SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Here’s the challenge put forth to local restaurants every spring: Come up with a unique handheld to feature during Port City Taste Burger Week.
Twenty-two eateries answered the call this year, from Topsail to Wrightsville beaches, downtown to Pleasure Island, to highlight 32 burgers on special for one week only.
READ MORE: All Port City Taste Burger Week menus (or scroll to bottom)
Burger Week is part of Port City Taste restaurant weeks, as hosted by Port City Daily, in collaboration with sister companies, The Penguin 98.3 and The Dude 93.7. Restaurant weeks highlight local eateries and encourage generating more dollars in the economy.
According to the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, for every $100 spent at a local business or restaurant, $68 stays in the community, as compared to $43 retained by a national chain’s footprint.
Burger Week takes place May 15 through 21, with prices ranging from $6 to $64. The highest price comes from True Blue Butcher and Barrel’s Big A** Burger. It contains 30 ounces of beef, a half pound of cheese, three tomatoes, a head of lettuce, onion, special sauce and spicy-garlic pickles; it takes 30 minutes to prepare.
Fear not: this isn’t a burger challenge — well, unless diners really want it to be. Rather, this massive handheld is to be shared with up to six people.
“When designing The Big A** Burger, I imagined a group of friends sitting in awe of this huge burger in front of them,” chef Bobby Zimmerman told PCD. “The goal was never to have one person eat it. Butcher & Barrel’s menu items are designed to be shareable, so why wouldn’t we create a burger for Port City Burger Week that had the same idea?!”
At least one restaurant has redefined the burger into a high-end delicacy this week. New to Burger Week this year is The Beach Shop and Grill in Topsail, which opened in the 1950s as Warren’s Soda Shop, but evolved throughout the years into a farm- and ocean-to-table restaurant. Led by executive chef Jordan Keen, thoughtful, creative cuisine is served for lunch, dinner and weekend brunches, paired with craft cocktails and an award-winning wine program.
Menus change frequently and The Beach Shop has already put a creative twist on one burger with its PB&J version. However, for burger week, it’s giving surf-and-turf new meaning with its $42 handheld option.
Two American wagyu smash pattes are topped with lobster, Cooper sharp American-fontina fondue, crispy leeks, yuzu kosho (fresh chiles) mayo, tomato jam, house togarashi (Japanese spice mixture), served on homemade Old Bay milk bread roll.
Yet, diners should fear not for their wallets; most burgers this week average $15 and come served with a side.
Nearby in neighboring Surf City is Coastal Wings and Spirits Co., a family-friendly and community staple in the area, open four years. Coastal is also new to the Burger Week lineup.
“While ‘wing’ is in our name, we are very passionate about our burgers as well,” owner Eva Dobrowski said. “They are a customer favorite.”
Coastal has four burgers on special, priced $13 to $16. The classic will appeal to traditionalists (tomato, onion, lettuce, cheese), while those who prefer more island flair may migrate to the Big Kahuna (Swiss, ham, bacon, grilled pineapple and teriyaki). Pickle lovers will fawn over a fried-pickle version that amps up the sour and heat, thanks to it being covered in pepper Jack cheese.
“We use fresh ingredients and add a little Southern flair,” Dobrowski said.
Wilmington’s quintessential Southern burger joint, Winnie’s Tavern, is also leaning into its regional roots. Its Trailer Park burger, normally $18, will be only $12.95 this week.
Founded in the Sunset Park area 60 years ago, Winnie’s is a family-run establishment, female-owned by Wendy Fincher-Hughes, granddaughter of the original Winnie. The restaurant has undergone renovations recently — a far cry from when Winnie purchased the Riverfront Mobile Home Park in 1962, where the Winnie’s Tavern building was. It became the neighborhood bar and grill, according to Fincher-Hughes, and still is today.
Though the mobile homes are no longer there, the Trailer Park burger lives in its stead — a half-pounder, topped with Cajun fried-green tomatoes, housemade jalapeno pimento cheese, applewood smoked bacon, raw onion, bread-and-butter pickles, chipotle mayo and served with a side.
Burger offerings this week move beyond beef-based; Platypus and Gnome is serving up a camel burger, while Flying Machine in Wrightsville Beach has a crab cake sandwich on special, as well as its namesake smash burger smothered in homemade beer cheese, from FM’s brews, and brown-sugar bacon on a cornbread bun.
The Harp, also new to Burger Week 2023, is combining both a crab cake and bison from its farm in Wallace, into one handheld. It’s also topped with a sunny-side-up egg and Irish cheddar ($21.95).
For vegetarians, vegans or diners looking to go with something more healthy, Panacea Brewing — a 100% plant-based restaurant — has two options to sate burger cravings.
Both encompass a “Home and Away” theme. The Deep South Burger ($12) is a plant-and-grain patty topped with BBQ, fried onion straws and doused with sweet-heat BBQ sauce.
“The Fusion Burger is made to take you on a trip across the ocean to explore the delicious flavors of the far East,” owner Robin Hill wrote to Port City Daily.
It’s topped with ginger and scallion cream cheese, as well as Kimchi and Yum Yum drizzle.
“Who doesn’t love a good burger?” Hill asked rhetorically adding the restaurant’s goal is to showcase comfort recipes that appeal to everyone.
The restaurant started in 2016 as a brewing company first, with homemade kombucha sold from the Hill’s VW bus before they moved into a small taproom. Panacea grew into today’s full-scale restaurant and brewery — now also making hard kombucha — in January 2020.
“Oftentimes people bring their expectations and preconceived notions with them to Panacea,” Hill said. “Our favorite thing to do is blow those right out of the water. We’re happy to serve the entire community plant-based goodness, no matter what label they choose to put on their diet or lifestyle.”
While vegetarian and vegan lifestyles have gained steam in the last few years, Hill said she finds most Wilmington diners are “flexitarians.” With heavy focus on fruits, vegetables and grains, it doesn’t mean they avoid animal products altogether, but eat it instead in moderation.
“Our burgers are our best sellers on our regular menu, so we wanted to invite the community in to try some fun new burger options with a Panacea twist,” Hill wrote.
Participants don’t need coupons, special passwords, or tickets to get the best from Burger Week. Just head to one of the listed businesses, ask for the special restaurant week menu and indulge. Here are the participants, broken down by region:
Surf City / Topsail Beach
Coastal Wing & Spirits Co. | Big Kahuna, $16 -or- Fried Pickle Burger, $13 -or- Western Burger, $13 -or- Classic Burger, $13
The Beach Shop | Wagyu Lobster Smash Burger, $42
North Topsail Beach
Splash by The Sea | Under the Sea Burger, $17
Bluewater | Coastal Shrimp Burger, $16
Flying Machine WB | The Flying Machine, $15 -or- Crab Cake Sandwich, $20
Oceanic | Beachside Burger, $16
Poe’s Tavern | Hummus-Sundried Tomato, $19 -or- Cubano, $20 -or- Patty Melt, $18
Solstice Kitchen + Cocktails | Two specials, $17
True Blue Butcher and Table | Butcher and Table 2.0, $19
Butchers Market | Specials and prices vary
Panacea | Deep South Burger, $18 -or- Fusion Burger, $18
Whiskey Trail Midtown | Lancelot Burger, $15
Fork N Cork | Apple Bacon Brie Burger, $17
Front Street Brewery | Mixed Berry Brie Burger, $13
Hell’s Kitchen | Devil Made Me Do It Burger, $9 -or- Classic HK Burger, $6
Platypus & Gnome | The Sistine Camel, $22
Prost | Smashburger, $9.99
The Cargo District
Beat Street | Boombox Burger, $17
Mess Hall | Bruschetta Burger, $14
South Front District
The Harp | Bison Burger, $21
True Blue Butcher and Barrel | Big A** Burger, $64 (can be shared by up to six people)
Winnie’s Tavern | Trailer Park Burger, $12
Whiskey Trail at the Creek | Lancelot Burger, $15
Fork N Cork | Apple Bacon Brie Burger, $17
Sign up for PCD’s email headlines here to stay up to speed on restaurant weeks and all local news in the greater Wilmington area.