Blake's BBQ and Burgers

You'll get a fresh patty if you order it rare.
Troy Fields

The third hamburger I got at Blake's BBQ and Burgers on Jeanetta was just about perfect. When I bit into it, the juicy meat, melted American cheese and white bread of the bun all melded together in my mouth in a delightfully sticky mass. It was sort of like a grilled cheese sandwich with a hamburger in the middle.

In fact, there was a whole lot of hamburger in the middle. I ordered a double-meat cheeseburger with bacon, fully dressed with the usual condiments of lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles with mayo on the top and mustard on the bottom. The meat and bacon layer was an inch tall all by itself.

The big, squishy white bread bun had been nicely toasted. The bacon was artfully tucked in between the twin patties along with a slice of American cheese. There was another slice of cheese on top. The quarter-pound, hand-formed burger patties were pink in the middle, just the way I like them. The secret was specifying my burger "medium rare to rare."

If you just walk up to the counter and order a hamburger at Blake's, you are apt to get a dried-out piece of meat.

Blake's has been in business for more than 25 years. When it opened, Jeanetta was a dirt road. The street is still a strange little rural pocket in the middle of West Houston. There's a business just down the road that sells barbecue wood out of a vacant lot.

Don Blake is quite a charmer, and his success story has been told in many local publications over the years. There is an autographed photo of city council member Michael Berry hanging near the front door of the restaurant. The inscription on it reads, "Tony Vallone was right, the best burger in town." Letters from the Bush family, Frank Sinatra and other notables line the walls.

The carpets are worn, and the Formica tables and vinyl chairs are drab. There is a rear dining room that usually sits empty. The front section serves as a combined dining room and waiting area for Blake's customers getting their orders to go. There is a drive-through window too, but I recommend you order inside. Blake's makes great burgers if you are demanding enough.

The first time I got burgers there, it was six or seven on a weeknight, and the place was hopping. I ordered two to go with a side order of fries. My order was ready in minutes. As I drove away, I regretted my haste. The only way they could have gotten out my order that fast was by pre-cooking the meat. And sure enough, when we unwrapped the sandwiches, we found nasty, dried-out burger patties on nice fresh buns.

The testimonials on the walls and the restaurant's longevity led me to believe that Blake's could do better. I resolved that next time I got a burger from Blake's I would take my time and order carefully.

On my second visit, I ordered a cheeseburger, medium rare. I told the woman behind the counter that my last burger had been cooked in advance and was too dry. The grill cook overheard our conversation, and he gave me a derisive look accompanied by a snort through the little window.

"What?" I yelled at him, "You never cook burgers in advance?"

"Yeah, when there's a rush," he said indignantly.

"Well, I want a fresh one this time, medium rare." When the burger came to our table, it was somewhere between medium and well done, but at least it was freshly cooked. It was very good, though not quite spectacular.

I also sampled Blake's private-label root beer served in a frosty mug. While it has an excellent herbal flavor, it's not as good as the Abita root beer I drink at home. Abita uses cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. It's ironic that Blake's isn't using cane sugar in his root beer too, since his bottler is in Sugar Land.

My companion got a three-meat barbecue plate. The potato salad and beans that came with the barbecue were average at best. The sliced beef was rubbery. The links, which had been cut into narrow slices, were acceptable.

The order of ribs on the three-meat plate consisted of one enormous rib. If I had to guess, I'd say it came from a four- to five-pound slab. "Three-and-a-half and down" is the size barbecue competitors use, which means racks of ribs that are three-and-a-half pounds or less. These smaller ribs get nice and tender on the smoker.

Five-pound racks of ribs are what you find in the grocery store these days. They are cheap, but the only way to get them tender is to boil them before you smoke them or steam them afterwards, or both. And what you end up with is mostly inedible bones and ligament anyway.

We finished off the meal with a large slice of devil's food cake and Hank's vanilla ice cream. The cake was a little dry, so it went perfectly with the enormous scoop of vanilla. The cakes are supplied by a local bakery. And if you have never tried Hank's ice cream, do yourself a favor and go get some (Hank's Ice Cream Parlor, 9291 S. Main).

I won't be ordering any more barbecue at Blake's. It all tastes likes it was steamed longer than it was smoked. I have no doubt that Don Blake can make great barbecue when he wants to, but he is evidently unmotivated at the moment.

The hamburgers at Blake's are a similar story. Blake's fry cook is of the opinion that nobody can really tell the difference between a burger patty that is fried in advance and one that is cooked fresh to order because nobody (except me) is complaining.

It's not his fault. It's our fault. The same thing is happening all over town. Even the legendary Prince's is cooking their burgers in advance. How do I know? Because they hand them over seconds after I order them. And they taste dry and overcooked. These are places where you pay a premium for a great handmade burger. And they are getting lazy because nobody complains.

Well, here's a citywide complaint. Pre-cooked burgers suck. Every restaurant that serves them should be honest enough to ask, "Do you want a dried-out burger in a hurry, or do you have time for us to cook you a fresh one?" Then we'll see how many people order the hockey pucks.

Blake's has been in business for a long time, and it's a well-loved establishment. Unfortunately, it's in a bit of a slump. The barbecue isn't worth bothering with. But you can get one of the best hamburgers in the city here — if you are a pain in the ass about making sure they cook it fresh. And you are willing to wait.

Is this what the Slow Food Movement is all about?

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