The burger: The diner-style cheeseburger – you know, the double-stacked, skinny-patty, dipped-in-nostalgia monster that’s camped out at the top of the burger popularity charts -- is no longer the exclusive territory of well-run independents such as Saint Dinette, Nighthawks, Lake & Irving and Revival.

The chains are getting in on the action. Including Punch Bowl Social, the Denver-based newcomer that landed in November in the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park.

The chef of record at the fast-growing chain – it’s currently operating in eight cities, with nine more locations on the docket – is Hugh Acheson, he of Atlanta’s Empire State South and 5&10 in Athens, Ga., and a familiar face thanks to a steady stream of appearances on “Top Chef” and Top Chef Masters.”

Acheson’s involvement infuses the restaurant's diner-inspired menu with its southern accent. In St. Louis Park, his recipes are executed by chef Erick Dominguez, who let me in on a secret: the quarter-pound patties that make up the restaurant’s first-rate “Knockoff” burger don’t get the traditional smash on the flat top grill; they’re formed before they hit the heat.

“That’s the key,” he said. “You smash them, and they lose some of their flavor.”

He’s clearly doing something right, because the kitchen is selling 1,200 to 1,500 “Knockoff” burgers each week.

It’s an all-chuck formula, generously seasoned and taken to a uniform medium. No pink, but still fairly juicy.

From there, the Big Mac model is followed fairly closely, which probably explains that “Knockoff” name. The cheese is American, with two gooey slices; one, placed between the two patties, adheres them together in an irresistible beefy-cheesy marriage. Toppings include crisp chopped iceberg lettuce, tangy pickled onions and a side serving of sweet, crunchy pickles; all enhance rather than mask the beef-and-cheese party.

The crowning touch is a heavy dose of what’s billed as “Comeback Sauce,” a mayo-based mixed of lemon juice, shallots, hot sauce, chili sauce (rather than ketchup) and whole, firecracker-like black peppercorns. McDonald’s so-called Special Sauce, it's not.

The soft, sturdy bun –warmed on the stove with a slight toast – features a top that’s studded with enough sesame seeds to prepare a smallish batch of tahini. But the stunt works, inserting texture and flavor. (Note: There’s a gluten-free option).

It’s the best kind of burger: plus-sized (yep, that’s nearly a half-pound of beef) and sloppy, a situation exacerbated by the manner in which it’s served. Which is, awkwardly, in a cast-iron skillet that’s also stuffed to the rafters with French fries. Do yourself (and whatever shirt, blouse, sweater, jacket, tie and/or scarf you’re wearing) a favor and ask for a share plate, and reach for a knife and fork.

Price: $13.

Fries: Included, a huge handful. They’re long, thick-ish cuts, bearing a satisfactory crispy-outside/fluffy inside texture. Mine arrived woefully under-salted and less-than lukewarm.

Coupon clippers: PBS has got a pretty sweet burger-related happy hour deal. It’s called the “Knock Jr.” and it’s a smaller, single-patty version of the “Knockoff Burger.” Price? Eight bucks, and that include fries, a deal. Check it out from 3 to 6 p.m., daily. 

Play ball: It’s been forever since I’ve enjoyed a burger with the sounds of a bowling alley as a backdrop (and I left with a mental reminder to drop in on the Bryant-Lake Bowl sometime soon). Half-restaurant/bar, half-arcade, PBS packs all kinds of diversions under its enormous roof, including pinball machines, Skee-Ball, bocce ball and a foosball table for eight.

Where he burgers: As it happens, nowhere. “Being in the restaurant business, it’s hard to find a place that does a burger that I like, which is why I don’t have a special place,” said Dominguez, a New York City native who has been cooking in Twin Cities restaurants for more than a decade, everywhere from Big Bowl and the Cheesecake Factory to Mercury Dining Room & Rail and Lord Fletcher’s. Rather than burgers, he prefers Mexican, Italian or Asian. His last favorite? “Sushi Tango,” he said. “And I still like to go to Kona Grill. I worked there, for years, and I still like to go and eat there.”

Address book: 1691 Park Place Blvd. in the Shops at West End, St. Louis Park, 763-400-3865. Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday (kitchen open to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday). 

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com

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