The Vortex Bar & Grill
438 Moreland Avenue, Atlanta GA 30307 (map); 404-688-1828; thevortexbarandgrill.com
Cooking Method: Chargrilled over an open flame
Short Order: Perennial (and deserved) choice for Best Burger in the city in a funky rock-n-roll biker-bar setting that's a true Atlanta landmark
Want Fries with That? Regular or sweet potato fries are killer, but the tater tots rule. (Ask about the "secret" sweet potato tots for $2 extra!)
Price: 21 burger varieties start at $6.95; Double Bypass Burger, $14.95
Remember the final scene of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy breathlessly re-counts her excellent adventure...only to have it come across as barely-coherent rambling? Even lovable Hunk (The Scarecrow) rolls his eyes like's she's a total nutjob. It's understandable, though: How do you begin to explain the sensory overload of the Emerald City, the Munchkins, the Yellow Brick Road, and flying goddamn monkeys to folks whose entire frame of reference is grainy black and white? Well, Dorothy, I feel ya. That's the spot I'm in, trying to adequately describe to the rest of the world my favorite place on earth and home of the best burger(s) I have ever eaten, the Vortex Bar & Grill.
The place has made every best-of burger list in Atlanta (and topped most, it seems) since they first opened in 1992. A second location set in the funky Little 5 Points district came in '96 and featured a 20-foot-tall skull as the front door. On the surface, it may seem a manufactured tourist trap—a Disneyfied exaggeration of Biker Bar with Attitude. But pay no attention that man behind the curtain: The Vortex always feels totally authentic. The wait staff with their body art and piercings on constant display never feels like a cast of costumed characters, and the random bric-a-brac nailed to the walls and ceiling never smacks of that right-from-a-box decor schtick of a TGI Chilibee's.
The current menu offers 21 different burgers; over the course of 17 years in the city, I've tried most of them. And while the intrepid reporter in me knows I should order up a plain burger with cheddar to give you a proper baseline reading, here's the thing. The Vortex is all about extreme attitude and wild excess. So I went right for my all-time favorite, the Double Bypass.
I know, I know. Topping a half-pound sirloin patty with six slices of American cheese, eight strips of bacon, two fried eggs, and then serving it between a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches is obscenely overindulgent and almost passé in this Man v. Food era. Regular AHT-ers may see this burg as a cousin of the Fatty Melt, a 2008 Adam Kuban re-creation of the Chubby Melt, a Virginia burg that AHT first heard of in September of that year. But before you dismiss the Double Bypass as a ripoff, I can report unequivocally that this went on the Vortex menu in late 2007. When the Double Bypass arrives, it actually doesn't look too intimidating...
...until you assemble it and suddenly realize that the human jaw wasn't designed to open that wide. A cross-section look reveals every ingredient in full Technicolor glory, like one of those earth-science-class slides of geological rock layers.
I asked for medium and got something just past that, but I've never had a dry burger at the Vortex, and this was no exception. The taste is a true explosion of flavors and textures, every element having its moment in the sun as it all mingles together in your mouth. Juicy chargrilled burger, a thick blanket of melty American cheese, salty bacon with its welcome crunch, a light pop from the fried eggs, lettuce and red onion to satisfy my veggie quota for the week, a slathering of mayo to zero that out...and of course, those heavenly grilled cheese sandwiches.
With a burger like this, a side item is almost pointless. What stands up to that? Well, the fries at the Vortex are outstanding, but crunchy-yet-fluffy tater tots are the starchy weapon of choice for most regulars. Crinkle-cut sweet potato fries are a superb change of pace, too. But my server Tara let it slip that there's a secret tot variety not listed on the menu, one she called "magical." "Magical" is a word that isn't tossed around lightly, especially at a place where the bathroom stalls are made of steel diamond plate. "Magical..." Well, that implies a horse of a different color.
Sweet. Potato. Tots. Served with honey for dipping. Large appetizer-size only. And yes, I can vouch for "magical" as an entirely apropos adjective. (Interested in making sweet potato tots at home? Check out Kenji's Food Lab post on homemade tater tots.)
If you're looking for a good burger in the ATL, take your pick from our city's embarrassment of riches. But to legions of carnivores, the Vortex Bar & Grill remains, very simply, the best of the best. And for me, even after 2+ years of being a "professional" cheeseburger reviewer, the Double Bypass is everything I will ever want a burger to be.
So... "What have you learned, Dorothy?"
"Well... I think that... if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard."
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.
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