Cheap Eats: Googie Burger

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside the enigma that is downtown

Five things you probably didn't know (or possibly already forgot) about Googie Burger:

1) This is an actual place. In Atlanta. That makes a darn good burger. Sometimes.

2) It recently nabbed first place at the Atlanta "Battle of the Burgers" — winning both the judges and the popular vote.

3) It is in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park, with only a few nearby parking spots strictly for picking up to-go orders.

4) It is owned by Levy Restaurants, the same group that runs Chicago's critically acclaimed Italian fine-dining destination Spiaggia.

5) It is owned by Levy Restaurants, the same group that runs concessions at Philips Arena, the Georgia World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome, and similar massive venues all over the country.

Yes, Googie Burger. It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a visitor-centric corner of the enigma that is downtown Atlanta. There's no parking lot. No valet. The nearest MARTA stop is half a mile away. There are plenty of office workers nearby during the work week, but one regular I talked to offered up his assessment: "I love their burgers, but I have no idea how they've stayed open — hardly anyone, not even my co-workers, seems to know they're here."

It is a mystery, isn't it? That a burger joint with a kooky name and a background in fine dining and convention concessions is sitting in the middle of a park in one of the most automobile-driven cities in the country. It's maybe even more of a mystery that the food can (sometimes) be as good as it is, nestled in the Tourististan that is the golden triangle of the Georgia Aquarium, the CNN Studio Tour, and the World of Coca-Cola. But Googie Burger is here. And, while consistency is an issue, Googie Burger often makes food far above what you'd expect from what is essentially the official Centennial Olympic Park concession stand.

So what makes Googie Burger good? To start with, just about everything is made fresh; there isn't even a freezer in the place. You can see buttermilk being poured over pickles that will later be coated, fried to order, and turned into thick, long ovals of tangy crunch. Googie also uses local vendors and local flavor on occasion — Georgia peaches show up in shakes in the summer, Vidalia onions appear in specials, Coca-Cola gets put to use in special marinades and sauces. Head chef Frank Abbinanti says, "We have plenty of tourist and convention traffic, and we want to give them something unique to Georgia."

The signature classic Googie burger is not so unique, though. In fact, it's not dissimilar in style to the exalted In-N-Out burger from the West Coast. And that's a very good thing. Ground chuck, short rib, and brisket make their way into relatively thin patties, cooked and pressed on a flat top to a decent char on the outside, no longer pink but still plenty juicy on the inside. There's gooey American cheese, the requisite "special sauce," and crisp lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle. It all gets smushed between a pillowy, butter-toasted potato bun, then wrapped up in paper — a pretty present ready to be ripped apart, delivering classic, messy burger joy and contentment.

Two times I had the Googie burger and was ready to declare it almost as good as an In-N-Out burger (which I adore as one of the great American burger experiences), but my third visit produced a burger that took the Maillard reaction (geek-speak for "browning") to an extreme, resulting in thin, overcooked patties with a crust approaching the texture of candy brittle. No fast-food joint is infallible, but this was a letdown given the very good burgers I had on previous visits.

The rest of the menu mostly follows a familiar fast-food path — more burgers (including veggie and turkey options), chicken sandwiches, a hot dog, fries, onion rings, shakes, and ice cream. The fried pickles are a nice Southern touch, and the availability of beer (SweetWater!), wine (um, mini bottles of Sutter Home!), and spiked shakes (umm, "Twinkie" with vanilla vodka and crème de banana?!) likely keeps conventioneers happy and tourists with screaming kids happily medicated. I love the presence of local beer on the menu, but I'll pass on the Twinkie shake and Sutter Home.

One item that does give a nice nod to the South and actually betters the burger is the Flyin' South Sandwich. Sure, it's basically a gussied up Chick-fil-A sandwich (minus the politics), but the fried chicken breast, which actually looks like real fried chicken, makes a statement with its seasoning, extra crunchy skin, and extra juicy interior. Hot sauce plays off ranch dressing and a mild blue cheese slaw, surrounding the chicken with both cool crispness and just a touch of burn. The lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle combo from the burger also shows up here, but it's that lovingly fried chicken (marinated in buttermilk and hot sauce before frying) that may have visitors flying back south for another.

For the kinda-wannabe healthy, Googie's veggie burger brings together black beans, brown rice, and organic oats, which then gets topped off as the Googie burger does, but with barbecue sauce and Monterey Jack. If you're looking for rice and beans on a bun, go for it. My wife loved it, but I couldn't get over the fact that it was basically, well, rice and beans on a bun.

Googie Burger seems content to live with its location, to be a convenient stop for tourists, conventioneers, and those downtown workers who have discovered the joys of eating a burger outside in a beautiful park in the middle of a work day. The result is that Googie Burger is likely to remain a mystery for most Atlantans, especially those hesitant to get out of their car to walk for more than a block or two. Chef Abbinanti admitted, "It's tough to get people to drive down just for Googie Burger." If only Atlanta were to embrace Centennial Olympic Park, and embrace the opportunity to enjoy a good burger or chicken sandwich or shake in the midst of the mystery that is downtown Atlanta.

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