Recently, I ate "sliders," which are small, square-shaped hamburgers (think Krystal and White Castle), at two of Downtown Memphis' well-known bars, Bar None and Bardog Tavern. Both bars cater to the Downtown social scene by offering fine cuisine that would appeal to the discerning diner. One of the feature items for both bars is the ground beef slider, a menu item that the two establishments take slightly different approaches in preparing.
Bar None, owned by the renowned chef John Bragg who also owns Circa (which used to occupy the space that Bar None is currently located), takes the gourmet route in making its slider. The mini burger comes with Morbier cheese, bacon, horseradish mayonnaise and leaves of spinach on the side. At $4.00 a slider, the burger is as expensive as full-size (as in approximately five inches in width) cheeseburgers that are sold at fast food places like McDonald's and Burger King. With this being a "gourmet" burger, I expected a lot from it, especially after feasting in the past on excellent burgers from places such as Automatic Slim's and South of Beale (SOB). However, the sliders I had from Bar None did not have that gourmet taste and were no different from the average burger. That said, the burger was somewhat saltier than I would have liked and it lacked the "juiciness" of grease that I'm accustomed to (this is a personal preference; some people I know have an aversion to grease). In fact, the sliders I had felt "dry" to me, meaning I had to consume a good amount of beer in order to eat them. In all, the three sliders and French fries that I had, which cost $17 before taxes, was mediocre. I would be okay with that if the meal cost ten dollars or less, but I expected more from a place that calls itself a "Chefs Pub."
In contrast, Bardog Tavern takes an "old school" approach to making its version of the beef slider, which includes white American cheese, ketchup and horseradish mayonnaise on the side. The sliders cost $2.79 each and three can be purchased in a combo with fries for $7.99 before taxes, a huge difference from the price for the same meal at Bar None. With such a big difference in price, one would expect the quality of sliders between the two places to vary greatly, with Bardog being inferior. However, Bardog's sliders are well cooked (possibly by the owner Aldo Demartino, who was in the kitchen when I placed my latest order of them), for the beef has a nice grilled flavor with a sufficient amount of greasy "juiciness" that I like. With the mayo and ketchup being in cups on the side, dipping the burgers and fries was a real treat that I enjoyed immensely, even without copious amounts of beer. On a side note, I have always griped about the buns breaking apart whenever I ate Bardog's sliders in the past, but the sliders that I last had weren't afflicted with that problem, and Aldo mentioned that the buns the bar uses now are of a higher quality. The bun's quality showed when I ate them, and they even held together when I dipped them in mayo and ketchup. Overall, even though Bardog's sliders are more mainstream than gourmet, they are of high quality that can hold its own with the best burger joints (and upscale restaurants) in town.
In summary, after comparing the two sliders from Bar None and Bardog Tavern, I came to the conclusion that for both taste and value, Bardog's slider is clearly better. Of course, this only my opinion that some might disagree with, but Bardog's slider was clearly a joy to eat while Bar None's was more of a chore to consume. If Bar None's sliders had more of a unique "gourmet" flavor, I would be slightly less critical of it, but because the slider doesn't taste any different than most burgers sold in Memphis and elsewhere, I can not recommend it to anyone looking for a great tasting burger, especially at four dollars a slider. Therefore, in the battle of the Downtown Memphis sliders, the winner is clearly Bardog Tavern, for they offer great tasting sliders (and other foods) without breaking the bank.
By the way, both Bar None and Bardog Tavern are great places to dine and socialize, and both owners are cool guys. From the standpoint of my personal taste, I'm more of a "bar guy" than a lounger, so I'll probably lean more towards Bardog when I'm out and about Downtown, but Bar None is swankier, more upscale which is nice when I'm in that kind of mood. So, depending on personal taste, either place is an excellent choice to dine at, with both having particular strengths that make them unique.
UPDATE (May 2, 2011): After my initial post, I went out and had another of Bar None's ground beef sliders, and it was a lot better than the sliders I had previously. This slider came fresh off the grill for it was sizzling hot, unlike the last sliders I had that I waited about twenty minutes for that was lukewarm. The meat wasn't overseasoned (salty) and its flavor balanced nicely with the horseradish mayo. Also, because of the freshness, the juices (grease) was evident as I chewed the burger. Overall, this slider was much better than the others I ate and was about as good as the first one I had, grilled by John Bragg himself. Now, I'm still slightly partial to Bardog's slider for the reasons I mentioned earlier. However, Bar None's ground beef slider has won me over, for I enjoyed it and look forward to ordering it again. I just hope that when I do, the quality of it is the same as the last one, and not the former.
NOTE: Since writing this, Bar None has closed. Even though I will miss it, I'm enthusiastic about what the bar will become. The new owners (both bartenders at The Silly Goose, featured in Part 2 of the "slider battle") will turn the bar into a speakeasy called The Blind Bear (featured in Part 5 of the slider series). From what I heard so far, the menu will feature items like barbecue bologna and grilled cheese sandwiches. As far as sliders are concerned, I'm not sure if they'll be offered. However, with one of The Silly Goose's staff becoming the kitchen manager, who knows. I wish the new bar the best of luck in their endeavors.
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The Battle of the Downtown Memphis "Sliders," Part 2
The Battle of the Downtown Memphis "Sliders," Part 2