries with That? Yes, but all the sides rock
Price: 20 burgers ranging from $6.99 to $11.99
My kids' spring break took us to Chattanooga, where we did the requisite out-of-towner things: we hiked 1,100 feet below the surface of the earth to see Ruby Falls, the world's highest underground waterfall. Then we rode to the top of Lookout Mountain on a train that travels up the slope at over a 75-degree incline. We got our fill of sharks, penguins, and jellyfish at the Tennessee Aquarium. We even slept in a refurbished Victorian train car at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.
But the biggest surprise of the trip—and the one I kind of hope my daughters will write about for their what-I-did-over-Spring-Break assignment—were the stellar burgers at a funky little downtown restaurant called Urban Stack Burger Lounge. For all the must-see hotspots in this touristy town, this was the only destination we hit twice during our stay.
Urban Stack is owned by Mike and Taylor Monen, a husband-and-wife team with a string of Chattanooga eateries to their names. After launching a successful taco joint in 2008, they dreamed of opening a burger restaurant. One of the city's most historic buildings—Southern Railway's old passenger baggage building—became available in 2010, and Urban Stack was born.
While the structure is the oldest freestanding building in Chattanooga, with the ancient brick and natural character kept intact, the Monens went all modern and green with the build-out, attaining LEED certification for this building that dates back to 1871.
The theme of the restaurant's interior is Old Trainyard. (Hell, the theme of the entire city is Old Trainyard. Seriously. It's everywhere.) As for the menu, it's all about "Killer Burgers and Manly Drinks." Bourbon fanatics in particular will love Urban Stack's selection, with over 100 to choose from and some really interesting twists to all their cocktails, like the gargantuan slice of candied ginger in my wife's Maker's & Ginger.
The burgers show just as much creativity, with twenty models to pick from, and the option of turning any of them into chicken or American Wagyu. Urban Stack's standard beef is an 80/20 blend of Certified Angus, which comes to them already ground five days a week. The burgers here are just six ounces, a size that Mike Monen told me is the "perfect amount" for the way they top the patties...which is to say, heavily. The goal at Urban Stack, he went on, is to let the topping profiles shine on burgers that aren't difficult to eat and don't leave you feeling miserably full afterward.
The Big Cheese ($6.99) is as basic as it gets at Urban Stack, with chipotle ketchup, balsamic onions, Bibb lettuce, tomato, house sauce, and one of four cheeses. I opted for housemade pimento, which was creamy and gooey with just the right kick. I noticed a lovely seared crust from the flat top that cooked every burger I saw over two visits very evenly.
The staff doesn't monkey around with different donenesses beyond "pink" and "not pink." That's for consistency's sake, according to Monen. With over 3,000 burgers leaving the kitchen every week, not having to worry about my idea of "medium-rare" versus the next table's idea of "medium-rare" means the cooks can just keep knocking them out and letting the toppings do the talking.
The Bacon Cheeseburger ($7.99) may sound a little uninspired next to some of the menu's zanier offerings, but is a great example of Urban Stack's devotion to local ingredients. Bacon may make everything better, but Allan Benton's bacon—from just 80 miles up the road—makes everything it touches like a gift from the gods. Thick, smoky, salty, and cooked beautifully, those strips of pork belly made this quite possibly the best bacon cheeseburger I have ever tasted.
My wife can always be counted on to go a little upscale, and she stayed true to form on both of our visits. The Mushroom Melt ($7.99) features oven-dried tomatoes, a marsala reduction sauce, and sautéed mushrooms that were chopped fine into a paste (almost like duxelles à la Beef Wellington) and mounded underneath a blanket of melting provolone. It was superb, as was her lunch burger the next day.
The Strauss Burger ($9.99) is a turkey burger with lettuce, tomato, bacon, avocado, a fried egg, and blue cheese spread. I generally don't have great things to say about turkey burgers, but perhaps only because not all turkey burgers are like this. Granted, the bacon, egg, and blue may well zero out any of the health benefits of ordering turkey, but if you have a beef with beef, this is a damn tasty way to go.
Monen tells me that the most popular burger on the menu is the breakfast-on-the-farm-flavored Good Day, Sunshine (fried egg, white cheddar, white vinegar mayo), but the Urban Stack menu also lays down track and travels to some faraway places for inspiration. You'll find burgers here that pay tribute to Chicago (peppercorn bologna, celery-salted tomato, cherry pepper relish), New Mexico (roasted green chiles), Philadelphia (sautéed peppers, onions, and mushrooms), and New York (pastrami, coleslaw, Swiss). But the burger so near and dear as to be the second one listed is a shout-out to the Monens' taqueria across town.
The Hamburguesa Mamacita ($7.99) has a lot going on: pickled red onion and chipotle aioli under the patty, crumbled chorizo and Fiesta cheese on top, and then a pile on the bun that includes lettuce, tomato, avocado, and pickled jalapeños. There was a pleasant residual heat, but this burger never became a flamethrower. And while I was skeptical of the six-ounce patties when I sat down, this is the burger that convinced me that eight would be too much at Urban Stack.
The buns deserve special mention—they're super soft with a strong yeast flavor and wonderful chew. I learned that they were developed specially for Urban Stack by local bakery Niedlov's Breadworks, and are without question one of the true highlights of any burger at Urban Stack.
As for sides, which are all available à la carte, the basics are banging. The standard fries are cut in house, double fried dark, and wonderful. Sweet potato fries are always a hit. The panko-breaded onion rings are exceptional and will delight even diners who are lukewarm on rings (like yours truly).
Other side options include steakhouse-style mac and cheese, Gouda creamed corn, "almost-pickled" beets, and tomato-and-blueberry salad. Always nice to see a burger joint go above and beyond with sides. In fact, a side of Urban Stack's housemade "Fire & Ice" pickles come with every burger; they were described by my better half (and pickle connoisseur) as "weirdly addictive."
The crew at Urban Stack doesn't do a lot, per se. Burgers, some apps and bar snacks, a handful of sides, gelato shakes, way-kooky cocktails. But what they do, they do extraordinarily well. I enjoyed every burger I sampled over two family seatings, and while some places try too hard with the toppings, Urban Stack's lean-and-mean simply-topped burgers didn't make nearly the same impression that the more OMG-esque offerings did. Sometimes a basic baseline burger is best; at Urban Stack, however, you should definitely go big or go home. Or better yet...go big and then go home.
The Brock minivan rolls through Chattanooga at least twice a year en route to visit family up north. And while we won't make a habit of Seeing Rock City or trekking up Lookout Mountain every time, I can assure you that a burger stop at Urban Stack just became a fixture of our Tennessee travels.
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 The Gaslight Anthem. Or both.