Rockwell Tavern on Telge Road in Cypress opened in January, but the interior already looks well worn. That's because it was furnished with used tables and chairs bought from another restaurant. When you sit down, your forearms stick to the tacky wooden tabletops. The floor is stained concrete. There's a pool table in the middle of the bar. A bunch of cue sticks are littered around the place. Big-screen televisions are usually tuned to extreme sports. The six-month-old sports bar is something of a dump already.
Did I mention that Rockwell Tavern has some of the best hamburgers in the city?
On my first visit, I sampled the "Instant Vintage," one of 13 "gourmet burgers" on the menu. All of the hamburgers at Rockwell Tavern come on a dense and slightly sweet custom-baked roll. The hamburger meat is freshly ground, never-been-frozen beef that is loosely handpacked. The patty looks to be about a half pound, and comes cooked to a slightly pink medium. The meat is very juicy. The Instant Vintage comes with Swiss, jack and cheddar cheese and two slices of extra thick, crispy bacon along with the usual lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo.
I cut the sandwich in half so that my lunch mate could try some. On Saturdays and Sundays, Rockwell Tavern serves breakfast. She had ordered an omelet called "Eggs in Hell" that was stuffed with jalapeños and Buffalo chicken strips. While I was engrossed with her fiery egg dish, she started eating her half of the burger.
There was a string of sounds like "oh," "yum," "omigod," "omigod" from her side of the table. When it escalated into loud When Harry Met Sally moans, I put down the fork and picked up my half of the burger. It didn't take long to understand what all the noise was about — the burger was utterly phenomenal.
The layering of ingredients, the dense, sweet bun with crunchy toasted edges, the three cheeses, the loose burger patty, it all added up to an exceptional burger experience. My only complaint was that the thick bacon was so flavorful, it overwhelmed the taste of the beef now and then. My lunch mate immediately pronounced Rockwell Tavern's burger the best in Houston.
No, Rockwell Tavern was not on Texas Monthly's Top 50 burger list — nor is a roadhouse with sticky tables and pool cues all over the place likely to make TM's next one.
"Atmosphere made a huge difference in how much we enjoyed a burger," the authors of the Texas Monthly burger story wrote. In fact, their scoring system graded atmosphere on a 1-to-5 scale and averaged it into the overall burger score.
That makes sense. There is no way around the fact that the atmosphere of a burger joint is going to influence the way you rank it. The number one burger on the list I posted on our Eating...Our Words blog in June was the 105 Grocery and Deli, a rural convenience store in Washington, a few miles west of Navasota.
The convenience-store burger is so much a part of Texas food history, I can't help rating convenience-store burgers higher than regular restaurant burgers. Kincaid's Grocery in Fort Worth and Lankford Grocery and Christian's Totem in Houston were convenience stores that became famous burger joints. Hruska's in Ellinger is a convenience store that made number 42 on Texas Monthly's list, Lankford Grocery was ranked 39. But I have a feeling that TM didn't give convenience stores like Hruska's bonus points for atmosphere.
The Grape, a toney wine bistro in Dallas, got Texas Monthly's number one burger award. What's the atmosphere like? According to the restaurant's Web site, "dining at The Grape is like stepping into a small European village."
The Grape's menu features steak frites, mussels, lobster, and a cheese and charcuterie platter, but no burgers. Turns out The Grape only serves cheeseburgers for Sunday brunch. According to a recent story on the Austin Food Journal Web site, The Grape was only making around a dozen burgers a week when TM dropped by.
The Grape's Web site has a new notice that reads: "THANK YOU TEXAS MONTHLY FOR AWARDING THE GRAPE WITH THE #1 BEST BURGER IN TEXAS! Because of the overwhelming public response, The Grape has decided to EXPAND the burger's availability to ALL DAY SUNDAY AND MONDAY NIGHT..."
So Texas Monthly's ideal Texas burger joint is a wine bar with lofty culinary standards that turns out a couple of burgers two days a week in an atmosphere reminiscent of "a small European village." You got a problem with that?
On my second visit to Rockwell Tavern, I got the King Bubba burger, a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top. It's described on the menu as the "caddy of burgers." Like the Instant Vintage, the King Bubba starts with a half pound of loosely packed ground meat served on a dense, moist, slightly sweet, toasted roll. Same lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. But the cheese here is all cheddar. The fried egg was cooked over easy, served on top of the crispy bacon strips. The bright yellow yolk was running down the side of the bun and onto the plate.
My lunch companion this time was a big, hungry guy. He kept muttering, "holy shit, holy shit" over and over as he wolfed down his half of the King Bubba. I ate my half leaning over the plate because the yolk was still running. It was even better than the Instant Vintage, if you are partial to a burger with a fried egg topping. (I am.)
The burgers at Rockwell Tavern come with fries or onion rings. The hand-cut french fries were terrific. The onion rings were either overcooked or over-battered — they were very crispy, but the onions seemed to have disappeared. A ketchup dispenser is provided for the fries and onion rings.
I'll be adding Rockwell Tavern to my next Top 10 Texas Burger list. Maybe Texas Monthly will add the place to its list too, if they ever venture into burger ranking again. Atmosphere is in the mind of the beholder, but any way you score it, Rockwell's burgers blow away Texas Monthly's Houston burger choices. Don't take my word for it. Go eat a Rockwell Tavern burger and see for yourself.
If you get the King Bubba, use the fresh-cut fries to clean up the egg yolk that drips on the plate. It's way better than ketchup.
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