I visited Square One Burgers for the first time just a week after it opened, a quick stop to down a medium-rare Angus patty for the CL Tournament of Burgers. The place had already hit a chord with the South Tampa work force — it was packed and loud. I was so far down the burger-tasting road, though, that I couldn't do justice to a restaurant with thousands of patty and topping combinations.
Now, a few weeks after the end of that ground-beef orgy, my stomach and taste buds have settled down, ready to re-enter the fray. Just in case the smorgasbord of burger options at Square One sends me into burger tournament flashbacks, I decide to bring the entire CL editorial staff to give me the layman's perspective on this hubbub-generating burgery.
Good thing, too, otherwise I might have missed the cardinal rule of dining at Square One: Don't overload your burger. Not a problem for me. I tend toward the minimal when it comes to adding toppings to any sort of food, preferring to let the foundation of the dish speak for itself. But some of my colleagues are seduced by the 52 options available, giddily piling on goat-cheese spread and green chili salsa, fried onions and peppercorn ranch, until the final product more resembles a surrealist chef's salad than a burger. The result of this gustatory excess, more often than not, is an unwieldy, chaotic mess.
Especially since Square One's burger foundations are so good by themselves. You'll want to skip the heavily seasoned, uniformly gray tuna burger ($9.50) — finely ground and cooked through until the pallid patty hardly tastes like the sashimi fish it started as. The crab cake ($9.50) is a bit bland, no matter how few toppings you choose, and we didn't even bother with the vegan ($7.50). (Vegan? At a burger joint?)
But chicken ($7.99) — whole breast, not ground — is exceptionally moist and assertively seasoned. Ground turkey ($7.50) has the same seasoning, cooked right and packed loosely enough to avoid the hockey-puck characteristics that affect so many gobbler patties. Beef gets the same treatment, from hearty Angus ($7.99) to silky-soft buffalo ($10.50), cooked to the right temperature every time. Kobe is great, but the difference between the Japanese king of beef and good old American ground round is so subtle it's hard to justify the extra $6.
Buns could use an upgrade, especially for the people who heartily embrace the topping craze. The bottom half is almost immediately overwhelmed by the juicy meat, leaving little but soggy run-off to contain the burger package.
At least Square One puts all the sauces on the side, which helps a bit if you choose to dip instead of spread. Although not inspired by any means, those sauces uniformly taste just as you'd expect, adding enough flavor to our burgers to justify the extra blast of fat.
Each burger comes with your choice of a dozen cheeses, another dozen sauces and up to four selections from the topping list. And, when used in moderation, those 14 or so standard add-ons are worth a look-see, from fresh sliced veggies to pickled jalapenos, sautéed peppers, salsas and cole slaw. For an extra buck you can pile on high-end options, like sugary applewood smoked bacon, Square One's sweetly-spiced chili sauce or, my favorite, a simple fried egg.
Cole slaw comes with every burger, but that blah cabbage shred doesn't pack nearly enough punch to tempt anyone away from the slew of deep-fried goodies available á la carte. Fries are tasty by themselves ($3.99), especially with house ketchup spiked by chipotle chilies and cumin, but why not douse them with shredded cheese and chili for an extra $2?
Sweet potato fries ($4.99) are more sweet than savory, with a dusting of cinnamon and confectioners' sugar. Onion rings ($4.50) are thin and coated in a delicate, flaky batter, as are excellent fried dill pickle slices ($3.99).
Square One's atmosphere manages to be upscale but not fussy, with swooping fabric panels separating dining areas and spacious modern booths, some large enough to seat eight-10 people. There's a short but sweet wine and beer list crowded with affordable but smartly chosen bottles. A few big TVs glow at one end of the dining room and above the bar — for loners, maybe, or people who can't live without the latest scores or stock ticker.
And on this late-lunch visit, the noise level is noticeably lower, if still a bit loud, which might be from the addition of sound-absorbing carpeting under the tables and fabric panels on the ceiling. Or it just might be because the joint is much less crowded.
The restaurant was opened by Bella's owners, South Tampa fixtures Bill Shumate and Joanie Corneil, partly as an homage to Shumate's early days as a food entrepreneur. His first restaurant was a college burger joint near the University of Oklahoma. Square One is, for him, back to square one, natch.
Trading on the restaurant's updated but decidedly old-fashioned vibe, there are also a variety of shakes and malts ($4.50), just thick enough to hold a spoon upright but loose enough to slurp through a straw with little strain. Six different cupcakes are available in regular ($2.75) and mini ($1.50) versions, along with simple sundaes made of Blue Bell ice cream with the typical sauces and crushed pecans ($1.50-$4).
For many people, the mind-boggling number of burger-building choices available will be the draw that gets people through Square One's front doors. That's fine. Experiment. Play with your food. After the novelty wears off, I'm willing to bet you'll still be coming back for Square One's capable take on burger, fry and dessert fundamentals.
Visit Brian's blog at eatmyflorida.com.