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The new king of burger joints in downtown Houston sports a crown of shiny hubcaps. "Welcome to Hubcap Grill," reads a sign in the entranceway, "hand-formed, crafted burgers, never frozen, 100% fresh ground chuck with homemade toasted buns."
The Hubcap Grill is tiny. Or maybe it just seems tiny because the discerning burger aficionados who gather for lunch there tend to be the size of Olympic weightlifters. The joint is located on Prairie Street next to the Alden Hotel. There are a couple of tables and a long, skinny counter inside the urban snack shack, a few more tables on the sidewalk out front and a patio with five or six umbrella tables along the side of the building.
Owner Ricky Craig isn't a newcomer to the restaurant biz. For years, he was the head cook at Craiganale's Italian Deli Cafe, his parents' restaurant right around the corner. That restaurant is famous for its spaghetti, lasagna and muffulettas. His mother, Diana Covernale Craig, comes from a family of Sicilian grocers. Craiganale's is an amalgam of his father Richard Craig's last name and his mother's Italian maiden name. Ricky Craig recently tried to make a go of it at Craiganale's Little Italy restaurant on Smith Street. It proved to be an ill-fated location.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Triple Decker: $7
Muffuletta burger: $5
Greek burger: $5
Ricky Dog: $3
In its eight months of operation, Craignale's Little Italy was broken into five times. The restaurant's inventory of wine and beer seemed to make it an especially attractive target for local derelicts. Eventually, the management was forced to put bars on the doors and windows, lending the place a penal atmosphere that wasn't conducive to business.
Before he opened the Hubcap Grill, Ricky Craig did a tour of famous burger joints. In a phone interview, I asked him if there was one particular hamburger joint that he used as a model. He said the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street in New Orleans was his main inspiration, hence the name. "Their burger patties are so huge, they actually put hubcaps over the burgers while they are on the griddle to help cook them through."
With the techniques of other famous burger joints firmly in mind, Craig set out to do everything right. He wanted to offer the perfect burger, crispy fries and the best condiments. He decided to serve bottled soft drinks because they taste better than fountain drinks. He even has a selection of microbrewery root beers.
The Triple Decker was the first burger I sampled at the Hubcap Grill. I was expecting a burger with three meat patties, but what I got was a burger with three pieces of bread. The architecture was similar to that of McDonald's Big Mac. The top and the bottom were formed by the two halves of the Hubcap's custom-made hamburger roll, with a square slice of white toast in the middle. There was even a mayonnaise-based "special sauce." The lettuce, tomato and pickles were on the bottom, topped by a half-pound meat patty covered with provolone cheese. Then came the white bread with a pile of raw onions on top, and then another half-pound patty covered with American cheese. A long toothpick with a frilly plastic head held the whole thing together.
I ordered my Triple Decker medium-rare. The ingredients were all first-rate, and the burger patties were wonderfully juicy, but the balance wasn't quite right. Every bite contained a little too much bread. I was tempted to disassemble the sandwich, throw away the middle slice of bread and make myself a double cheeseburger out of the rest of the excellent elements.
My lunchmate ordered a "muffuletta burger." I love burgers, and I love muffulettas. But at first I thought combining the two was a terrible idea. I changed my mind after a couple of bites. The combination of olive salad and burger meat was absolutely inspired. It was a natural, since Ricky Craig has been making the olive salad and special sauce they use on the muffuletta sandwiches at his parents' place for years. Like the name Craiganale's, the muffuletta burger is a local hybridization of Anglo-American and Gulf Coast Sicilian cultures.
Ricky Craig says that he has never seen a muffuletta burger before and that he and his father dreamt up the combination. I wish Houston were the birthplace of this tasty combo. But a quick Google search reveals that the Hubcap Grill isn't the first place to offer a muffuletta burger. Other restaurants around the country sell them too, including one in Saint Petersburg, Florida.
Muffuletta burgers also turn up in such unlikely places as Seymour, Wisconsin, a town that claims to have invented the burger in 1885. In 2004, the winner of the "Top This Burger" recipe contest, held as part of Seymour's annual Burger Fest, was Erica Wasielewski's "muffuletta burger," made with the Seymour resident's own homemade kalamata olive salad.
On my second visit to Hubcap Grill, I brought my friend John Bebout, an enthusiastic burger fan. Bebout did not like the Hubcap's custom-baked bun. I argued that the bun was excellent when freshly toasted. But Bebout thought that it had a tendency to get rubbery and tough after it sat around absorbing burger steam. This is only a problem for takeout customers and slow eaters, if you ask me.
The fries were admittedly problematic. For fear of serving limp fries, Hubcap Grill is making their french fries a little too crispy. There isn't much in the way of squishy soft potato left inside. The sweet potato fries are so crunchy, they taste like sweet potato chips. Not that this is all bad. Anybody would rather eat crisp chips than limp, greasy french fries, but I think there's a little room for improvement.
I also tried the Ricky Dog, a hot dog so loaded with chili and bacon that I couldn't find the dog. It was a boring beef frank. I much prefer hot dogs with a natural casing like Vienna Beef or Boar's Head frankfurters.
Purist that he is, Bebout frowns on such motley creations as Hubcap's open-faced chili burger, or the Quadruple Bypass, a hamburger topped with a hot dog and chili. But then again, Bebout wouldn't eat a muffuletta burger either. I myself relish local variations. Like the San Antonio bean burger, I see the muffuletta burger and other such combinations as fascinating expressions of multiculturalism. On that second visit, I asked Ricky Craig which of the other cross-cultural burgers he suggested.
"I sell a lot of Greek burgers," he said. I gave one a try.
It turned out to be a cross between a burger and a Greek salad. Lettuce, tomato and green pepper slices were loaded on the bottom half of a toasted bun and lightly doused with an olive oil dressing. Then, nested inside several rings of raw onion, there were round slices of high-quality jumbo purple olives. The hand-formed fresh ground chuck patty rested on top of the Greek salad ingredients with melted feta cheese on top. There was no fear of this burger tasting dry — it oozed burger juice and olive oil and tomato drippings with every bite.
Ricky Craig's Hubcap Grill has barely been open a month, but it's already a hit in hamburger-happy downtown Houston. I suggest you go for an early lunch if you hope to get a table.