Top chef, top burger: Celebrated local chef Chris Ponte aces the burgers at Burger 21

4 stars

9664 W. Linebaugh Ave., Tampa,

813-475-5921 or

The best burger in Tampa Bay comes in at a little under $7. The bun is based on brioche, light and airy but sturdy enough to contain the fillings, barely. Those fillings — decadent and sweet red onion jam, garlic butter, french fries, lettuce and tomato — provide a serious punch of flavor, so much so that you might wonder if the beef patty is going to play second fiddle. Don’t worry — I did say this was the best burger in the Bay area, right?

The beef is the star of the show, in this steak frites burger and every other burger at Westchase’s new Burger 21. Loosely hand-packed, griddled to a crisp crust, the interior a glorious tangle of meat just this side of raw, each bite is a celebration of the American hamburger, a reminder of why we persist in craving this beefy treat even after being mocked by hundreds of bad bar burgers and fast food follies. This is the kind of burger that will make you close your eyes in barely contained pleasure and mutter, “Wow!”

It makes sense that Burger 21 could be this good. After all, local celebrity chef Chris Ponte — easily the most consistently excellent chef in the Bay area — is no slouch when it comes to executing tasty and precise food. He’s even had some practice making decent burgers back at his Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. And with the money for the nascent chain concept coming from the Melting Pot group, Burger 21 needed the help. It’s not like the Melting Pot is experienced in cooking food themselves, right?

Admittedly, it can be a crap shoot when a company brings in a celeb to be the face of something intended for the mass-market. Sometimes, the relationship is skin deep. In the case of Burger 21, you can taste Ponte’s influence in every bite.

All the beef burgers are cooked to ordered temperature, beautifully so when it comes to the rarer requests but anything medium or higher tends to settle into medium-well. Even cooked that much, however, the patties burst with moisture and flavor, from Burger 21’s most basic offering to the four-to-a-bunch sliders. Better beef and plenty of seasoning go a long way toward making a stellar burger, but even so it takes a little something extra to crank out burgers this tasty. That’s Ponte’s influence.

There are also two capable vegetarian patty options, and a surprisingly satisfying chicken burger built from roughly ground meat coated with a thin layer of panko breadcrumbs for a bit of crust and crunch. As with the beef burgers, Ponte’s hand is clear here, largely because of a profound amount of seasoning that flirts with excess without ever quite crossing the line. Other restaurants use toppings to distract from the blandness of the protein; here, Ponte seems to have calculated every interaction so that the meat remains the point of the whole thing. This is how you make a chicken burger that’s so good, even traditionalists would have to admit they’d order it again. Well, they’d order it again if the beef options weren’t so damn good.

If you don’t want a burger of any type, order a nice Hebrew National all-beef dog, or a salad topped by a slab of chicken or a beef patty. There are also milkshakes, floats, fruity freezes and, of course, french fries.

This is the one spot where Burger 21 stumbles a bit. The fries are fine, but nothing to get excited about, merely typical bar fries. Although adequate works elsewhere, the burgers here deserve — demand, even — something better than this. The restaurant’s sweet potato fries are tastier, thin and crisp and salty. Those also work better with Ponte’s many sauces.

Instead of the usual ketchup and mustard dispensers, Burger 21 features eight fancy fixin’s, from Thai ketchup to toasted marshmallow mayo. Don’t knock it, on the sweet potato fries it’s astounding, if your glycemic index is healthy enough to handle it.

Pry your eyes away from the plate and you’ll find that Burger 21’s decor is attractive, if a tad too self-consciously modern, and the management still needs some time to work out some service and procedural kinks. It’s still early days, however, and with future expansion the point of the operation it’s likely those rough edges will be smoothed soon enough. The question remains, however, if Ponte’s skills will translate into standard operating procedure when Burger 21 starts its expansion phase later this year.

For the time being, however, Ponte can be proud that his name is attached to the most thoughtful and best burger in the Bay area at Burger 21.