By Katharine Shilcutt
By Katharine Shilcutt
By Jeremy Parzen
By Molly Dunn
By Joanna O'Leary
By Katharine Shilcutt
By Katharine Shilcutt
By Brooke Viggiano
See more of The Refinery's petroleum-themed dining room that pays homage to Houston's history in our slideshow.
702 W. Dallas St.
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
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Even though it's only been open a few months, The Refinery is already shaping up to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of place. Some people love the oilfield-themed decor, while others find it kitschy. Some enjoy the view of downtown's imposing skyline up close and personal, while others see I-45 as a noisy distraction when they sit outside. Some like the taste of the Sheila Partin sweet sourdough buns that The Refinery uses on its burgers, while others think they're too sugary for the patties and toppings.
Personally, I'm firmly in the "love it" camp — with some reservations.
Chief among those reservations is the sweet sourdough bun The Refinery uses for its burgers. Because The Refinery is a burger-centric icehouse first and foremost, and while it's gotten the "icehouse" part very right so far, the burger part still needs some tweaks. You get a choice of pretzel bun or "Sheila bun," as the restaurant calls it, for your burger and neither is a particularly good match for the meat below. On one recent visit, our waiter compared the Sheila bun to a sweet King's Hawaiian roll — and he wasn't far off.
While the Sheila bun is absolutely delicious in and of itself — fluffy yet substantial, with an eggy sweetness that's almost like angel food cake — the burger patties need to be seasoned far more aggressively to pull off such a big, bold pairing. Each time I go, I tear off a piece of the hand-formed Angus beef patties at The Refinery to see if the seasoning has finally bulked up, and each time I'm disappointed. It's a shame, too, because the meat is too good to taste this bland.
It's an especially heinous waste because The Refinery's other toppings are above-average stuff: crusty strips of jalapeño-smoked bacon on the Red Adair burger; thick slices of sharp cheddar that's never been housed in a single-serve plastic envelope; house-made pickles that remind me of the sweet dills my East Texas grandmother makes. There's even a delightfully chunky pimento cheese that tops a half-pork, half-beef burger called The Wild Hog. (Although let us not speak of the chili here, which contains — steel yourselves — beans.) But none of these toppings are enough to boost the burger below.
So how can I love a place whose burgers need so much work? Simple: potential. I believe the burgers will continue getting better, just as they've already done.
When The Refinery was first built out of the remains of a long-abandoned strip center on West Dallas, just inching outside of downtown proper, it didn't look like much. I found the dining room to be cold and impersonal, with music blaring too loudly for one to have a proper conversation over dinner (yes, too loud even for an icehouse). But the doors of the place opened onto a yawning construction site where twin patios would soon stand and the draft beer list looked as if it would shape up nicely.
More than three months later, the beer list routinely features excellent selections that are difficult to find elsewhere — Franconia Oktoberfest and Coney Island Freak were two recent winners — and the dual patios are a triumph of cedar. The fresh smell of the wood still lingers in the air every time I sit outside, which is routinely. During the day, the patios are covered just enough to keep you from burning up in the unseasonably warm weather and by night they give way to a cool breeze and the stunning light show from the downtown skyline.
And although my wings and burgers were rather uninspired during my first visit, both have seen significant improvements. Where my first burger was overcooked and dry, subsequent patties have always been cooked to my requested medium-rare. Where the chicken wings were dessicated and tough, they are now consistently juicy and plump — coated in your choice of Buffalo-style hot sauce, a sweet-and-sour Asian sauce or left "naked" as they came.
The Refinery definitely excels in this area, the gray zone where finger food meets pub grub. Fried pickles are coated in an oddly sweet, puffy, tempura-style batter that somehow works well against the salty-sour crunch of the pickle slices. Nachos are served with nearly white queso on top instead of suspiciously orange squeeze-pump cheese, then topped with fresh guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and two kinds of cheese. They make a great snack to share with friends, if they'll let you have any. (Avoid the bland waffle fries, however, as both versions are stodgy and not worth the calories.)
Solo snackers will love the petite grilled cheese (served with a side of queso for dipping, because it's Texas) or the fried bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise on hearty slices of white bread, both of which are packed with as much nostalgia as cholesterol. Ditto the classic cocktails served at the full bar, which features an expansive whiskey selection your grandfather would undoubtedly applaud. That's the idea, after all. The Refinery oozes nostalgia from its bricks and mortar: It's in the old, scavenged filling-station signs on the walls and the repurposed well caps, pipe fittings and crude oil drums that flesh out the space. Because although green energy is the future, oil and gas are what Houston and its history were built on.
"Work in progress" is a nice way of saying the restaurant isn't together. Sometimes seems that Ms. Shilcutt never eats anything she doesn't like, or if she does, she knows it will be better the next time. Guess what? I just put down 15 bucks for a dry, tough burger on a bun that tastes like a Mexican sweet roll and limp, greasy fries. It doesn't help me that they might improve it in the future.
My friends & I were not impressed by the fried pickles. They tasted more like they were made with butter pickles instead of dill, which we thought would go better with the style of batter. I did, however, really enjoy their spicy black bean veggie "burger" & sweet potato fries. And who doesn't love a little queso with their grilled cheese?
Had lunch there earlier this week and couldn't have been more disappointed in the burger. Small, tasteless, overcooked patty, bland lettuce and tomato, a single squirt of mayo & mustard. There was just no effort in it at all. I liked the sweet bun and pickles and that's about it. Onion rings were lifeless and previously frozen. I agree that the beer/whisky selection is solid, but if you can't get a basic burger right in this town I'm afraid there isn't much hope for you — especially with Lankford Grocery just a few blocks away.
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