When it comes to food-truck owners opening brick-and-mortar locations, Houston has had something of a spotty history. The past few years have seen a handful of beloved food trucks make the transition, only to eventually close up shop and head back to the truck. If the constant crowds at The Burger Joint are any indication, though, Matthew Pak may have found his forever home in the former Little Big’s space on Montrose.
Open since last November, The Burger Joint is a co-effort between Pak and Shawn Bermudez, who owns and operates a number of bar and restaurant concepts along lower Westheimer, in addition to the small fleet of food trucks from which the association sprang. The focus, naturally, is on burgers, though a lot of the appeal of the place is experiential.
If you ever visited Little Big’s when Bryan Caswell’s casual slider shack was slinging beef on the same lot, you might remember it as feeling cramped, rushed and not terribly inviting. Bermudez and Pak have changed that vibe entirely, using the small footprint of the building as an asset rather than a liability. Where previous diners had to choose between the tightly packed and dimly lit interior and the circus-tented and slightly depressing patio at Little Big’s, Pak and Bermudez force pretty much everyone outside. Aside from the bar — a welcome addition laid out in gleaming varnished wood — there is essentially no indoor seating. Similarly, many of the exterior walls have been opened up, giving the entire place a breezy feeling that turns the tiny building into a space that feels much larger, united with its patio instead of awkwardly split into two odd and oddly proportioned subzones.
The whole experience of The Burger Joint feels festive and summery. Bright red umbrellas dot the expansive patio. Picnic tables are scattered far enough apart that they don’t feel cramped, but close enough together that it feels like everyone seated there is at the same backyard party. A screen of bamboo separates diners from the depressing parking lot scene on two sides, but the view of Montrose remains unobscured, creating a surprisingly lush urban retreat. Small changes, maybe, but they make the experience of eating there a joy instead of a concession.
Of course, the pleasure of the space would only be so valuable if that pleasure weren’t repeated in the food. Happily for all involved, that’s not the case. While some of the burgers there fail to deliver the right bang for their particular allotment of buck, the basics are for the most part spot-on.
Take a classic cheeseburger, my personal benchmark for burger quality. A six-ounce beef patty, grilled exactly to your specifications (an alarming rarity at many places), dressed with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles and mayo and a slice of cheese if you ask, The Classic is just that. Nothing fancy. Nothing to hide behind. Not even a swipe of mustard as I tend to prefer. It’s not needed. Beefy and lush, well-proportioned in all aspects, this is a hard burger with which to find fault. If I had to, I’d ask for a bit more fat in the mix (the drip factor is rarely very high here), and a harder sear (paler crusts than I’d like tend to be the norm). Still, the rosy interior and beefy bloom, augmented by the crunch and acid and sweetness of its accoutrement, make this a near-perfect basic cheeseburger. Simple, and summery, and perfect on a picnic-table-decked patio with a cold draft beer in hand.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more pizzazz, The Burger Joint can certainly accommodate, though you shouldn’t expect any new ground to be covered. The fact that Houston 2016 can expect things like a kimchi burger, or a lamb burger dressed with tzatziki, as almost de rigueur says something interesting about the state of the industry, I’m sure, but that’s not why we’re here.
For its part, The Burger Joint makes some structural improvements on the kimchi burger, in which the rubbly chopped bits of griddle-caramelized cabbage make a neat nest for egg yolk (sometimes aptly runny, sometimes sadly not), where many versions leave their ferments whole. The finer texture both holds the yolk in place (yolk dam-breakage being a personal pet peeve of mine) and prevents a single bite from tearing free whole hanks of the stuff. That’s a nice touch. This is also likely the drippiest burger on the menu, by virtue of its cabbage and egg at least as much as its beef. Still, it’s a chin-dripping pleasure to eat, a five-napkin burger or more.
While the Opa doesn’t boast the same level of shirt-ruining juiciness, it does have a ton of flavor. Though the kitchen does pull some punches with the advertised feta, everything works in concert. The suave crunch of cucumber freshens the salty funk of the cheese, the slight gaminess of the lamb plays well against pickled red onions, and the zip of tzatziki adds creaminess, acid tang and herbal lift to the whole affair. I would like a bit more game in my lamb, though, and more of that swell tzatziki would be nice, along with a bit more punch from those lovely pickled onions. I ate it faster than these small gripes might imply.
The same cannot be said of the Smoke Stack. I’ll admit a bit of bias here: I tend not to favor overwrought burgers. Adding more meat may sound like a good idea (and while you’re at it, why not the kitchen sink?), but it often translates to a whole lot less than the sum of its parts, each component smoothing into the next like so much burger-shaped Play-Doh. That is, unfortunately, what happens here.
The Mexi burger, with its ham-avocado-chipotle-queso fresco adders, seems like it might be similarly Ackbar-esque (it’s a trap), but it manages to squeak by. It even bypasses my typical “melty cheese is a must” rule for burger adequacy. The salty sweetness of ham, lush creaminess of avocado and crunchy punch of mild pickled jalapeño really come together well here, making for a fine entry into the Hall of Houston Burgers.
Of course, you might not feel like a burger at all. While I may question your motivations and choice of venue, there are a few options at The Burger Joint, some more worthy than others. With their snappy case and definitively beefy flavor, the hot dogs are as good a bet as the burgers. In particular, the Big Frank is a winner, wanting only a few acidic notes to truly make it sing. As it is, the mildly sweet pulled pork is a great foil for the almost aggressively salty dog, with the slaw offering a nicely contrasting crunch. Unlike with the Smoke Stack, the compound meats work, complementing each other in flavor and texture. Everything is really well balanced, the elements dressing the dog without overwhelming it. A kick of mustard or something pickled would really take this over the top, but it’s an excellent hot dog as is.
I can’t say the same for the chicken sandwich, but only for its lack of crispness and crust adhesion. While the bird itself is well seasoned and juicy, its Southern-style crust boasting a bit of gentle heat, it’s a mess to eat, and in all the wrong ways. The crust, not very crispy to begin with, heads downhill quickly. A few bites in, and you’ve tugged the majority of it out onto the one-fourth sheet tray. Other than that, the additions of lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles, plus a swipe of mayo, are just fine. Fix the breading, and this would be a worthy option.
As for the “Burger Bowls,” I am willing to accept the notion that there is a large contingent of folks just itching for a hacked-up hamburger patty deposited on top of a mixed green, but I don’t think this is the one they want. Weighed down with an overly sweet honey-Dijon dressing, the salad fails as that and as a burgerish thing in equal measure. The burger is cooked well (I’ve had only one patty miss the mark in that regard, across a couple of visits, half a dozen or so burgers and various doneness requests), the fries are crispy (though they don’t stay that way), and then that dressing runs roughshod over everything. It’s an odd misstep on a menu where most things feel well thought out.
It may be well thought out, but I can’t say I’m a fan of The Burger Joint’s chili, at least not when it’s deployed on the delightfully crisp, double-fried potatoes. I’m a staunch defender of beans in chili as a concept (grab your torch and pitchfork), but find their texture off-putting here.
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Texture also mars many of the shakes, which sound like a good idea but whose soft-serve base renders them unappetizingly runny. A standout and stellar exception is the peanut butter version, whose generous scoop of crunchy PB whirred directly into the cup results in near-perfect texture — thick enough to stand up, but not quite on its own. It’s like a Snickers bar rendered in non-Newtonian fluid, and that’s far more delightful than it sounds.
Though there are definitely some hits and misses, The Burger Joint already feels like a fixture in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place you’d walk to, in one of Houston’s defiantly walkable neighborhoods. The casually charming atmosphere adds value of its own, as does the (increasingly mandatory) beer list, which boasts a slew of local favorites alongside well-chosen (and more or less reasonably priced) national offerings across a range of styles. Pak and Bermudez are interested in doing interesting things, too. While the regular burger menu may not stray too far from the typical path (watch the specials board for more experimental options), The Burger Joint has already started its own monthly pop-up, featuring inventive Houston chefs’ own spins on the burger concept, with the proceeds going to charity. Welcome to Montrose, Burger Joint. We hope you’ll stay a while.
The Burger Joint
2703 Montrose, 281-974-2889, burgerjointhtx.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. Fridays to 4 a.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday Brunch
Classic single with cheese $7
Opa burger $9.75
Smoke Stack burger $11.50
Mexi burger $9.50
Veggie burger $6.25
Cheeseburger bowl $8.50
Fried chicken sandwich $6.75
Grilled ahi tuna sandwich (special) $13.95
Big Frank $8.50
Chili queso fries $5.75
Mac and cheese $3.25
Potato salad $2.75
Assorted dipping sauces 50 cents
Peanut butter milkshake $5
8th Wonder Rocket Fuel milkshake $7.50