Grub Burger Bar, From Aggie Country, Slings Some Fine Patties and (Loaded) Milkshakes
On any given day, you'll probably see someone standing outside Anthropologie's rustic storefront or across the street by the gurgling water feature and grassy expanse surrounding Ruggles Green handing out coupons to passersby, shoppers and businesspeople, enticing them to come in for a bite.
You'll accept a slip of paper from the earnest marketer — more out of courtesy than genuine interest — but the coupon's offer will be too enticing to pass up. The generous invitation to stop by for a free milkshake or order of fries seems as good a reason as any to head to the space above Urban Outfitters in City Centre and try the fare. But once you're there and you sit down for a barbecue sauce-smothered burger and a shake spiked with bourbon, you'll realize this: The coupon is totally unnecessary.
One meal at Grub Burger Bar and you'll likely conclude, as I did after my first sip of chocolate milkshake with a tequila tang, that the food, service and swanky seating area are worth the price, discount or not. One bite of the Luau fries will have you making mental notes about when you'll next be in the area so you can stop in for freshly cut twig-thin slices of fried potato crisped and covered with smoky pulled pork, a tangy mixture of teriyaki and barbecue sauces, sliced and sautéed jalapeños, and improbably crave-worthy chunks of pineapple. Each bite contains the subtle starch of the fries, which helps to soothe the mouth in the presence of spicy peppers and acidic pineapple, but the overall effect is indeed that of a rustic luau feast. As you chew, you can picture the pig roasting on the spit before being transferred to a table so the juicy upper shoulder can be cut and shredded. You can see the woman (wearing, of course, a lei) chopping fresh pineapples to pair with the pork and the man tossing baskets of fries onto paper towels so that they can cool slightly before he tops them with all the accoutrements that make them so evocative of a Hawaiian-style celebration.
Or at least that's where my mind went. And my friends had the same mental interlude, from what I could tell.
"Oh my God, those fries. I could eat those every day," one of them said. "I'm obsessed with this milkshake," said the other, gesturing toward a tall, chilled glass filled with vanilla ice cream and bourbon drizzled with caramel and a puff of whipped cream. "And I don't even like caramel." They both looked at me hopefully.
"So...do you have to come eat here again tomorrow?"
I suspect most Houstonians who know the origin of Grub Burger Bar were surprised by how much they like the place, too. After all, it's not exactly a chain, nor is it a restaurant we developed here in Houston with the help of our city's array of culinary talent and cutting-edge idea people. Nope. It came to us in the summer of 2013 by way of College Station, where two guys who had once worked together and risen through the ranks at Outback Steakhouse reconnected and decided to start a restaurant of their own.
Grub was standing-room-only when it debuted in College Station in spring 2012, thanks in large part to the reputation of the owners, Jimmy Loup and Tom Kenney, as well as the large student population eager for a tricked-out burger and boozy milkshake. The Houston location has seen a slower start, but the crowds do come, especially on the weekends, when the shotgun-style space fills with teenagers in athletic attire, hungry shoppers, City Centre workers and the few Inner Loopers who can't resist Grub's call.
The menu is a single, highly manageable page of gourmet burgers, appetizers the size of meals, inexpensive side dishes, interesting salads and five sandwiches under the heading "Burgers That Don't Moo." The entire back page of the menu is filled with booze. That's right, not only is Grub Burger Bar a burger joint, it's also (as the name suggests) a bar. The signature cocktails aren't anything unusual, but the Grub 'Ritas, like the refreshing blend of Cuervo Silver tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice and a hint of sugar in the Ruby Red Rita, pack a tasty punch.
Better still are the spiked milkshakes, which, unlike some weak shakes that only claim to be boozy, taste just enough of liquor to burn a little on the way down. The Bourbon and Caramel shake manages to keep from being overly sweet, tasting more of burned sugar than fake sugar syrup, and the Mint Chocolate Chip, which features vodka, coffee liqueur and crème de menthe blended with ice cream, Andes mints and chocolate syrup, is a decadent dessert that you will want to slurp.
All the shakes are served with oversize straws made for sucking up tapioca pearls in bubble tea but that here serve to deliver maximum milkshake to the mouth as rapidly as possible. My only complaint — and one that I will continue to spout until the world takes note — is the use of canned whipped cream to top off the shakes. Far from tasting like homemade cream, it dissolves as soon as it touches the tongue, denying me the mouth-coating richness (and calories) of real cream. But if I was able to move past the faux topping, you will be too, and you'll be glad you did, for the burgers are not to be missed.
Want to see photos from behind the scenes of this week's Cafe review? Check out our slideshow "A Closer Look at Grub Burger Bar."
Houston is positively swimming in great burgers, and Grub only adds to our reputation as a burger mecca. The secret is in the hand-formed patties, which are made from Angus chuck and brisket, ground in-house daily. These patties are neither thin and sickly nor overwhelmingly large. The servers who take orders at the counter don't ask how you want your burger prepared because each comes out perfectly medium-well. I tend to like my burgers a little more pink on the inside, but I had to admit the cooking time was ideal, and it took nothing away from the flavor of the meat mixture.
The assertive sear from the grill brings out the flavor of the protein while holding in the juices, so the burger stays moist throughout. And though the lightly seasoned and browned patty would make a fine dish on its own, the well-considered add-ons make each burger a complete thought.
Perhaps the best of Grub's signature sandwiches is the Lockhart Legend burger, a nod to the barbecue haven that is Lockhart, Texas, which lies just outside San Marcos. In homage to the city that bills itself the barbecue capital of the state, the burger comes with all the fixings of a fine platter of brisket. It's topped with melted Cheddar cheese, zesty dill pickle slices and two crispy onion rings, and then, just to take it up a notch, Grub adds some applewood-smoked bacon and homemade barbecue sauce laced with Dr Pepper. The beauty of the Lockhart Legend is that, in spite of the multitude of extras, it isn't over the top. The ingredients harmonize in such a way that each contributes something — a bit of spice, a rush of vinegar or a mellow smokiness—to the burger as a whole.
Those less inclined to tackle such a beast could opt for the Guacapotle burger, which boasts Cheddar cheese, fresh guacamole and a touch of heat from delicious chipotle aioli. With the same great patty as the canvas, Grub turns a mushroom-topped burger into a VooDoo mushroom burger, with melted Swiss cheese, green onions and an ode to N'awlins via absinthe-fortified mushrooms that pack a licorice kick. And as if Luau fries aren't enough, the party comes in burger form, too — it's all the toppings of those captivating fries on a mound of meat (instead of potatoes).
For all that Grub does right, the restaurant does get one minor thing wrong: the buns. It pains me to say that, because the restaurant is clearly proud of those glistening, buttery buns, which are made fresh hourly and are available for purchase by the bag. They taste great — I'll give Grub that — but each time I ate a burger, I found the buns dry and a little too present for my liking. The bun-to-burger ratio seemed off. When I removed the top half of my bun and made an open-faced burger, the flavors were more vivid, unmarred by the extra bread.
Beef is not all that's for dinner, though. Grub offers up burgers made from chickpeas, poultry and seafood, as well as some mighty tasty and very fresh salads. In the best salad, ahi tuna cooked rare lies seductively across a bed of butter lettuce and arugula lightly dressed with pickled ginger and wasabi-teriyaki vinaigrette, which, as with the burgers, sounds like too much of a good thing but isn't.
It's just enough.
There's another great burger on the menu that deserves a mention. In truth, there are several, but there's one in particular that I appreciate as much for its unique taste as for its gimmicky nature: The Ghost Burger.
When I first read the description, I chuckled a little. One of Grub's fine patties topped with pepper jack cheese (a little spicy), grilled jalapeños (slightly more spicy) and "ghost chili sauce" made with ghost peppers (unbelievably hot). There's an italicized note under the description that reads, "Try inferno style with ice cream chaser."
"Does it really come with an ice cream chaser?" I asked the woman at the counter.
"It does," she replied, looking me up and down. "You're going to need it. I suggest you get the sauce on the side, too. It's hot."
Now, I love spicy food. I stare spicy food in the eye and laugh at its pathetic attempt to vanquish me. I say bring it on. And that's why, when the burger arrived, perfect patty and slightly too much bun, as usual, I picked up the whole thing and dunked it jovially into the metal ramekin of sauce.
I took a bite. It was wonderful — a wash of beefy burger followed by smoky charred jalapeños, a touch of cheesy funk from the pepper jack and a good mouthful of bun to cool things off. I let the flavors mellow on my tongue for a moment, and then, suddenly, the bite I had taken...that bite took me.
The room spun a bit as heat rushed from my mouth into my sinuses and back behind my eyeballs. I groped for the ice cream, never before so happy to see a tiny dollop of soft-serve. I downed it, just as one might down a chaser, and sat back, waiting for the dairy to work its magic.
It did, eventually, several hours later. After I left Grub Burger Bar, the memory lingered with me in the form of a quiet tingle surrounding my lips. It wasn't bothersome, though. In fact, it made me smile, remembering my foolish enthusiasm for the ghost pepper sauce.
Nearly everything about Grub Burger Bar makes me smile, from the tequila-laced chocolate milkshake with a kick to the Luau Fries covered in all the fixings for a Hawaiian party. And then, of course, there are the burgers, courtesy of two guys from College Station. Well played this time, Aggies. Well played.
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