You like hamburgers?" plumber Bill Beatty asks me conspiratorially as we stand in line at Guy's Meat Market on Old Spanish Trail. It's not yet 11:30 a.m. and the line already stretches most of the way out the front door.
"Yeah, I love hamburgers," I reply. I had asked Beatty's advice on what to order for lunch. The sign out front says barbecue, but the people who rave about this place all seem to be fixated on the hamburgers. Truck drivers, builders and employees of the U.S. Postal Service make up much of the clientele, judging by the trucks in the parking lot. Guy's is strictly a get-it-'n'-go joint; there are no tables.
"They put their burgers on the barbecue," Beatty explains, "and they get really smoky." Guy's burgers are the only barbecued burgers I've ever seen. They come with a deep red smoke ring and a haunting hickory flavor.
Guy's Meat Market
3106 Old Spanish Trail, 713-747-6800. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sliced brisket sandwich: $2.50
Chopped brisket sandwich: $1.75
Ribs, per pound: $5.98
Pint of potato salad or coleslaw: $1.49
"Do you like jalapeños?" Beatty continues.
"Yeah, yeah, I love jalapeños," I tell him. The No. 2 (double meat) with jalapeños is my standard order at Whataburger. But I'm a little dubious about the burger at Guy's. The truth is, I've stood in this line before. I got some rubbery brisket and a burger my first time here a couple of years ago. The burger was smoky, all right, but after an extra hour of cooking, the meat gets extremely well done and kind of dry. The lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise don't seem to moisten it up much, either. I asked Beatty what he recommended because I was hoping he knew something about the other barbecue. But instead of a different meat, Beatty suggested a different strategy.
"And are you okay with barbecue sauce on a burger?" Beatty whispers as we near the front of the line.
"Barbecue sauce?" I repeat, a little befuddled. But as my turn to order nears, the logic falls neatly into place.
Barbecue sauce! Of course!
Imagine a brisket sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and mustard. It would be an abomination before the barbecue gods. A brisket sandwich is properly dressed with lots of barbecue sauce on the bun and whatever combination of onions, pickles and jalapeños the consumer sees fit. The sauce keeps the meat moist. So why not treat the barbecued hamburgers at Guy's with the same respect you'd show any other barbecue sandwich?
I order a burger with barbecue sauce and jalapeños, as instructed, and one with lettuce, tomato and mayo for the sake of comparison. I also get a half-pound of ribs because they look good and a plate of links because it's the lunch special.
The ribs are dense and chewy with a nice smoky flavor. The oversize links, made of finely ground and lightly seasoned meat, are tasty. And the burger with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise is predictably dry. But the hickory-smoked burger covered with jalapeños on a bun liberally painted with barbecue sauce is incredible.
In the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, I wrote that hamburgers and hot dogs aren't considered barbecue in Texas. I was trying to distinguish between the use of the word "barbecue" in Yankeeland to describe a backyard weenie roast versus what we mean in Texas. Though I may have been well intentioned, the hamburgers at Guy's have proved me wrong. There is such a thing as a barbecued hamburger, even in the Texan sense of the word.
Every day, Guy's Meat Market puts 200 cooked half-pound, ground round patties in the smoker with smoldering hickory for about an hour. They sell the burgers until they run out, which is generally a little after noon. You might get one as late as 12:45 if you're really lucky.
Guy's is a Houston landmark. Brad "Guy" Dickens opened the original Guy's Meat Market on Almeda in 1938. He opened a second store at Scott and Southmore in 1946. In 1958 he moved to the current location on OST. Dickens also bought the land next door and built a restaurant called the Blue Haven Grill for a friend. The friend had a heart attack, and Guy took over the restaurant in 1961 and ran it until 1975 as Guy's Steakhouse. You can still read the restaurant's 1961 menu, which is on display near the meat market's cash register.
When Dickens retired in 1970, his son, Brad Dickens, a Texas A&M graduate and Vietnam veteran, took over the store. The younger Dickens started the smoked hamburger tradition around 1988. Brad evidently gets a big kick out of misspelling things on the store's signage. The "hambergers" are available with "pickols, unyuns and jalipinos," according to the board near the order counter. Looking around the store, you can spot dozens of such spelling errors. Not even an Aggie could have gotten that many wrong without trying, so I guess it's a joke.
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Guy's used to make most of its money as a regular meat market, says Dickens. For those with room in their freezers, they sell bulk meat orders such as the OST Saver, which includes four pounds of hamburger, a pot roast, a sirloin, a round steak and a slab of pork ribs for $30. There are other grocery shelves in the store, but most of them seem to be filled with picnic supplies like potato chips and jalapeño slices. Over the years, the barbecue business has eclipsed the butcher shop. "Nobody cooks anymore," Dickens observes.
On my last visit, there were a half-dozen guys in military uniform in line. Army Sergeant Darnell Teamer told me he was usually stationed at the port of Beaumont, but he had a few things to do at the Houston office that day. Guy's is a favorite lunch spot for the military folk who work on OST, he said. He was going for a cheeseburger, although he said the last time he ate a Guy's burger he got so full he couldn't eat his dinner. The lady behind me in line agreed. She volunteered that the half-pound hamburgers were too big, and that she preferred the links and the ribs.
When my turn came, I ordered two hamburgers with barbecue sauce and jalapeños, but this time I also got a brisket sandwich as well as another order of ribs. I spread the picnic out on the dining room table of a friend who lives nearby and four of us rated the lunch. Everybody fought over the hamburgers with barbecue sauce, which were outstanding. The brisket sandwich looked oddly undersized compared to the burger, but the meat was falling-apart tender. The sandwich, though small, was excellent. These ribs were undercooked and rubbery. After a bite or two, my taste testers discarded them uneaten. The potato salad was average, but the coleslaw had a pleasantly fruity flavor. The general consensus was that I should get in the car and go back for more hamburgers.
The barbecue at Guy's is hit-or-miss. One time the ribs are fabulous and the next time they're inedible. Likewise, the brisket varies drastically in tenderness. But it's the hamburgers that the place is famous for, and they never change. I like my burgers medium rare, as a rule, but I make an exception for Guy's. The hickory-smoked burgers here are among the most flavorful I've ever eaten. And thanks to Bill Beatty and his barbecue sauce strategy, I've overcome the dryness problem, too. Who says there's never a plumber around when you need one?