My wife and kids have a new favorite joke. It's pretty simple, really. They wait until I'm eating, and then they photograph me, jaw unhinged and gaping like some deathly creature. I've been self-conscious about how I look while eating ever since they started, and rarely more so then when trying to eat a 2x2 at Balls Out Burger.
A paean to beef and bun, Balls Out Burger offers an audacious sort of austerity. The menu is only a few lines deep, with nary a novelty burger in sight. Single or double; cheese or not; a modest handful of vegetable toppings. Condiments on the side, if you must. It’s a model that holds much appeal for a burger purist such as myself. A self-assured swagger that wants you free to wallow in ooze and drippage.
The patties are clearly hand-formed, irregular and uneven. My doubles came domed ?and slightly lumpy, perched atop one another like some remote western monument. ?Burger grease and pasteurized processed glory flowed like magma down the side. The bun took a nice turn on the griddle, crusting up noticeably, offering a firm foundation for the burger.
A firm foundation is necessary for a burger such as this. ?Compression is necessary. This is a tall burger. ?Unfortunately, the slightly puffy patties resulted in a slightly uneven cook, with one patty tending toward a rosy mid-rare, but only at the center, the other a resolute medium. The mid-rare patty oozed nicely, dripping commingling beef juice and cheese when compressed for a bite. It sent all the right signals.
?Despite those signals, I found the patties to be formed a little too compactly, offering slightly springy meat, a bit dense. The beef was well seasoned, nicely salty with just a bit of black pepper bite. I wanted a more aggressive crust on the griddled beef, with all of its attendant browned and savory flavors.
?A swipe of mayo added a bit more fat (the burger ended up feeling dry overall, despite the ooze), and a bit of mustard added contrast. In order for this burger to stand unadorned, it needed a looser grind and a better sear.
?As is, I actually enjoyed the single Patty better, and appreciated it fully dressed (lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion, plus jalapeno for a small charge). Which seems contrary to the messaging of the place. Balls out burgers don’t seem like they should benefit from modesty, nor should they need the fresh, contrasting adornment of vegetables. They should be burgers, unapologetic and in your face.
This burger just doesn't have enough oomph on its own to be simply on its own, and the contrasting flavors and textures of the produce obscure a few of those shortcomings, gaining a harmonious quality absent in the more aggressively austere version. Especially nice were the fresh jalapeño wheels, crunching green and snappy with fresh spice. That's how I'd go here in the future, I think.
In addition to the trim burger menu, Balls Out offers a trio of fry options, a couple of shakes and an off-menu vegetarian burger. There are winners and runners up among these.
The veggie burger is bean-based and promises chipotle. It reads more cumin, with a decided Southwestern profile. Corn, and whole beans stud the patty, which gets a decent sear but suffers from mushy texture. It’s not bad on its own, but suffers as a sandwich, with all of the flavors and textures becoming a homogenous and slightly pasty mash.
The hand cut fries have the greatest potential of the three potato options, suffering primarily from paleness. They offer expansive potato flavor and nice texture, crisp without and fluffy within. I’d bet a buck or two that they’re twice-fried. If that second turn turned them just a shade darker, they’d be downright stellar.
The shoestring variety fare mostly the same, though their faults are more glaring for the format. Shoestring potatoes should be all crisp and essence, and these never quite seem to muster enough of the former.
While I don’t generally appreciate sweet potato fries, those offered at Balls Out Burger aren’t half bad. They come s?uper crispy on the outside, and well-browned. They’re oddly hollow-seeming inside. Slightly odd, but oddly appealing.
Balls Out sits on a strange, triangular spit of land. The cramped, awkward dining room offers mostly bar-height tables, a couple of two-tops tucked into an alcove. The patio is different.
Crushed gravel and picnic tables comprise most of Balls Out’s lot. A large awning provides shade, cornhole and giant Jenga setups provide entertainment. With the onset of patio weather, Balls Out may take on a different appeal.
The patio is both dog and kid friendly – fenced on the Durham side to keep in the kids, water stations and bowls set up to keep the dogs hydrated. One of our visits coincided with a recent cold-snap, and also with an influx of families and fur-families, burgers emerging at a slow but steady pace as the two groups intermingled.
?"We're not usually busy on Wednesdays, and weren't prepared for the nice weather. We're gonna start scheduling differently,” a staffer apologized, bringing our long-awaited shakes.
My wife saw the chocolate shake under construction, noting the long squeeze from a bottle of Hershey’s. It was thick and creamy, and not at all the one-note-wonder we’d expected based on those visuals.?The Hershey's worked well, and the shake brought a lot of vanilla flavor along for the ride. There was nothing fancy about it, but that was just right.
In addition to the shakes, Balls Out offers a St. Arnold-exclusive beer selection. A cool evening patio, a burger and a can of Oktoberfest makes for a compelling dinner, even if the burgers don’t really impress.
I applaud Balls Out Burger’s intentions. We need places that take good beef (Balls Out uses 44 Farms), blankets it in industrial cheese, and asks you to feel good about the messy joy of a sandwich that combo can be. In truth, few things can hit the kind of guttural pleasure buttons such a burger is capable of pressing. Balls Out wants to press those buttons, but ultimately, it just doesn’t.
Overall, Balls Out Burgers look, feel and tastes an awful lot like the burgers I make at home, with decent quality mass-market beef seared in carbon steel and blanketed with American cheese. If anything, my burgers win out on account of better crust. Balls Out offers a reasonably tasty burger, but it just doesn't have the big, assertive beef taste that seems implied in its name.
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A harder sear and a more gently cooked middle would help. Even when we ordered medium rare, our burgers came resolutely medium. None of them had any crust of which to speak. Looking back on that first burger – the one my kid undoubtedly photographed me eating, jaw unhinged so as to encompass its awesome looking heft – I can’t help but feel let down. It looked awesome. It looked as obnoxiously confident as its moniker. It wasn’t. And that’s a shame.
Balls Out Burger
1603 N. Durham, 832-844-3359, ballsoutburger.com Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Double Cheeseburger $11
Shoestring Fries $3
Handcut Fries $4
Sweet Potato Fries $4
Veggie Cheeseburger $8
St. Arnold beers $5