Compared to the harsh fluorescent lighting and low, acoustical-tiled ceilings of downtown Houston's underground restaurants, The Burger Guys' bright yellow awning stands as a beacon on Main Street, summoning the Mole People from their burrows into the light of day. Inside, the high-ceilinged space feels generous and cheerful, splashes of purple offsetting the canary-colored walls in slightly madcap fashion. It's an appropriate color scheme for a place that spins Girl Scout cookies into shakes and tops its burgers with everything from lengua and pickled onions to the entire contents of a bánh mì. Fear not, though; despite the riotous colors and fantastical toppings, these burgers are serious business.
Take, for example, the Sonoma. A purist's burger, it's the type of classic, straightforward offering that could be easily overlooked on a menu such as this; miss it at your peril. For all the exotic allure of the other offerings, it's very tough to trump the impeccable put-together-ness of this burger. Everything works exactly as it should, like some sort of golden ratio of burger perfection, hinting at greater truths about the nature of the universe. Or something.
I'm typically not a fan of bacon on burgers, but it plays its role here admirably, adding crunch as well as reinforcement, among all that greenery, that this is indeed a burger. That greenery, peppery arugula and a suave smear of avocado, both perks up and tames the burger; a gilding of sharp cheddar and a swipe of garlicky aioli round things out to a neat (though not so little) package, landing the Sonoma firmly in the center of the Burger/Hamburger Sandwich Venn diagram. That clever positioning astride the fence of burgerdom is part of The Burger Guys' appeal.
The Burger Guys
Hours: 11a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Duck Fat Fries: $3
Onion Straws: $3
Fried Green Tomatoes: $3
Sonoma Burger: $10
Buffalo Burger: $10
New York Burger: $10
Tejas Burger: $10
Houston Burger: $10
Saigon Burger: $10
El Barrio Burger: $14
Chicago Dog: $10
Cleveland Dog: $10
Caphe Sua Da Shake: $5
Salted Caramel Shake: $5
Ten Cup Chocolate Shake: $5
Thin Mint Shake: $6
It occurred to me while plowing through a takeout El Barrio: There are two basic types of burgers, with their attendant and deeply entrenched fan bases. The first camp loves the burger as burger. A gloriously indulgent homage to beef and bun, this type is unchanged by any amount of baroque accessory. You can top it with a Frito pie, but it remains a resolute burger. Occupying the other end of the Venn spectrum is the hamburger sandwich. A bit austere, this burger is more about the overall experience than the glory of beef. You can eat a hamburger sandwich without risk of besmirching your shirt with grease. Like any good sandwich, it lends itself to variation, though within a very considered framework. At their best, Burger Guys' burgers live in both worlds — the studiousness of sandwich construction, the atavistic thrill of a burger.
Unfortunately, El Barrio — topped with shredded lengua, pickled red onions, cilantro and a swipe of salsa verde aioli — is an example of how difficult it can be to walk that line. While the idea of shredded lengua on top of a burger might be great in theory, the reality was a bit of a letdown. The lengua didn't actually add much, with an almost mushy texture that made for little in the way of contrast, and the patty itself is beefy enough not to need flavor reinforcement. The burger was fine, but probably would have been just as good without the lengua. The pickled onions helped to perk things up, brightening the flavor and adding a bit of crunch. A note to those attempting takeout: Best to redistribute the onions before you dig in; the burger shifts in transit, much like luggage in overhead bins, sending the carefully considered construction a bit out of whack.
If you're dining in, the process is simple. Step up to the counter, tilt your head up to the wall-mounted blackboard and prepare for indecision. While you're figuring out which burger to get, you might as well go ahead and order some fries; you'll want those. They'll arrive before your burger anyway, appetizer as much as side order. Skin on, judiciously chubby and crisped to a just thick enough crunchy crust. They're pillowy and earthy-sweet within, agreeably salty and deeply savory without, and few fried potatoes are their equal. The extra sprinkle of flaky kosher salt, its crunch reiterating that of the fried spud itself, sparks up every other bite. If you're a dipper (I'm not), The Burger Guys' dip station should tickle your fancy. Load up on CJBC (Cilantro, Jalapeño, Blue Cheese) or Salted Caramel. The board says you get two with your order, but they don't really mean it. Go nuts.
Oh look, your burger's here. Maybe you went with the Buffalo, a frenetic mash-up of everything buffalo-wing-related except the chicken. Here, the blue cheese crumbles synergize with the patty; the tang of the cheese, its tell-tale funk and subtle milkiness add a high note that complements the beef admirably. Wispy, crispy onion strings add their crunch to the thick-crusted burger, its well-seasoned top layer belying the yielding juiciness of the meat underneath. A blessing and a curse, that juicy beef outmatches its soft, eggy bun by just a bit, rendering the last third almost inevitably soggy. A small sacrifice.
Cooked to an appropriately racy medium-rare, that deeply beefy, aggressively seared patty is the undeniable star of the show, yet so well matched by its accoutrements that any significant change would render this a lesser sandwich. As is, it's quite possibly the best blue-cheese burger I've ever had.
Those onion strings? They're available as a side order, too, as is a basket of fried green tomatoes whose too-thick crust traipses dangerously between tempura and funnel cake, lending an unflattering toughness to the proceedings. Skip those. The onion strings are fair game if you're with a group. Their thin, shattery coating allows the taste of the slightly crunchy onions to come through, along with a bit of a tangy, spicy bite. They're tasty, but not enough that you want to eat even half an order.
Almost regardless of which burger you order, there's something special to note. Though there is plenty of satisfying drippage, and plenty of richness to complement it, these burgers won't make you feel leaden. Perhaps it's the HeartBrand beef on offer, its lower dose of saturated fat lending a clean-flavored appeal to the proceedings. Of course, every rule needs its exception, and The Burger Guys cast The Tejas in that role.
The Tejas — topped with sautéed rajas and white cheese — is a creamy, oozy mess that falls into the category to which I refer as the "wallow burger," where the overwhelming unctuousness of it all mentally transports you to a place of secret shame as you cram the burger in your gaping maw in huge, careless bites. The cheese smears mayonnaise-like across your face, while Homer Simpson-esque eating sounds gargle their way up past the homogeneous bliss of it all. You might not feel like a shake, which is the one reason I might steer you away from this (in)glorious bastard of a burger.
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Assuming you do feel up to it, there's something you should know. All of the shakes have soft, butter-fatty chunks in them. Depending on size and distribution, they can make the shake feel grainy, almost like a slightly curdled custard. That's been a problem only once, and more often, they're like little flecks of decadent, creamy velvet. I'd miss them if a shake turned up without them. As flavors go, I'm partial to the Ten Cup Chocolate, its flavor deep and true. Be sure to ask about the seasonal flavor, though. A Thin Mint shake, its dairy base steeped with crushed up Girl Scout cookies, was a light and lovely rendition of what can so often be a cloying flavor combination, never steering toward gimmickry, as could so easily have been the case.
The Cleveland Dog was the only thing here that read as novelty (alas, I was not able to try the B.M.F., since the kitchen didn't have its requisite foie gras on hand). Meat on meat can be great. On the Cleveland, the bacon swaddling the foot-long frank only added a bit of crunch and salt, and that crunch wore off as the dog sat. Not bad, just nothing to write home about. This realization was quite a letdown to my cohorts, who, when deciding on which of the "Double Fisted Dogs" to order, offered an incredulous "It's wrapped in bacon" in summation of their argument in favor of the order. They were momentarily disappointed, but quelled their sadness in the aforementioned Thin Mint shake.
If you must have a dog, choose the Chicago, dragged through the garden, as they say. Sweetness, acid, salty-meaty-swagger; it's sensory overload, in perfect balance. Crunch comes in myriad forms, from the aggressively crisped casing of the dog itself to the sport peppers, pickles, tomatoes and pop of (blessedly neon) relish. Somehow, the resulting monstrosity is physically edible without wearing it, yet still managing to get a bit of everything in every bite.
If you don't believe you'll be able to eat that monster dog, or its equally intimidating burger brethren, without wearing it back to the office, never fear. The boys have taken that into consideration as well, positioning automatic paper-towel dispensers within arm's reach of every table. Wipe away the excess and get back to the office. Just don't expect it to be too long before that bright yellow awning starts calling your name again. Oh, and that bánh mì burger, the Saigon? It's pretty damn good.