See how the shakes are spun and the burgers are born behind-the-scenes at The Burger Guys in our slideshow.
It's a Saturday night at The Burger Guys in far west Houston — in that overlapping gray zone that's Memorial, Westchase and Alief all at once — and the place is alive. Orders ring out from the broad, busy kitchen that's open to the dining room of the small restaurant as people run up to the counter to grab their plates of food. The sizzle of burgers hitting the griddle and the metallic whirring of milkshakes being spun clatters together happily with the chirping of teenagers' cell phones and their chattering. All of the booths are filled with them, munching on fat burgers and baskets overflowing with french fries, while the bar that wraps all the way around the kitchen is a slightly more sedate zone, its patrons intently watching the chefs work the grill and sling finished platters of burgers across the counter.
The Burger Guys is the 21st-century gourmet equivalent of a malt shop, in all its loud and heady glory. And although these milkshakes may contain bacon and these burgers may contain foie gras, there's not an ounce of pompousness here.
It would be easy to write off a place like The Burger Guys as being pretentious trend-chasers, especially with the nearly orgasmic frenzy that accompanied the place when it first opened, over its chicken-fried bacon and fried duck egg toppings. But out here in a plain Jane strip center, watching three guys busting their asses to craft some of the best burgers in the city, you'll find that it's difficult to be cynical in the face of such enthusiasm and good humor.
Those three guys are chefs and co-owners Jake Mazzu and Steve Marques and sous chef Brandon Fisch, all of whom have pedigrees in some of Houston's higher-end restaurants, such as Bootsie's Heritage Cafe and Yelapa Playa Mexicana. But fancy food wasn't doing it for this trio, who abandoned those kitchens for the call of the grill when they opened The Burger Guys in June of this year. They brought along with them chef-driven principles like using local products wherever possible, creating their own sauces and pickles, and striving for creativity and spontaneity on their menu.
And if all of this sounds counterintuitive to a good, old-fashioned burger joint, it isn't. But it is a little odd that three highly trained chefs are making gourmet burgers for teenagers and businessmen on lunch breaks (despite many visits, I've yet to see any scenester feeding frenzies taking place.)
Take the Houston burger, perhaps the most straightforward of the gourmet burger offerings. On top of a sweet bun goes a house-made onion-bacon jam, piquant mustard made with Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower Ale, house-pickled bread-and-butter jalapeños and smoked cheddar cheese with a juicy patty of Akaushi beef as the centerpiece, dripping like a sugar maple that's just been tapped.
This litany of foodie terms might be enough to turn a casual visitor off, but it's worth wading through the swamp of definitions to get to that burger: It's a touch spicy thanks to that grainy mustard and the tiny jalapeños, but also sweet from those same pickled vegetables and the onion-bacon jam, all jumbled together with hints of smoke and dark caramel. And when the fat from the cheddar and the beef starts to meld together, it's sheer burger bliss.
The night that I tried the Houston burger, I had ordered a Chicago dog — going against the grain a bit, but paying off in spades with the spicy sport peppers and wonderful house-made pickles — but found myself grabbing the burger back from my dining companion every 30 seconds or so. We traded off devouring it with indecently large bites. Before long, what was left of the bun was saturated by the juicy meat. In between bites, I grabbed frites by the pair from the metal basket they were served in, licking my fingers to get every trace of salt and duck fat off them before heading back to the burger.
It was an unseemly way to eat a meal, but I was too enamored of the burger and fries to care.
The gamble of stacking a burger with all manner of over-the-top ingredients doesn't always pay off, however. On my first visit a few months ago, the only things I enjoyed at all were the bites of my dining companion's somewhat ho-hum Sonoma burger (translation from the menu: it's a bacon cheeseburger with avocado) and those indulgent Belgian frites, fried in, yes, duck fat. At $3, the price may seem high until you taste them, all perfectly cut and cooked, salt clinging to each golden-brown piece. (And keep in mind that duck fat isn't exactly cheap.)
But my Phuket burger was a disaster. Perhaps it's my own fault for venturing into fusion territory so early in the restaurant's life. But Thai flavors mixed with a solidly American dish sounded tempting, especially with the prospect of spicy tamarind-lime dressing and shredded green papaya on top. In my mind, it would taste like the lovechild of luscious, richly-flavored som tam and a hamburger. What could go wrong?
What went wrong was this: The flavors just don't go together. It didn't help that I received one of The Burger Guys' infrequent well-done burgers (most patties verge on medium-rare to medium), which had all the charm of a charcoal briquette. But even doing away with the meat and trying to eat the papaya and dressing on the bun was a no-win situation. The dressing tasted rough and uneven, as if the kitchen was still experimenting with the flavors. And the papaya had no taste at all.
Worse, my bacon apple pie shake — "It's our best flavor!" promised the bright young thing working the cash register — was exceptionally thin and gritty, with almost no hint of apple, or even of bacon, for that matter. But I will say this: The guys take their food seriously, especially if you aren't eating it. Every time I've gone, I've seen Mazzu making his way around to check on people's meals, while Fisch keeps an eagle eye on the patrons at the counter as he mans the grill.
Fisch took notice that I wasn't drinking my shake and had, in fact, pushed it as far away from me as possible. "Is everything okay?" he inquired.
I answered honestly and told him how I felt about the shake. He picked up the Styrofoam cup and took a look at it. "This isn't right," he said. "This isn't right at all. Please let me get you another one."
Already stuffed from the basket of frites I'd demolished with The Burger Guys' housemade ketchup (you can choose two sauces for your fries from a list of about eight), I declined. Fisch was cheerfully insistent, but I managed to put him off. I could come back for a shake another time. Instead, I asked him about that ketchup I'd fallen in love with.
"A lot of people don't like it," he answered. "You really do?"
"I do!" I said. It tastes absolutely nothing like regular ketchup, smacking of ginger and punchy sugar amidst the bright tomato flavor, but on those fatty frites it's pure genius.
Undertaking the process of making ketchup is extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming. And if you're crazy enough to perform this arduous task on a daily basis, you might as well make something exceptional — something that doesn't taste like Heinz ketchup. The Burger Guys succeeds in this area mightily, although traditional ketchup fans should take note. And, as Fisch told me that night, patrons are welcome to BYOK.
By the time I got back to The Burger Guys a few months later, the burgers and the shakes had improved drastically. And this time, I also made my way over to the soda fountain, not a fixture in normal restaurants but a fascinating time warp here.
"Those sodas you're serving," remarked a businessman to Fisch as he ate his burger at the counter. "Those aren't American sodas, are they?"
I shook my head and bit my tongue, intent on minding my own business. Fisch patiently explained to the man that Dublin Dr Pepper is simply Dr Pepper from Dublin, Texas, made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
In fact, all the sodas in the fountain are made with "real" sugar and many of them are a trip back in time for people, including my dining companion that day.
"I haven't seen Nu Grape since I was a little girl!" she crowed, filling her cup up with the stuff as 40 years dropped instantly away. We traded sodas and burgers back and forth that day, which is probably the best way to enjoy a meal here. The Dublin Dr Pepper was perfect for washing down a Dublin burger, coated with not-too-sweet barbecue sauce made from the plummy soda, while the grape soda was ideal for quenching the tiniest tinge of burn from the blue cheese-covered Buffalo burger with hoppy Tabasco mash aioli. Both patties had that sweet ooze, although both buns were utterly demolished about halfway through once again.
On a subsequent visit, I tried the shake again and found that it, too, was miles better. The Burger Guys makes shakes of two varieties: those made with ice creams that Mazzu has dreamed up and those made with cereal. The cereal milkshakes, like a gritty Booberry I tried, aren't up to snuff yet. But the ones made with ice cream, like the cafe sua da milkshake that night, are enough to turn me off 59 Diner's butterscotch malts for good. All the layers of traditional Vietnamese iced coffee were there, but blended together in a not-too-thick concoction that turned the drink on its ear.
And it's that aspect of The Burger Guys I like best: Taking solidly Houston flavors — Thai here, Vietnamese there, all bundled together with Texas beef and beer — and local ingredients like Dairymaids' cheese and Hatterman's eggs to knock you for a loop and make you rethink what a burger could and should be, despite a sometimes mystifying menu. With their blissfully scenester-free location in west Houston and the infectious joyfulness they take in their work, I have hope that The Burger Guys and their breathtaking burgers will be around to enjoy for years to come.
I have a feeling that's how long it will take to work my way through the constantly evolving and alluring list of burgers and hot dogs.
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