Notes from the Burger Underground: Tasting the Elite 8

Yesterday, our commenters demanded to see expressed a polite interest in seeing our judging teams' tasting notes for the 2011 Burger Bracket. Only one team sent in tasting notes, one of which we ran (for Lucky's Pub), while the other burger judges remained stoically silent about their notes and decision-making processes.

After all, it's not as if we asked the teams to send in their tasting notes. We trust their palates and judgments implicitly.

But both Carnivorous Habits and Team Pola Cheese piped up after yesterday's post on the Elite 8 burgers. Carnivorous Habits had originally sent in a full round of tasting notes and were happy to have them published, while Team Pola Cheese sent in a full batch of their own tasting notes.

You'll find the elaborate, insightful and hunger-provoking notes from both teams below.

Building a burger at Zelko Bistro.
Building a burger at Zelko Bistro.
Photo by Troy Fields

Team Pola Cheese: Fancy-Pants Bracket

Zelko Bistro / Boss Burger

Patty: Cooked perfectly, we asked for medium rare and that's exactly what we got. Seasoned well, super juicy, tons of flavor. The juice stayed where it is supposed to, in the patty. Not too thick, not too thin, and the beef was ground with respect, just enough to form a great patty. One really can't ask for much more in a burger patty.

Bun: Ruh Roh. After my first bite, a little corner of dry bun pulled away from the rest and fluttered sadly to the plate. Not a good start. The flavor of the bun was ok, size was fine, but it was dry, unforgivably dry. It's advertised as brioche, but it wasn't supple and springy like I expect brioche to be

Toppings: Well Balanced. Nothing took over. Just enough bacon, lovely sauteed onions..maybe the cheese went missing for a bite or two. Honestly, the toppings gave the patty exactly what it needed, companionship.

Overall Impressions: This reminds me a lot of my Grandpa's backyard burgers. That's a good thing, in the sense that Grandpa made a damn fine burger. All the flavors you want from a burger are there, and balanced really well. The ingredients are obviously very high quality, and prepared expertly. I get the feeling that Jaime set out to make a classic, American burger, only with better ingredients. She succeeded, but damn, the dry bun. On a fresh bun, this burger would have been a revelation.

Burger Guys / Sonoma

(Closest thing to a Boss Burger)

Patty: Cooked medium, despite my request for med-rare. Juicy, flavorful meat, seasoned well. Very good, but not great. The beef seemed overworked, to the extent that if it had been cooked medium rare, it might not have looked very appealing. (I would like to learn more about the philosophy of grinding beef for a burger patty)

Bun: Big points here. I don't know WHERE this bun is from, but it's springy, sweet, moist. It does that special bounce-back action, when you press down on the burger to get the magic going. This bun did a perfect job of soaking up some flavor and juice as I ate, without ever becoming "soggy".

Toppings: The bacon was a bit of a ham. Three slices on a burger this size were enough to push the other toppings into the background. That said, it did not overshadow the patty, so not a fatal flaw.

Overall Impressions: We all finished, and probably more quickly than we should have. This burger was greater than the sum of its parts, thoroughly enjoyable with no serious shortcomings and plenty of character.

Verdict: In my opinion, meat and bun are the factors by which a burger should first be judged. The patty at Zelko was "great" and the bun was "poor". The patty and bun at Burger Guys were both "very good". This made for a better burger experience. This was a tough call for all of us, because we feel that Zelko's Boss Burger deserves serious attention, and if we had eaten one on the right day, or the right bun, I imagine it's good enough to win this, or any burger competition. But, we can only judge what we ate.

Winner, by heated and difficult decision: The Burger Guys

Plonk Bistro/Guanciale Burger

Patty: The server did not ask us how we would like our burger cooked, and we were so busy drooling over the prospect of Guanciale on a burger, that we didn't think to ask. This patty was perfectly seasoned, cooked medium-wellish. There wasn't any pink, but the thing was tender and juicy. A bit on the thick side for my own personal taste, but I'm just nit-picking. This patty had that honest-to-goodness BEEF taste, the taste that reminds you with every bite just how lucky we are to rule the Bovine race.

Bun: A demure and pillowy sweet onion roll bun? Yes please. Fresh, sassy, delicious, great choice for this burger. It served as a beautiful contrast to the madness going on inside. -Drew

Toppings: This is unfair. Guanciale, caramelized onions, and gruyere. UNFAIR.

Overall Impressions: Without considering the decadent toppings, this burger still stands tall. Big, "I mean business" patty, and a great bun. Take the toppings into account, and this is a burger for the ages.

Bernie's Burger Bus/The Substitute

[(Sub Texas Cheddar for Bleu) Closest we could get to the Guanciale Burger]

Patty: Cooked medium, quality beef, juicy (held its juice well), but under-seasoned. Tasted alone, This patty was crying out for a bit of salt and pepper.

Bun: The bun was nice. Fluffy with a touch of sweetness. A good bun, but it only took one good squeeze to render it compacted. After the first few bites, the bun became a thin, dense blanket on my patty. No bounce-back action, and I have weak, girlish hands. Toppings - Bacon, "Tipsy" onions, mushrooms, Texas Cheddar. The toppings were prepared and proportioned well, and all very tasty.

Overall Impressions: This is a good, classic, burger. Made with care, and quality, but not "exciting" by any means. Probable the weakest of the four burgers in this bracket.

Verdict: Judged component by component, and again cumulatively, Plonk ate Bernie's lunch.

Winner/By Knock Out - Plonk Bistro


Carnivorous Habits: Pub Burger Bracket

Branch Water Tavern

With its kobe patty, included bacon, bibb lettuce (?!?) and $13 (!?!) price tag, this is not a "pub burger" in our opinion. It is a "fancy burger," at least as we read the AHT guide. That said, ours is not to reason why, and we can only render a verdict on what has been presented to us. Branch Water makes a damn fine burger. Ours were perfectly medium rare, the veggies crisp and fresh and the bacon smoky and crispy. Also, it left a beautiful puddle of ooze on the plate. The mixture of the bacon and beef makes for a tasty combination. It's an immediate must trust try for any Houston burger connoisseur, and I would not be surprised if it wins this whole competition. Also, the onion rings are seriously awesome.

Lucky's Pub

We were not expecting much from Lucky's, and we thought we were being sneaky by going to visit it the day after St. Patrick's Day. The atmosphere inside doesn't help - concrete floors and big TVs and every Budweiser product you could drink is not really where any of us would choose to dine. Also, choosing Lucky's to advance would probably result in all sorts of shit being flung your way and saying we were bought off because they're hosting the final party and yadda, yadda, yadda. And yet...Lucky's makes a really tasty burger. It's a thick, juicy patty with good veggies and a properly buttered and griddled bun. The meat was seasoned well and had a good overall flavor. If it had come out medium rare as ordered and oozed a little, we might have bumped it over BWT just because it's a better representation of a "Pub Burger." Petrol-burger loving fanboys needs to check the Lucky's burger out. If I wanted food either before or after an Astros game, I'd go to Lucky's for a burger and be perfectly happy.

[winner: Branch Water]


As the grand dame of Houston pub burgers, Rudyard's had to be included in this bracket. By appearances it meets all the requirements to be a strong contender in this bracket: solid bun, thick patty, fresh veggies. Somehow it all came up a little short. First of all, we ordered medium rare and it came out medium with almost no pink and certainly no ooze. The patty lacked the essential beefiness that the other burgers displayed. Also, the bun was too big for the patty, leaving excess bread. That's never ok. It's still light years better than the SmashGuys of the world, but Rudyards needs to step it up to be considered among Houston's burger elite.

The lamb burger (not tested in this competition) at Petrol Station.
The lamb burger (not tested in this competition) at Petrol Station.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

Petrol Station

I'm nervous about recommending Petrol Station to anyone, because as a restaurant it kind of sucks. As in, Victoria and I went there on Monday for their burger night and waited 40 minutes or so for our burgers. When I went back with Fulmer and Theo on Friday, my lamb burger arrived at our table after Theo and Fulmer were done with their burgers, even though we ordered at the exact same time. Since we weren't asked to judge service and only the burger, Petrol advances. On a Kraftsman-sourced bun (I asked), goes a thick patty with fresh, crisp veggies. Red onion was a pleasant surprise and shows that Petrol is committed to doing things the right way. In neither visit was our burger truly the requested medium rare, but it showed some ooze and had a delicious beefy flavor. At least there's really good beer to drink while you wait for your burger to come out.

[winner: Petrol]

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