Building Houston’s Perfect Cheeseburger

The cheeseburger at Killen's sports a hefty, ten-ounce patty.
The cheeseburger at Killen's sports a hefty, ten-ounce patty.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

A great burger may not be as much an artistic product as it is an architectural one. Usually, the only thing that has to be cooked before assembly is the patty. While it’s entirely possible to cook it improperly, either not enough or too much, using well-considered, quality ingredients increases the chances that the end result will be good and memorable.

A social media discussion with several readers on burger patty weights revealed a philosophical split. In one camp were those who declared, “If it ain’t at least eight ounces, why bother?” to others who believed the cooking method was more important than a big hunk of meat. For them, a one-third pound “smashed” burger patty, cooked on a very hot flattop until the exterior develops a crunchy crust, is the next best thing to heaven.

The heft of a patty may be a matter of personal preference, but other factors are quantifiable. Vegetables must be very fresh. Even if lettuce wilts upon contact with a hot burger patty, it has to have been perky at the start. Buns have to be both fresh and soft, yet have enough staying power to resist falling apart under an assault of meat juice.

In order to level the playing field for each featured restaurant and avoid being seduced by extra-flavorful toppings, such as bacon or kimchi, each burger profiled is just a good ol’ American cheeseburger. That was also the best way to be able to truly taste the basics: meat, bun, cheese and vegetables.

We recently selected the 10 Best Fancy Restaurant Burgers In Houston, so this time around, we sought out the best examples at more casual establishments. If we couldn’t eat the cheeseburgers in shorts, T-shirts or sweatpants, we weren’t interested.

If the cheeseburger came with fries for no additional charge, we allowed for it. If it didn’t, we’ll show what a side order of fries costs. The two lowest-priced cheeseburger-and-fries combinations on our list are only eight dollars. The most expensive is $16, but is often regarded as a Cadillac among burgers. From the cheapest to the most expensive, every single one rightfully has a place on this list.

The Meat
Of all the factors distinguishing between superb and mediocre burgers, the meat is the most important. The source of the beef, the texture of the grind and the expertise of the cook all affect the end result. Patties can’t be unappealingly dense nor should they fall apart. Some fat content is important, since it’s the biggest carrier of flavor. Also, there’s never been a burger that didn’t benefit from the brown crust that comes only from a very hot sear, whether it’s from a flattop grill, over flames or in a good cast-iron pan. The trick is getting that sear without also overcooking the center of the patty.

The Cheese
Interestingly, many of Houston’s great burgers employ simple American cheese — for good reason. It’s slightly salty and, when melted, a little sticky, which helps fuse the cheese, bun and meat together. When melted on top of a beef patty, it acts as a seal that helps hold in heat and meat juices. Cheddar may be a better cheese in general, but for burgers, American is more functional.

The Bun
The cheese can be run-of-the-mill, but the bun has to be something special. The vast majority of the places building some of Houston’s best burgers are using buns from local bakeries. That just makes sense. Since these are delivered instead of shipped, they haven’t been sitting long hours in a truck. The buns from Houston bakeries Slow Dough and Kraftsmen Baking are among the most popular.

No Ketchup, Please
Ketchup is a strong, sweet flavor that masks other ingredients. It makes all burgers taste consistent, but not interesting. In a Serious Eats article titled “The Case Against Ketchup,” Nick Solares wrote, “Ketchup makes every burger taste somewhat similar; it provides a common thread from burger to burger. It’s a comforting familiarity that is quite the opposite of what I am looking for as a reviewer and a hamburger aficionado. I am looking for what is unique in each hamburger — I don’t want to make them all the same.”

Of all the burgers we tried for this article, only one came with ketchup, and it didn’t make it onto our list. It was impossible to taste any of the other ingredients, which was a shame since the burger featured a beef patty from Texas ranch 44 Farms.

No burger joint is going to shame diners for putting ketchup on their burgers (these are usually accepting, friendly places), but they’re not going to do the dirty deed unless asked, either. Brett Holder, manager of Pappas Burgers, shrugged when asked about the ketchup issue, saying, “We do not include ketchup on any of the burgers besides our kids’ burgers unless the guest would like to add it. I think it’s something that customers should add on afterwards. That’s why we have ketchup bottles on the tables.”

“I don’t personally feel that ketchup belongs on a burger,” said Erin Reed of Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack. “I don’t like it and I don’t really like mayonnaise a lot. I prefer mustard.”

One person who thinks ketchup on a burger is okay is Justin Turner of Bernie’s Burger Bus. He doesn’t mind, because Bernie’s sells its own brand, which he says is simply of better quality. “It’s 100 percent real ingredients, not ‘natural flavors.’ We use wildflower honey as our sweetener, not corn syrup, and you can actually see our spices in the ketchup.” So if you’re going to put ketchup on your burger, do it at Bernie’s.

The Texan Burger Palate
There’s another reason ketchup isn’t a popular condiment in Houston. It doesn’t fit in with the notion of what constitutes a true Texas burger. Thoughts on this vary, but they all speak to a burger defined by bold and often tart flavors. When asked what defines a Texas burger, Killen Burger’s owner, Ronnie Killen, had a one-word response: “Mustard.” Turner said, “When I hear ‘Texas-style burger,’ I think of a big burger with a lot of jalapeños!” Reed has an even more specific picture in mind. “I think everyone has a different opinion, but to me that would mean mustard, onion, pickles, jalapeños — maybe bacon,” she said.

Houston’s Best Casual Burgers
Without a doubt, Houston is a burger town, and we’re not going to claim for a single minute that this is an all-inclusive list. However, these ten are among the very best. Costs cited are before tax and tip, and patty weights are before cooking.

The closest thing to a basic cheeseburger on the menu at Bernie's Burger Bus is The Principal. It's a little fancier than average and includes garlic roasted tomatoes and housemade pickles.
The closest thing to a basic cheeseburger on the menu at Bernie's Burger Bus is The Principal. It's a little fancier than average and includes garlic roasted tomatoes and housemade pickles.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Bernie’s Burger Bus
5407 Bellaire and 2643 Commercial Center, Katy

The Patty: Six-ounce, hand-formed patties
The Beef: Antibiotic- and hormone-free brisket and chuck
The Bun: Challah bun from Slow Dough bakery in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $9.65
Fries: $3.90 (small) or $4.90 (large)

“The Principal” is the closest thing to a regular cheeseburger on chef Justin Turner’s menu at Bernie’s Burger Bus. It’s a little fancier than what’s usual (which is why it’s a little more expensive than some of the other burgers in this survey). First off, the meat doesn’t come cheaply and is ground in-house. Second, rather than raw tomato slices, The Principal is topped with Roma tomatoes roasted with garlic until very soft. Rounding out the toppings are shredded lettuce, thinly sliced onions and Bernie’s housemade pickles. Turner breaks from the pack on cheese preference and suggests cheddar instead of American. He also recommends adding tipsy onions, which are slowly caramelized with Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

Whether diners opt for the regular cheeseburger or the touted buffalo cheeseburger at Bubba's Texas Burger Shack, chances are they'll be satisfied with the juicy results.
Whether diners opt for the regular cheeseburger or the touted buffalo cheeseburger at Bubba's Texas Burger Shack, chances are they'll be satisfied with the juicy results.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack
5230 Westpark

The Patty: Bubba’s specializes in lean, ground buffalo patties
The Beef: A one-third pound, 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat beef patty is available, too
The Bun: Sourced from Quality Bakery Products in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $5.75 beef or $7.00 buffalo
Fries: Not available

Namesake Bubba Gilliam founded Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack, a dive nestled under the Westpark Tollway, and ran it from 1985 to 1990. Richard Reed then purchased it, and his daughters, Erin and Allison, now run the place. The stock in trade has long been buffalo burger patties, which they tout as lower in fat and calories than beef, pork or even skinless chicken. “It’s the leanest meat that really tastes like beef,” said Erin Reed. “It’s not as greasy but it’s not dry or gamey, and it’s got a little bit of a sweeter taste,” she noted.

That said, the beef burgers at Bubba’s are as sensuously drippy as the buffalo is lean. A standard cheeseburger comes with a one-third-pound patty, which seems quite sufficient, and it’s lightly dashed with the restaurant’s proprietary “Es Bueno” (a mélange of 72 different spices that overall seems like a blend of Cajun seasoning and celery salt). Cooks can buy the seasoning online to try at home. The kitchen is too small for a fryer, so Bubba’s doesn’t offer fries. Really, with burgers this interesting and juicy, they’re hardly missed.

If you use every single accoutrement in the basket on the double-patty cheeseburger at The Hay Merchant, it's very, very tall. It's also one of the best burger values in town.
If you use every single accoutrement in the basket on the double-patty cheeseburger at The Hay Merchant, it's very, very tall. It's also one of the best burger values in town.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

The Hay Merchant
1100 Westheimer

The Patty: Two three-ounce patties
The Beef: A custom grind from 44 Farms
The Bun: Challah bun from Kraftsmen Baking in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $10
Fries: Come with the cheeseburger at no additional cost

Kevin Floyd of The Hay Merchant is fiercely proud of its cheeseburger. “Our burger isn’t fancy or over the top,” he said. “It’s a simple, well-made burger using the best ingredients we can find.”

Although it’s been through at least one evolution, The Hay Merchant’s burger has always cost ten dollars. (The current one is named “Cease and Desist,” a double-patty burger than makes gentle fun of an injunction from In-N-Out burger.) That price point is important to Floyd, even though the profit margin is low. “What most people don’t realize is that the bun can drive cost more than beef,” he said. “When you get into locally made bread and high-quality beef, you get into $10 to $12 land really fast. To hit our model, I should really charge $12, but something just feels wrong about a cheeseburger over $10 being sold in a relaxed environment.”

Even with that in mind, a side order of The Hay Merchant’s outstanding skin-on fries is included. Floyd and former chef Dax McAnear worked on perfecting the french fries when The Hay Merchant opened. These are cut in-house from Kennebec potatoes. As far as condiments go, kewpie mayo, mustard, sriracha and ketchup are all available, so diners can choose whatever they want. (The Hay Merchant’s french fries were our Best of Houston pick in 2015.)

The burger at Hubcap Grill is a smashed style that gets a good crust from the grill.
The burger at Hubcap Grill is a smashed style that gets a good crust from the grill.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Hubcap Grill
Multiple locations: the Heights, Downtown, Kemah and soon George Bush Intercontinental Airport

The Patty: Medium-ground, "smashed" style
The Beef: One-third pound of 75 percent lean chuck and 25 percent fat
The Bun: Sourced from “a local baker”
Cheeseburger Cost: $5.99
Fries: $2.25

Owner Ricky Craig has many reasons to be proud of his burgers. Hubcap Grill has been cited multiple times as having some of the best in America, including by Travel + Leisure, The Daily Meal and MSN. The meat — ground chuck — isn’t particularly fancy, but the secret is in the hard sear that lends a deep-brown crust, as well as the “Hubcap Grill Burger Dust” seasoning that Craig claims helps sear the meat and lock in the juices. For home cooks who want to try that magic dust, it’s available for purchase at Hubcap Grill locations.

Craig won’t disclose which “local baker” is making the buns (“Too many copycats,” he says), but toasting both top and bottom is the reason the burger buns are warm, sturdy and slightly crunchy.

Hughie's uses a really interesting kind of meat blend for its eight-ounce patty. The fries aren't made from scratch in-house, but both the burger and fries are only eight dollars, so who's going to complain?
Hughie's uses a really interesting kind of meat blend for its eight-ounce patty. The fries aren't made from scratch in-house, but both the burger and fries are only eight dollars, so who's going to complain?
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Hughie’s
1802 West 18th

The Patty: Seven to eight ounces, hand-formed and “smashed”
The Beef: 20 percent ground filet and 80 percent “peeled beef knuckle” (more on this below)
The Bun: Sourced from Fuddruckers
Cheeseburger Cost: $8
Fries: Come with the cheeseburger at no additional cost

The burger and fries at Hughie’s are the most economical while still being made with some care and consideration. A cheeseburger that comes with fries costs only eight dollars. This was the first time we’ve heard about “peeled beef knuckle,” which isn’t as gory as it sounds. It’s a small roast that comes from the sirloin, a lean cut with all the outer fat removed (which is why it’s called “peeled”). It’s also known as beef round, round tip and knuckle steak. When it’s ground, the resulting burger patties are dense and satisfying. Hughie’s does not cut its own fries in-house and opts to buy the seasoned kind from food service supplier Ben E. Keith. Still, they’re tasty even if previously frozen, and for eight dollars, no one but the snobbiest of burger snobs is going to complain.

A cheeseburger at Killen's Burgers, ordered medium rare, is a thing of beauty. The handcut, housemade fries are also exquisite.
A cheeseburger at Killen's Burgers, ordered medium rare, is a thing of beauty. The handcut, housemade fries are also exquisite.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Killen’s Burgers
2804 South Main, Pearland

The Patty: Ten-ounce “smashed” style
The Beef: Creekstone Farms all-natural chuck and brisket
The Bun: Slow Dough or Martin Potato Rolls
Cheeseburger Cost: $7.50
Fries: $2.75

As owner of a steakhouse, a barbecue restaurant and now a ’50s-style burger place, Ronnie Killen has earned his chops (so to speak) as a meat expert. Before opening Killen’s Burgers, he said it was of the utmost importance to have the right kind of grind for the beef patties. As the saying goes, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” so beef chuck and brisket are ground in-house. The patties are seasoned with popcorn salt and seared fast and hot. The result is a thick, super-drippy mammoth of a burger with an excellent dark crust. Killen holds fast to the principle that American cheese is just right for a cheeseburger, and uses the Land O’Lakes brand. Say yes to a tomato slice here; Killen’s Burger uses large “5x5s” that ripen on the vine.

The french fries, cut in-house from Idaho potatoes, are well worth the splurge. The exterior is mildly crisp and centers are soft — almost creamy. People willing to take a dare can test their will against the two-pound, $25 Killen Burger. It’s so huge, the bun is a whole round of muffuletta bread and it takes seven slices of cheese to cover the patty.

The new, hot cheeseburger maker in Houston is Willet Feng at Kuma Burger. You know to always watch out when there's a new kid in town, right?
The new, hot cheeseburger maker in Houston is Willet Feng at Kuma Burger. You know to always watch out when there's a new kid in town, right?
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Kuma Burger
3 Greenway Plaza, C220

The Patty: Five-ounce “smashed” style
The Beef: 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat ground chuck
The Bun: Sheila Partin’s Sweet Sourdough from Sweet Mesquite Bakery in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $5
Fries: $3

Willet Feng’s burger stand in Greenway Plaza’s underground food court is the new kid on the block when it comes to top-notch burgers, but it has already impressed Houston Chronicle restaurant critic and known burger fanatic Alison Cook, who recently gave it a glowing, two-star review. That’s not bad at all for a food court stand. On the other hand, Houston foodies know this is no ordinary office plaza. It’s also home to Greenway Coffee and The Rice Box, the counter-service offshoot of the notable Chinese food truck that haunts Montrose.

Despite the inevitable post-good-review onset of customers, Feng was striking in how methodically and calmly he made the burgers, two at time, shoving the tickets along a hanging line to a cashier once each was done. There’s a strikingly crisp sear on both top and bottom of each bun and our tomato slice was especially red and beautiful. As for the patties, these are seasoned with salt and pepper on one side. The other side gets Feng’s “secret weapon”: an “umami glaze” of soy sauce, shiitake mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, browned butter and roasted garlic. For a classic American cheeseburger, order the Blank Canvas and add a slice of American cheddar cheese for a buck and toppings of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle at no extra charge. (Updated 7/6/2016, 6:23 a.m.: Feng says that was actually cheddar on our burger and he doesn't carry American cheese.) Speaking of pickles, Feng brines his own cucumbers and jalapeños, as well as barbecue sauce, scallion aioli and sambal paste, which he mixes with mayonnaise for a spicy sauce.

Lankford's Grocery & Market has been serving cheeseburgers since the 1970's, so they've had plenty of practice in creating outstanding examples.
Lankford's Grocery & Market has been serving cheeseburgers since the 1970's, so they've had plenty of practice in creating outstanding examples.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Lankford’s Grocery & Market
88 Dennis

The Patty: Eight ounces, hand-formed
The Beef: 100 percent ground Angus
The Bun: Sourced from Colosseum Italian Bakery in Webster
Cheeseburger Cost: $7.24
Fries: $3

This venerable establishment has existed for 76 years, according to owner Eydie Lankford, who runs it alongside her husband, Cotton, along with their children, grandchildren and longtime employees. Eydie’s parents, Nona and Aubrey Lankford, founded Lankford’s. To this day, she is still working in the kitchen and had to take a break from making burgers to talk with us about her menu. “All of our sauces are made fresh,” she said. “The meat is never frozen.” She said it wasn’t until the 1970s that Lankford transitioned from grocery store to burger joint.

The charm of a burger from Lankford’s Grocery has won over generations of Houstonians. “It’s like a ‘grandma kitchen,’” said employee Claire Montemayor. “It’s old-style and very American.” The cheeseburger is the Old Fashioned Burger, with cheese added, and it includes lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, mayonnaise and mustard.

The cheeseburger at Pappas Burgers is the most expensive on our list, but there are very good reasons for that. It's a monster and the patty is made of USDA Prime steak trimmings. It also comes with housemade, hand-cut fries.
The cheeseburger at Pappas Burgers is the most expensive on our list, but there are very good reasons for that. It's a monster and the patty is made of USDA Prime steak trimmings. It also comes with housemade, hand-cut fries.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Pappas Burgers
5815 Westheimer and Hobby Airport

The Patty: Nine ounces, hand-formed
The Beef: USDA Prime steak trimmings ground in-house
The Bun: Baked at the Pappas company bakery in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $16
Fries: Come with the cheeseburger at no additional cost

The Pappas cheeseburger is a Cadillac among casual burgers. It’s nine ounces instead of eight, and that actually does make a difference in the circumference and breadth of the patty. It’s like replacing the heft that’s normally lost in an eight-ounce patty once the fat is rendered. There’s never a question about the quality of the meat, either, since it’s ground in-house from USDA Prime trimmings from the dry-aged, corn-fed beef at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. The french fries, a collection of moderately slim, crispy delights, are cut in-house and left skin-on. As with any luxury ride, this one costs more than most, but it’s worth it.

The big, messy cheeseburger at Petrol Station is glorious and there also also several great craft beers to have alongside.
The big, messy cheeseburger at Petrol Station is glorious and there also also several great craft beers to have alongside.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Petrol Station
985 Wakefield

The Patty: Eight ounces, hand-formed
The Beef: Grass-fed Angus from D’Artagnan
The Bun: Egg buns from Kraftsmen Baking in Houston
Cheeseburger Cost: $11.25
Fries: Come with the burger

Burgers and beers are a match made in heaven, which is part of the reason some of the best cheeseburgers can be found at pubs. The ones at Petrol Station are no exception. When we called to find out more about the meat the pub uses, after a bit of back-and-forth between the bar and the kitchen, a cook came on the phone and declared the meat from D’Artagnan was “literally the No. 1 meat you can use because they get it locally.” (D’Artagnan specializes in gourmet foods and opened a distribution center in Houston last year.)

Egg buns are delivered fresh every morning from Kraftsmen Baking in the Heights. The burger comes with a sizable batch of soft, skin-on, hand-cut fries that can be upgraded with toppings, such as garlic and Parmesan, for a nominal fee. Hungry diners should be prepared to assuage their hunger temporarily with one of the many craft beers on tap. During busy times, the kitchen gets slammed and burgers can take up to an hour to arrive at the table.

*****

Building perfect burgers isn’t as easy as it seems. On the surface, these sandwiches seem basic and humble, but there are few foods that arouse such interest and inspire arguments about the “right” way to make them and the “correct” ingredients to use.

Yet of all these outstanding examples in Houston, no two are alike. In fact, there are few elements in common at all. The beauty of the classic cheeseburger is in its ability to be a vehicle for creativity. It all comes down to quality, heat and the harmony that comes from the near-magical melding of good bread, hot meat, crisp vegetables, melted cheese and a modest slather of sauce to bring it all together. 

Use Current Location

Related Locations

miles
Hubcap Grill

1111 Prairie St.
Houston, TX 77002

713-223-5885

www.hubcapgrill.com

miles
Hubcap Grill

1133 W. 19th
Houston, TX 77008

713-862-0555

www.hubcapgrill.com

miles
Bernie's Burger Bus

No address listed
Houston, TX 77007

www.berniesburgerbus.com

miles
Bernie's Burger Bus

5407 Bellaire Blvd
Bellaire, TX 77401

miles
Bubba's Texas Burger Shack
miles
The Hay Merchant

1100 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77006

713-528-9805

www.facebook.com/HayMerchant

miles
Lankford Grocery and Market
miles
The Petrol Station

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