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Burger Heaven, Burger Hell

A quest for all that's good and greasy in an American icon

Fortunately, Romeo's also turns out some of the best honest burgers in town: big, juicy ones cooked precisely to order, assertively seasoned with charcoal and salt and pepper, lopping over the edge of the very decent sesame-seeded buns in a confidence-inspiring way. With their leaf lettuce, untoasted bread and absence of mustard (you'll have to add your own), they reflect the burger idiosyncrasies of co-owner and counterwoman Linda Louie, who feels passionately that once you get past the lettuce-and-tomato stage, mayonnaise, pickles and onion are the only acceptable burger adornments.

The irrepressible Louie literally shudders at the idea of mustard or ketchup sullying her beloved burgers, which just goes to show that our individual burger beliefs really do verge on the primal. Her distinguished results, which weigh in at a fairly unthreatening three bucks, also provide one of Houston's nicer cross-cultural grace notes: these American classics arrive by way of Chinese owners (the four principals also run Cafe Chino) and one smiling Chinese grill man who knows what he's doing. The very Texan Blue Bell milk shakes served up in this rather startling room -- with its larger-than-life pulp-cartoon murals in vivid primaries -- seem only fitting.

My recent burger forays turned up only one other local specimen that might lure me from my established favorites. The remarkably fresh-tasting cheeseburger at the crisp and chipper 610 Diner, a sweetly nostalgic establishment at the juncture of South Main and Loop 610, qualifies as real food: there's nothing prefab about the irregular, salt-and-peppered patty that peeks out from the bun, substantial without veering into the thickness that often unbalances highfalutin burgers. The juice will run right down to your elbow if you let it -- always a good sign. The iceberg used here works better, in my book, than softer, fancier lettuces that tear rather than crunch; and the onion rounds have a satisfyingly sweet snap.

Location Info

Map

Rio Ranch

9999 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77042

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Memorial

Bellaire Broiler Burger

5216 Bellaire Blvd.
Bellaire, TX 77401

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Inner Loop - SW

Barnaby's

1701 Shepherd
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: River Oaks

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Indeed, my sole quibble is that the friendly 610 folks could go a wee bit easier on the mustard. I can't even bring myself to care that the French fries in the $3.25 cheeseburger basket appear to have come from a freezer bag -- especially since there's compensation in the form of a baroque and hilarious chocolate milk shake, swirled with chocolate syrup and heaped with whipped cream, that arrives in a tall, heavy soda glass. If you're going to sin, sin big, is the way I see it.

Which brings me to the subject of time-honored burger accessories and the way they can seduce you into making allowances for a less-than-distinguished burger. I'm thinking of the stellar chocolate milk shakes that lull me into believing that the perfectly ordinary, insanely mustardy hamburgers at the Avalon Drugstore are not half bad. And the sublimely crisp, old-fashioned onion rings -- almost the last of an endangered species -- that render the dryish, unenthralling beef patties at the northwest side's Myti-Burger pretty damn tolerable. (Other mitigating factors: the blindingly white and primary-striped decor that gives Myti-Burger the air of small towns past; a talkative cat who hangs out in front with the assurance of a monarch.)

In extremely rare cases, add-on accouterments can transform a burger with scant intrinsic appeal into something irresistible. That's the deal at the time-warpy Bellaire Broilerburger, where thinnish chili and cheddar cheese turn gray, unsucculent patties into magnificent overachievers; the vintage wood paneling and booths make them taste even better.

Add-ons can just as easily muck up a burger, interfering with the essential purity of a classic version; I am among those naysayers who believe artichokes and Brie have no earthly business on a burger. Again, it is the exceptions that prove the rule. The impeccable Black Angus burgers at Barnaby's, the rambly-shambly hideaway that is pure essence of Montrose, are actually improved by the addition of a smooth, tart guacamole and Monterey jack cheese; the whole is better than the sum of its parts, and it isn't trying too hard, like some of the fancier regionalized burgers in town.

I was also astonished and pleased to discover during my wanderings that the caviar burger at the drolly upscale River Oaks Burger Joint is far from the insufferable social climber it sounds like. Some people might argue that at $5.95, it no longer deserves to be called a burger. (Indeed, strict purists might insist anything over $3.50 flouts the inexpensive conventions of true burgerhood, a standard which would knock even River Oaks' basic burger into the fancy zone.)

To bite into this rarefied burger, though, is to be persuaded that its airs don't cancel out its claims to burgerness. The clean, briny quality of all those tiny black fish eggs works magically well with the pure, strong flavors of good beef and charcoal. A little sour cream mellows the effect just enough. None of this would matter if the Burger Joint hadn't replaced its original, miserable buns with far better ones (their French fries are crisper and browner these days, too, but that's another story). There's even a suitable and amusing frozen lemonade, in the palest possible shade of pink, to go along.

One of the pleasures of the Burger Joint -- and of Romeo's and the 610 Diner -- is that they ask you how you want your meat cooked, and then they actually do it that way. Ever since the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli scare a couple of years back, it's been hard to get a medium-rare burger in this town. Even places like Jim Goode's burgeria, where they grind their own beef, are serving their burgers medium these days; and to my sorrow, I've noticed that such erstwhile stalwarts as Roznovsky's and downtown's Pat & Pete's are cooking the hell out of their burgers as well. What a world.

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