Zombie Burger and Drink Lab, Des Moines, Iowa
I’m not really sure why zombies are so popular in this day and age. I’m not really sure anyone is, but there’s no doubt that the mystery of the undead is quite the phenomenon. Maybe it’s just as simple as people really enjoying a good scare, and there are few things that bring one up like a creature who was previously here, died and now only has a single purpose of feasting on the brains of the living. There are even articles that try to analyze it, and nobody’s come to anything resembling a consensus.
The one thing that is for sure is that zombies are very popular, and it only makes sense for someone to try to cash in on that theme with a restaurant based around it. It doesn’t exactly make sense for that someone to be based in Iowa’s state capital, but then again, Des Moines is also home to Asian-inspired pizza, so it makes about as much sense. Given how some of their restaurants are going with their choices, Des Moines might want to steal Louisville’s slogan of “Keep (City) Weird”.
But what makes Zombie Burger worth the trip isn’t the decor or the theme. They aren’t minuses by any means, but the reality is that Zombie Burger isn’t a one-trick gimmick restaurant that’s all flash and no substance. No, what makes this place special is the same thing that makes any special restaurant worth visiting: they know what they’re doing when it comes to food. After all, that’s kind of the entire point of a restaurant.
As you probably gathered from the name, Zombie Burger’s meal of choice is the humble hamburger, which becomes anything but humble once Zombie Burger’s creative chefs get their hands on it. Really, it seems that every burger on the menu has been designed with two things in mind: what are the most interesting ingredients we can use and still have a good burger, and how do we make those flavors meld together to create that perfect taste?
OK, there’s a third thing in mind: what kind of undead themed name can we come up with for this burger? Every burger has some kind of name that brings to mind a zombie invasion, with the menu including options such as the T-Virus (portabella mushrooms and Swiss), Planet Terror (bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and ranch), Raygun (bacon and guacamole with fried jalapenos, Jack and chipotle mayonnaise) and the Dawn of the Dead (bacon, egg, cheese and red onion).
That sampling doesn’t even begin to get into the ridiculousness of the Zombie Burger lineup, as on some burgers, Zombie Burger will even do strange things with the bun. Ever wanted to try a burger made on a breaded mushroom for a bun? The East Village of the Damned does exactly that. How about two grilled cheese sandwiches? It’s called They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara. You can even do deep-fried macaroni and cheese, as my friend and former colleague Doug Green did on a trip here in 2012, going with the Walking Ched. All of these choices are printed on what appears to be a newsletter, but the stories are all about zombie-related things. Don’t worry, the menus are on the other side.
Basically, it’s not quite The Counter in terms of burger freedom, but you’ve got a lot of room to go crazy here. I didn’t want to go too crazy and go Cutthroat Kitchen on this burger, but I did want something creative. With that in mind, I opted for the Dead Moines, which combines ham, prosciutto, smoked Gouda and truffle mayonnaise, figuring that the combination of salty pork, creamy Gouda and mushroom-inspired mayonnaise would be a winner for sure.
Yeah, it absolutely is. I’ve got to start with the beef here, which really is as good as it gets. Zombie Burger’s beef is simply amazing. It’s juicy, it’s well-cooked, it’s flavorful, it’s the perfect size, it’s everything that you want a burger to be. There’s a reason Zagat named it Iowa’s best burger, and it’s not because Iowa is the foodie black hole (that’s eastern Iowa, not central). It’s because everything on the burgers is outstanding, and the beef is where it all begins. The heartland is one of the best places to get beef, which makes these burgers fresh and of very high quality as a result. You can get one, two or three beef patties, with different prices charged accordingly. I recommend two, which comes at a good price and is a satisfying amount for most people.
But if you don’t have toppings, you don’t have a quality burger, and that’s where the Dead Moines really continues to shine. The main thing is the Gouda, which melts perfectly on the burger and provides a stark contrast that melds with the ham and the prosciutto, creating a smooth and flavorful bite from first moment to last. The mayonnaise provides extra creaminess, and being infused with truffle oil only multiplies the flavor. Then there’s the ham and prosciutto, which counteract the cheese and condiments with flavor and texture, while somehow not being an overwhelming meat bomb.
What about Amy, though, who doesn’t eat beef at all and despises beef in all forms except that of The Drover’s steak? Not to worry, as Zombie Burger allows you to swap out the beef patty for chicken, a vegetarian patty or a portabella mushroom as your protein if you want. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or just plain don’t like beef, Zombie Burger has you covered. And if you hate sandwiches, Zombie Burger still has you covered, offering deep-fried hot dogs as well. Basically, if you want it, they probably have it.
With that being the case, Amy opted for the Trailer Trash Zombie with a chicken breast, which features cheese curds, ranch, fried pickle, American cheese and chicken-fried bacon. Before this, I’d heard of chicken-fried steak, but never chicken-fried bacon. Then again, considering this is a city that came up with bacon-wrapped tater tots, it actually makes sense, and it’s really good. The ranch works well with the chicken and the bacon, and the cheese adds an excellent touch to the existing flavors. This was an excellent sandwich, and truthfully, even though I love beef, I’d probably get this one with chicken too, because it really works.
As far as sides, be warned that Zombie Burgers do not come with fries automatically. You’re going to have to order them separately, which makes this a great opportunity to get a creative basket to share with a friend. In addition to the standard fries, Zombie Burger offers chili cheese fries, garlic bacon and blue cheese fries and even honours our friends to the north (see what I did there?) with poutine, which is fries with cheese curds and gravy. We opted for the loaded fry basket, which tops the standard fries with cheddar, cheese sauce, sour cream, bacon and green onions. It was absolutely outstanding, as the flavors worked just like they would on a good baked potato. Just like the burgers, this is high-quality.
But as good as the burgers and fries are, they’re not even the best thing on the menu here. No, that would be the Drink Lab portion of Zombie Burger, which features an impressive roster of milkshakes. Creativity in the names isn’t pronounced here, with the exception of the Zombie Joe (coffee syrup) and the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake (yellow cake in milkshake form), but what is pronounced is the commitment to quality of ingredients and the taste. I had the since-discontinued apple maple cinnamon shake on my first visit a couple years ago and found it incredible, like a really good apple pie. With it no longer available, it was time for plan B, so I opted for the coconut cream pie shake, hoping for the best.
What I got was beyond my expectations. The main thing that sets this shake apart is the whipped cream. Zombie Burger actually goes the extra mile here and uses fresh, real whipped cream. The taste is so much better than the kind of whipped cream you get already made. It’s smooth, creamy and the perfect addition to the vanilla and coconut flavors taking place in the glass. The coconut is pronounced throughout, and the texture gives off the impression of pie crust, even though this is a straight milkshake rather than a pie shake. This honestly tastes like a really awesome coconut cream pie. It’s absolutely incredible.
Amy opted for a cereal milkshake, going with the Fruity Pebbles. Yes, it’s exactly like it sounds, a milkshake with Fruity Pebbles mixed in throughout. I’m not a fan of the cereal at all, but the shake is actually really good. It looks pretty psychedelic with all those colors, but it really works. If you’re the kind who likes something extra in your milkshakes and you’re over 21, Zombie Burger has you covered there too. For an additional $3, any milkshake on Zombie Burger’s menu can be made into an alcoholic shake.
I don’t know about the popularity of zombies themselves, but the popularity of Zombie Burger is a pretty easy explanation. The theme might be weird and the names are creative, but that alone is not enough to keep people coming. What makes Zombie Burger so beloved is simple: there isn’t a bad thing on the menu. When creativity meets quality, you’ve got a certain recipe for success…undead or alive.
Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Zombie Burger is open until midnight on Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Wait during my visit: Extensive. This used to be a small restaurant that had some downtime occasionally. Those days are gone. We waited 45 minutes to get a table, while the take-out portion was just as busy. Like Blue’s Egg, Zombie Burger uses a text messaging system to let you know when your table is ready.
Location: Zombie Burger is at 300 East Grand Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa.
Cost: Expect to pay a good amount, because although the burgers are reasonable, you need to get a milkshake here. Most burgers are between six and 10 dollars, while shakes go for five apiece with no alcohol. Trust me, worth every cent. Plan on about $15 a person.
Parking: Hope and pray. While Des Moines has garages, none of them are over here. You’re dealing with street parking, and that’s no guarantee at all. The good news is on Saturday and Sunday, street parking is free in Des Moines.
Seating arrangement: It’s a typical setting of tables, chairs and a bar. We were seated at the bar and had no issues with our stools.
Website: Zombie Burger and Drink Lab
Specialty items: Burgers and milkshakes