Jules Winnfield perhaps said it best, “I do love the taste of a good burger.”
Simply put, nothing beats it: the juice running down your forearm, the cheese trickling down your chin, the bun melting in your mouth. It doesn’t take a big-brained Brad to figure that a good burger — whether it’s a gourmet grass-fed quarter pounder or a messy smashed double patty — will set you straight, fuel your tank, and fill your belly. You can get a burger pretty much anywhere in America (dare we say it’s more American than a hot dog), from gas stations to Michelin star eateries. And yet, restaurateurs and foodies continue to open burger-centric restaurants, presenting the world with their version of Jules’ Big Kahuna.
In Charleston, the burger scarfing possibilities are so vast, they don’t even register on the metric system: On any given Tuesday you could head to Moe’s for half-price burgers and bottles of beer, swing by Zero Restaurant + Bar for Kraft fondue and shaved truffles on Vincent Petrillo’s $18 Royale with Cheese, and then end the night by crushing a few Bon Appetit award winning Tavern Burgers for dessert. Or you could embrace the adventurous spirit of Jules and Vince and seek out a tasty burger by following the hot grills of food trucks and pop-ups around town. You might even find a Sprite to sip along the way.
With the hashtag #thisISatastyburger Jonny Poppers Burger Buggy fully embraces the iconic Pulp Fiction burger trope — owners Leisa and Larry Fulton even dressed as Vincent and Mia for Halloween last week. “We quit our jobs in April and moved to Charleston three days later,” says Leisa. “Our first day on the truck was May 1st.”
The Fultons say they’ve talked about opening a small restaurant since they met; after spending more than two decades in the corporate world, the couple, who celebrates Thanksgiving with family on Folly every year, decided it was time to pursue that pipe dream, and figured between the food scene and the food truck scene, Charleston would be a good fit. “We quickly realized our love for good gourmet burgers. Every city we would go to we would Google ‘best burger’ and really fell in love with all the variations,” says Leisa.
Jonny Poppers Burger Buggy, which celebrated its six month anniversary in October, pops up with gourmet burgers from Park Circle to Summerville and every neighborhood in between. “You’d be surprised how many neighborhoods do food truck rodeos,” says Larry.
The foundation of the Popper burger is probably not what one would conjure up when hearing the word “food truck.” “We start with a black Angus chuck and short rib — it’s more of a steak burger than a smashed burger,” says Larry. The burger is over 1/3 of a pound when they start, and the Fultons say that cook that sucker to juicy before topping it with a variety of sauces, cheeses, and vegetal accessories.
And the name is, well, Larry will tell you: “Jonny Poppers is a pre-1952 John Deere tractor.” “That’s what they called it because of the noise it makes,” clarifies Leisa. “I always thought it was a great catchy name,” continues Larry. “You hear it once you might remember it, but you hear it twice, you definitely remember it.”
There’s a monthly Jonny Popper burger; the first burger of the month was the Chucktown Cheddar bacon burger (a top-seller) and now staple item. Larry says when they visit a brewery they make beer cheese when they get there with the brewery’s good stuff, pouring the cheese on Jack Rabbit Slims (the Tarantino love continues) loaded fries and the Beer Cheese Burger, which is served on a pretzel bun with fried onion straws and spicy mustard. “It sells like hotcakes,” says Leisa.
You can always order the basic Jonny Popper burger topped anyway you like it and the Heavenly Horsey Havarti with gouda, barbecue sauce, and fried onion. A recent popular one-off was the Carolina Sweet Heat, topped with homemade pimento, candied jalapenos, and an original mesquite barbecue Sriracha sauce. “That one might stick around,” says Leisa.
“We try to stay 10 to 15 minutes ahead of the crowd,” says Larry. “Even when we’re super slammed, when we’re set up with three people we can do a ticket time in a minute.” “We’ve definitely perfected the system,” adds Leisa, “We’ve adapted and changed a lot.”
Launching a food truck in Charleston means sweating out the summers and hustling your ass off. “The hottest it’s been in the truck is 120 degrees,” laughs Leisa. “We try to take two days off a week, but that rarely happens, we’re usually working six days.”
They post their schedule to Instagram and on Food Truck Finder (which generates a schedule on Facebook) and Leisa says they’re booked with gigs, from private events to festivals, through the end of next year. The Fultons work out of the KTCHeN commissary in North Charleston, which Leisa says has been the greatest boon for their little burger biz. “It’s such a blessing we landed there, we’re working alongside other really good trucks — Braised in the South, BKeD, Food Box, Dashi. It’s a nice tight knit community. You’d think it would be competitive but everyone is so supportive.”
With such a successful start, the Fultons say they’ve thought about a storefront, and are open to the option, but figure they’ll always keep the custom made (former FedEx) truck. “We’d like to still have that rolling billboard,” says Leisa. “Everywhere we go, people will honk and wave.” Larry starts to smile, “Oh I forgot to tell you! About the guy on the bicycle the other day. He rolled up to me as I was leaving West Ashley, and asks ‘where do you set up?’ And I said ‘Go to our website, it has everything.’ Then he catches me at the red light! He asks, ‘OK but where are you going now?'”
Be sure to order the November ‘burger of the month,’ the Classic Carolina. It’s topped with housemade Southern slaw, housemade chili, onions, and a housemade Sassy sauce. Find the burger buggy from noon to 4 p.m. at Two Blokes Brewing this Sat. Nov. 10.
Jonny Poppers is also participating in the Charleston Burger Week donation to Charleston Chefs Feed the Need.
Since September 2017, Jason Bell and Jarrod Gass have been torturing Charlestonians with photos of their sloppy, sultry, saucy Pub Fare burger on Instagram. “The burger is really something we both enjoy. It’s just simple, it’s the kind of burger you want every week,” says Bell. The burger is a double patty, American cheese, pickles, onions and special sauce culinary feat. “I still don’t know the ingredients for the sauce,” says Bell. “Jarrod prepares the sauce [separately], I don’t know what it is, but it tastes good.”
Gass is a Leon’s bartender by day and Bell is busy helping run Springbok Coffee Roasters and Kudu Coffee & Craft Beer. The Pub Fare venture, which also operates out of KTCHeN commissary, is something that came about because the longtime friends wanted to create “good food at a good value.”
They started in the Kudu courtyard during a Charleston Beer Week event and have since expanded to other locations like House of Brews, Commonhouse Aleworks, Tradesman, Edmund’s Oast, Westbrook, and more. “We have a hospitality mentality,” says Bell. “We love partnering with like-minded people, at great spots with music and beer. At House of Brews it’s like you’re going into Rob’s living room or at Kudu it’s like you’re going into my backyard. The burger just enhances the whole experience, it’s the icing on the cake.”
Bell admits that there are a lot of great burgers out there, and recognizes that Charleston can be a tricky market when it comes to launching any food-oriented operation. Gass knows a thing or two about a great burger, though. “He’s very meticulous, he does a lot of things that make the burger just that much better,” says Bell. That means the wait for Pub Fare pop-ups can be up to an hour-and-a-half for a burger. “We don’t enjoy when that happens, we’ve had 45 burgers on the board at the same time,” says Bell. “But the burger is that good because Jarrod is particular. Don’t expect a fast food burger coming off the grill.
And don’t expect a Pub Fare storefront any time soon, either. “We aren’t trying to take on a bunch of debt, we don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we have to work 80-100 hours to make payroll,” says Bell, with a caveat. “We would love to, with my craft beer background and his experience in kitchen and hospitality, we could put something really fun together.”
As the two gain more and more followers on social media (seriously, have you taken a look at that thing?) and pop up at more and more breweries (beer pairs best with beef) around town, Bell says he’s just enjoying the ride. “We’re a pop-up — we aren’t trying to show you something you’ve never seen,” says Bell. “We want to show you something you want to eat, that you want your kids to eat, and that you want to call your partner and say ‘hey, come eat this.'”
You can find Pub Fare at Munkle Brewing on Thurs. Nov. 8, starting at 5:30 p.m.