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Quest for the Holy Grail 

Inside one man's bid to perfect the all-American cheeseburger.

click to enlarge APPROACHING PERFECTION: The Excaliburger.
  • APPROACHING PERFECTION: The Excaliburger.

In a restaurant culture preoccupied with the novel and the exotic, Kyle Pounders' vision for his Little Rock food truck, Excaliburger, might be considered a little radical: Make one single classic item, done right, time and time again.

"The real story is not what's in the burger, but that it's a concept entirely based in simplicity," Pounders told the Arkansas Times recently. After lots of experimentation and false starts trying to get Excaliburger off the ground, he said, "I saw myself losing my passion on the altar of making everybody else happy, and doing what I was told was necessary to be relevant." So, instead of chasing the latest trends, he decided to make "one burger, and it's going to be my favorite hamburger in the entire world. I went line by line through the entire burger. The bun. The beef. I went back to my pantry and made what I would make if I was going to have some friends or a girl over, and I really wanted to impress them. ... And as it turns out, everybody loved it."

Originally, he said, "I had every intention of adding to it every crazy whatever — this is the PB&J burger, this is the asparagus and gummi bear burger." By the time he opened the truck in 2015, though, he had embraced a different path. "I wanted to pull away from that and try something simple, and it's going so well I'm not going to change anything."

OK, it's no longer 100 percent accurate that Pounders makes just one menu item. His truck now also serves the "Excalibird" — a grilled chicken breast sandwich — and a vegetarian-friendly "Excalibella," made with a portabella mushroom. You can also add bacon or make it a double. Otherwise, an Excaliburger is an Excaliburger, and Pounders is sticking to what works: high-quality ingredients, a tried-and-true recipe and a consistently executed sense of presentation.

"We're not really doing anything that different," he said. "Just a lot of love and a lot of attention to detail."

Being a food truck, Excaliburger's location and hours of operation vary from week to week. The best way to track it down is to follow Pounders on Twitter (@theExcaliburger), Facebook (@Excaliburger) or Instagram (@Excaliburger_).

The Bun: It took Pounders quite a while to track down the ideal vehicle for his ideal burger. "I went back and forth with Old Mill [Bread] for months, and I'm sure I was driving them crazy," Pounders said. Finally, the bakery suggested he try challah, a traditional Jewish bread heavy in eggs. "I said, 'This is perfect!' It's kind of sweet, it plays really well off a smoky burger and it toasts really well." All his sandwiches are now served on challah buns, which he picks up twice a week from Old Mill and toasts to a well-appointed crisp. "They're not burnt, but they're almost burnt," he said.

The Meat: After much experimentation with different patty sizes, fat content, cooking methods and more, Pounders settled on two 2-ounce patties per burger. "It's quicker to cook two small patties, and you get lots of flavor from all the points of contact on the griddle," he explained. The beef is grass-fed Black Angus sourced from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kan., which is known for a facility designed by animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin to minimize the stress experienced by livestock before slaughter. "It's normal for us to eat beef from a cow that had highly elevated levels of adrenaline and fear hormones in the last hours of its life," Pounders said, making for lower-quality meat. (He credits veteran Little Rock restaurateurs Donnie Ferneau and Scott McGehee for turning him on to Creekstone.)

The Cheese: Two slices of melted American, for that classic burger joint experience. "Every Excaliburger comes standard with cheese," Pounders said, declaring his opposition to the false hamburger/cheeseburger dichotomy. "This is America. Why would you start off with assuming that people don't want cheese?"

The Veggies: Green leaf lettuce, dill pickles and tomatoes (sourced locally whenever feasible — though sometimes they're not, Pounders acknowledged). For the gluten-averse, he'll serve a burger on a lettuce-leaf bun.

Grilled Onions. These are also standard issue. "That's just the way I like it," Pounders asserted, with a note of defiance.

The Sauce: He's not telling, of course. But Pounders said his standard sauce — in keeping with the premise of simplicity — is fairly straightforward: "It's not like I went to Mordor and got some secret spice made of ogres' teeth or something." You won't find mayo, mustard, ketchup or more exotic condiments at Excaliburger, but Pounders does make one concession to individual tastes. "We have Sriracha if you want it. We don't advertise that; we just have 14 bottles of it sitting in plain view," he said.


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