Smashed, crispy-edged patties, American cheese, homemade secret sauce, and all the fixings are topped on an onion bun to make the best burgers ever. Inspired by The Little Nugget Casino’s Awful Awful in Reno, Nevada, this step-by-step recipe will teach you how to make the perfect diner-style burger!
For decades now, the drunky spot of choice in Reno has been Awful Awful Burger in the Little Nugget, a small hole-in-the-wall with the best burgers in town. For the record, Awful Awful Burger is probably a go-to for many, inebriated or not. But for me and my friends in college (and, um, post-grad), we did not see the shiny laminate red counters of Awful Awful until well after midnight but long before we ventured to our favorite bagel shop for hot coffee and a hangover everything-with-extra-cream-cheese.
Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances, this popular Reno go-to recently closed, and our beloved drunk snack of choice is no more. This may be nbd for the majority of you, but for Reno locals, this is pretty devastating news. Awful Awfuls are a source of pride in Reno. They’re juicy, perfectly seasoned thanks to a decades-old grill, and well equipped to soak up the countless vodka-sodas-extra-lime you imbibed on throughout the night.
So, to pay tribute to a local favorite, let me introduce you to the best burgers ever, The Awful Awful: SSL edition! As much as I love the Awful Awful, I truly believe my version might be the best burger I’ve ever had. We can’t stop talking about how good they are even like, a week later. 😬
The history of the awful awful
To get into the full spirit of The Awful Awful, first you must know where it came from! I won’t get too into the details, but the history is kind of cool and gives you an idea of why we all love this Reno staple so much.
The Awful Awful is a 60-something year old Northern Nevadan tradition that technically was invented in an Idaho casino way back in the 50s. When gaming became illegal in Idaho, owner, Dick Graves, came to Reno and opened The Little Nugget, bringing the burger recipe with him. From there, The Nugget went through a couple of different owners, finally finishing with Rick Heaney, who ultimately updated the recipe just a bit to make Awful Awfuls the best burgers ever.
The burger is named for being “awful big and awful good” which honestly is pretty accurate. The Little Nugget closed down back in July, and the line to get one last Awful Awful was literally blocks-long. Needless to say, I didn’t get to have one. But, I think the version I created is pretty spot-on.
Let’s talk ingredients
The original Awful Awful is made up of, and I quote, “a full half-pound of ground chuck steak hamburger grilled to order, and served on a special onion bun with all of the trimmings and a full pound of our special Nugget fries”. Something they do not mention is the secret sauce, which is an essential part of this burger. Although I couldn’t find a recipe for the sauce, I did learn that they add Tabasco, which I noted. With this info and a little internet sleuthing, I really think I outdid myself with this one. Here’s what you’ll need to pick up to make the best burgers ever:
- Vegetable oil: Or any oil that has a high smoking point. You’re going to be cooking these burgers at a high heat, and you do not want to have burnt oil!
- Ground chuck steak: 20% fat will yield the juiciest, most diner-like result. If you can’t find chuck steak, any 20% fat ground burger meat will work!
- Salt and pepper: This is the only seasoning we’re going to use on the burgers. I like coarse-ground for both!
- American cheese: Now is not the time to get fancy with the cheese, trust. If you want that diner-style, greasy-spoon type of burger, you’ll need to go American on this one.
- Onion buns: If it’s good enough for The Nugget, it’s good enough for us! Look for squishy, potato-style onion buns.
- Butter: For getting buttery, toasty buns.
- Lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles: “All the trimmings”. Of course, you can serve the burgers with whatever toppings you like!
And, for the sauce:
- Mayo: I truly prefer regular Best Foods (Hellman’s) here. Not #spon, just like!
- Ketchup: Ketchup is a staple in “secret sauces”.
- Pickle brine: Adds a little tang!
- Tabasco: For spice and because The Nugget tells us to.
- Onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper: The perfect combo of secret sauce spices.
Let’s make ’em!
First, we’re going to start off by making the sauce which is pretty much the easiest thing to do ever. Just place all of the ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate until you’re ready to use the sauce!
To prepare the burgers, heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until it’s screaming hot (about 2-3 minutes) and then brush with oil. Divide the meat into four half-pound balls (don’t pack or press into patties).
Working in batches, place 1 or 2 of the meat balls into the skillet and smash them flat with the bottom of a spatula, until they’re about 1/2” thick. You want those rough edges, because they’ll crisp up and get soooo delicious. Season liberally with salt and pepper, and cook for about 3 minutes.
Flip the burgers, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 4 more minutes (for medium well).
During the last 30 seconds of cooking, place the cheese slices on top of the burgers and let melt. While the burgers are cooking, butter the buns and toast under the broiler or in a dry skillet until lightly browned.
To assemble the burgers, spread about 1/2 Tablespoon or more of secret sauce on each bun (bottom and top). Then, place the burgers on the bottom bun, top with lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickles, finishing with the top bun. Enjoy with 1 pound of fries, obviously.
When it comes to steaks, I’m a medium-rare lady, but for burgers, I’m all about the medium-well. Something about ground meat just makes me want things a little more well-done. However, cook the burgers to your personal preference! After cooking the burgers on one side for 3 minutes, flip and cook to your preference using this guide:
- Rare (120-125°F) – 1 additional minute
- Medium-rare (130-135°F) – 2 additional minutes
- Medium (140-145°F) – 3 additional minutes
- Medium-well (150-155°F) – 4 additional minutes
- Well (160+°F) – 5 additional minutes
The cook-times on these burgers may seem long, but because we’re using a half-pound of meat per burger, getting them perfectly-done will take just a little longer. Cook times also depend on heat, thickness, etc. So when in doubt, just use your cooking thermometer!
the importance of a cast iron skillet
The secret to making the best burgers ever is to use a seasoned cast iron skillet. This is going to give us that decades-old-seasoned-griddle taste that makes diner burgers so damn good. You’re going to want to get it very hot because the heat is going to create those crispy-crackly edges that smash burgers are known for.
If you do not have a cast iron skillet, you can always use a griddle or other heavy skillet. It won’t give you that “seasoned” taste, but the burgers will still taste delicious!
Burger balls are essential
The reason we form the meat into loose balls is because we want to create those craggy edges. Like meatballs, we don’t want to firmly press the meat together, or we’ll end up with a tough burger. Instead, forming loose balls and pressing down onto the meat will create the crispy edges while keeping the burger tender and juicy.
In hindsight, let me apologize for using the words “loose”, “balls”, and “juicy” all in one paragraph. Yikes.
Other tips & tricks
- A half pound of meat + one pound of fries is a lot for one person to handle. If you want to go with smaller burgers, 1/4 pound and 1/3 pound will both work. Just cut down cook times by 1-2 minutes per side.
- Handle the beef as little as possible. The more you mess with it and press it, the tougher the burgers will be.
- Use a metal spatula if possible. Plastic spatulas make it difficult to thinly press down the patties.
- Keep the meat cold up until you’re ready to cook. When cooked, the solidified fat will melt, making little flavor pockets in the burgers.
- Opt for high-quality meat! The better quality the meat is, the better the flavor. Additionally, we aren’t using much in terms of seasoning here, so we want the flavor of the beef to come through!
More delicious beef recipes!
Pot Roast with Red Wine & Shallots
Beef Larb with Pickled Vegetable Slaw
Reverse Seared Chuck Steak + Brandy Peppercorn Sauce
Beef Stroganoff with Shallots & Brandy
Beef Sliders with White Cheddar, Bacon, & Peach-Bourbon BBQ Sauce
The Best Burgers Ever (A.k.A. The Awful Awful)
The Best Burgers Ever (a.k.a. The Awful Awful)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1 tbsp pickle brine
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp Tabasco + more to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
Awful Awful Burgers
- Vegetable oil
- 2 lb ground chuck steak (20% fat) divided into 4 loose chunks
- Kosher salt & pepper
- 4 slices American cheese
- 4 onion buns
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter softened
- Green leaf or iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles for serving
- To make the secret sauce, simply whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as desired. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Awful Awful Burgers
- Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until screaming hot, about 2-3 minutes. Brush the skillet with vegetable oil.
- Working in batches, place 1-2 loose balls of the beef into the hot skillet. Use a spatula to smash each ball of beef into a 1/2” thick patty. (Don’t worry too much about getting a perfectly round patty – we want those craggy edges to crisp up!) Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook undisturbed for 3 minutes, until the outer edges are brown and crisp.
- Flip the burger and season with more salt and pepper. Cook for 4 more minutes for medium-well. During the last 30 seconds of cooking, place the cheese slices on top of the patties until melty.
- While the burgers are cooking, butter each side of the bun with about 1/2 Tablespoon of the softened butter. Toast under the broiler or in a dry skillet until lightly browned. Set aside.
- To assemble, spread 1/2 Tablespoon or more of the secret sauce on each bun. Place each burger patty on a bottom bun and top with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles, finishing with the top of each bun. Serve with fries and enjoy!
xo Sara Lynn
*Song of the day: Marcel by Her’s