Knoxville's sizzling-hot burger market owes quite a bit to a core group of Knoxvillians who created the classics—and those who daily carry on the mouth-watering quality traditions. Here, some originators and a couple of torchbearers discuss secrets of their success.
Litton's Market and Restaurant,
Barry Litton, owner
Most local burger standouts planned their burger ascension with great precision and dedication.
Barry Litton, it would be fair to say, had burger greatness thrust upon him.
It was 1981, and Litton, military service behind him and a butcher by trade, was trying to make a go of Litton's Meat Market, selling some 6,000 deli sandwiches a week at his Inskip store, ringing up "maybe $1,200 in sandwich sales by the end of a week," he recalls. "I was just trying to survive—I had to run to the bank twice a day to cover checks I'd written as I sold something. Those were my days of lean times, lean ground beef."
Then a guy walked in one day wanting Litton to fix him a hamburger. "I grabbed some ground chuck, two strips of bacon, and cooked it on a three-legged electric skillet. I served it on an oblong hoagie bun, because that's what I had, and ran to White Store—they were still open then—to get lettuce, tomato, and onion."
The guy liked it, and brought his dad and brother back the next day. From there, the Litton burger took off, and has become a local and sometimes even national craving, along with the pimento cheese, sautéed onions, and jalapeño-topped Thunder Road burger that takes its name from the old moonshine trail (and movie) that Litton points out ran right by the Broadway location of his and sister Kelly's bustling restaurant and bakery.
Litton may have even introduced the bacon burger to Knoxville, though it was purely unintentional (and Captain brothers Vic and Bill may have beat him to the punch.) "I don't ever remember having a bacon burger," he says, "I threw the strips of bacon in there just to get some grease."
The lean times behind him, Litton took a few minutes from his still-constant presence at the restaurant (son Erik is already part of the management team and will one day assume the reins) to muse on burgers, then and now:
The approach: We now use choice Western top round for the hamburgers, and they're charbroiled, on an Emberglow. Our grind allows the meat to stay as moist as possible, but you want to order them a good medium to medium well—as long as it's got some juice. We moved away from the hoagie buns, to round buns, and that's all Lynda Jones, who's stuck with us through thick and thin—been here 32 years and does all the bread. It's just a really good, fresh-made bun.
My burger background: I got interested in burgers probably because of the butcher down at the store our family owned, and going to Regas Restaurant and being intrigued with their quality and volume and success. Both my grandmothers were good cooks, and we watched that. Every Saturday, my one grandmother would cook us a hamburger in a skillet, ground chuck with Cheez Whiz over the top—and a slice of white onion, and Lay's potato chips. Every Saturday, and we'd drink a 12-ounce Coca-Cola. My sister and I both remember that, and we still try to have dinner together on Saturdays.
When I eat a burger at our place: I like burgers. I had one this past Saturday night. Just a hamburger and I had four pickle spears. I ate it with American cheese—I don't have Cheez Whiz any more. I drank a glass of water and some decaf coffee with it, but the weekend before I had a Coca-Cola.
Paul Melton, general manager of the Bearden Hill Calhoun's
The approach: The thing that is interesting is we grind our meat fresh every day, with trimmings from steak and also larger cuts of meat we grind at our commissary and take to Calhoun's and all the other Copper Cellar Group restaurants. Our burger is not necessarily reinventing the wheel—the quality of it is just what it's all about. We use a classic dill chip, and don't try to get too fancy with it. It's a classic pickle on a classic burger, and we also offer a child's-size burger that's the same quality, only smaller. You really can't get much more simple than our burger, but there is a lot of opportunity to have a higher-quality product than most of the others out there.
On top and on the side: We toast our sesame-seed buns, and serve the burger with classic French fries—more of a shoestring, fried to order. We don't have a big basket of old cooked fries waiting around. And a lot of customers like to order our spinach Maria as their side.
When I eat a burger at our place: I like the hickory burger, with the smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, and our own Calhoun's barbecue sauce.
My burger background: I grew up in West Tennessee, in Camden, and my family had a beef farm. We had our own beef, and my dad cooked burgers on the grill. And we ate them year 'round, with mustard and catsup—and I can remember my mother putting Velveeta on them. Now our executive kitchen manager, Carl Stitcel, makes the burgers. At our special $5 burger nights, he cooks every single burger, that's how important it is.
Downtown Grill & Brewery
Mark Harrison, General Managing Partner
Origins: All our burgers are 100-percent Angus and we grill them over mesquite—we grill everything over mesquite here. Though it's definitely a challenge to grill with mesquite, because you're going to get different hot spots on the grill than just straight grilling—it burns hotter and we think the added flavor is worth the trouble. I brought the idea when we opened the restaurant 10 years ago; I learned its value working restaurants in Houston, where they like their mesquite. One of our biggest sellers is the Sante Fe Burger, barbecue sauce and diced jalapeños and onions, served with a side of our homemade fresh guacamole, which is another thing I learned about in Texas.
On top and on the side: We get all our bread from a local bakery—we try to buy local whenever we can. We butter the buns and put them on a flat-top grill to get a little toasted. As for the side, that would be fries, naturally, and ours are steak-cut with the skins on. And people eat them with catsup—we go through 150-200 bottles a week here.
When I eat a burger at our place: I just like the classic, with lettuce, tomato, and onion, no cheese because I don't want to mask the flavors. I do add some mustard—hot and brown, just like I like my coffee. And I personally like our fresh fruit side with my burger.
My burger background: Growing up in Indianapolis, we cooked out some, but mostly we ate fast-food horrible burgers. McDonald's, a place called Burger Chef—that's the kind of gross stuff I grew up with. I figured out what really good burgers were by working in the restaurant industry.
Vic & Bill's Deli
Angelia Captain, daughter of original co-owner Bill Captain and current owner Sherry Captain
My burger background: Back when Vic & Bill's was on campus, I worked there starting when I was 7 years old. I wasn't allowed to touch the grill until I was about 10; before that I got drinks and wrapped sandwiches, and even when I started cooking on the grill it was only to make a burger for myself. I do grill out at home but mostly it's in the restaurant setting—when I get home I don't feel like cooking more burgers!
Origins: The Vol Burger originated at the original Sam and Andy's, where my dad, Bill Captain, called it the Vol Burger because of the Big Orange American cheese. A Vol Burger comes with cheese—go Vols!—and the jumbo burger is the same but without cheese. But of course, we'll take the order any way we can get it, and we like to argue if you order the wrong one or think the Jumbo Burger should be bigger, but that's just part of the personality of the place. We also have a Secret Burger, but you have to be an old-time customer to know. We'll happily make it for you, but you have to know we had it before, because it's not on the menu. We'll also fix the One-Eyed Jack, which always makes me think of pirates. It has an over-easy egg and hot-pepper jack cheese and bacon, because you can't do eggs without bacon. We will make a burger with anything on it that we have, and you really can get it exactly the way you want it.
The Vol Burger approach: We still use Tiger Seasoning like Vic & Bill's always has, and garlic, pepper, salt, oregano, and white pepper. It comes with a pickle—we get whole dill pickles and cut them ourselves, because they stay a lot crisper that way. The meat's not frozen; we hand-pat the meat at the time you order it. There aren't a bunch of pre-ordered patties drying up in our refrigerator, and there is no "pink goo" in our burgers. They're hormone-free beef, with no antibiotics; it sounds crazy, but I'm really into my health so this is important to us. We're not sure what Victor did about hormone-free beef when he owned the restaurant at this Broadway location before our family took it back over two years ago, but he always ordered high-quality Angus beef, and so do we, because our burgers are really good.
When I eat a burger at our place: I eat a Vol Burger. I eat the pizza burger, too—it rocks the pizza sauce and has mozzarella on both sides of the bun. I like to add mushrooms. I tell people it's messy but it's really good. I cook my burger as rare as I can get it, because I'm part vampire—it has to moo. For health regulations, when customers order, we have to cook it through, but when I'm my own personal cook I make it the way I want it. I've eaten one of everything on our menu probably 150 times. And I have the steak fries—big, thick fries. Or another thing I absolutely love is our potato salad, with big chunks of potato. It's good, old-fashioned Southern potato salad, because of the mustard content. It's not Greek, or it would have to have olives. It's my mom's Southern style; she is a redneck from Blount County. If you actually look, her neck is red. I'm half Greek, half redneck, the last of three daughters. One lives in Cali and one in North Carolina, and they have never worked at Vic N' Bills, although they love to come in and eat the food!
Aubrey's and the Sunspot
Randy Burleson, owner
Origins: It was one of those situations where we were searching to make our burgers better. We'd always had a burger on the menu, but we really went after it. One day Mr. Gus Regas was in the restaurant, and he said, "Most everybody uses 80/20 ground beef, and I think you could improve upon that a little bit." So we use prime burger, from the top cutting, and a good Wisconsin cheddar, but I think the real secret is the prime burger.
On the top and on the side: We went all through town looking for the best bun, and found Knoxville's Quality Bakers. They're good people—a wholesale bakery—and they make our burger buns every day of the week, fresh in the mornings, and we've got a van and deliver them to ourselves. For sides, we've got nice fries of course, but you can also get sautéed mushrooms or put them on the burger.
When I eat a burger at our place: I'm eating the classic prime burger and trying to stay away from the red onion. I get the mushrooms—I'm not as much of a French fry guy as I'm getting older.
My burger background: My mother made the best burgers in town, with great seasonings and 2 inches thick. I still think she makes the best burger in town, but I can't put her to work that often!