J's Special at The Hill Bar & Grill in Waller is a cheeseburger served on Texas toast. Swapping out a bun for two double-thick slices of toasted white bread sounds like a pretty minor change. But the effect that aggressively griddled Texas toast had on this sandwich was quite remarkable.
The burger came wrapped in tissue paper and served in a paper-lined basket on a bed of The Hill's hand-cut seasoned French fries. I ordered it medium. There wasn't any pink color left when it arrived, but the hand-formed half-pound patty was wonderfully juicy anyway. And what a thing it was to behold.
A thick square of melted American cheese bubbled invitingly over the side, sticking to the burger, the three slices of tomato, the crinkle-cut pickles and the Texas toast together. The mayo was spread so thick on the bottom, a little oozed out when I picked the sandwich up. There was a little yellow mustard on the top.
The Hill Bar 10:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to8:30 p.m. Sundays.
Chicken-fried steak: $8.50
Draft bock: $2.25
It was a radical burger to eat. The crunch of the slightly greasy Texas toast and the velvety smoothness of the melted American cheese contrasted wildly with the drippy half pound of juicy ground beef and fixin's. It was like a big Texas burger had been stuffed inside a giant grilled cheese sandwich.
We also sampled The Hill's famous chicken-fried steak on that visit. A pounded round steak was battered and fried in a deep fryer so that it took on an undulating free-form shape. The flaky batter was thick-crusted and gorgeously browned in the Southern-fried style.
The steak came on a big oval plate with a mound of tangy mashed potatoes that had been whipped with butter and spiked with buttermilk. My only quibble with the otherwise world-class CFS experience was the bright-white cream gravy. It reminded me of the cream gravy at Barbecue Inn — both taste a little like evaporated milk.
The Hill is a bar inside a barn. Harnesses and horse riding gear are hung from the rafters. The exposed ceiling is rusty corrugated tin, and the dim light is provided by neon beer signs that line the walls. When you walk in the front door on a summer day, you automatically sigh in relief. The dark, cool interior is such a welcome contrast from the sweltering heat and blinding light outside, you want to sit down and stay a while.
The last time I stopped by was on a Thursday around noon, and the place was crowded with guys dressed in overalls, beat-up cowboy hats and gimme caps. We chose a table under a mounted deer head. On each table there was a miniature galvanized bucket full of unshelled peanuts. We shelled and munched while we waited for our orders. The television sets hanging above the bar were tuned to a NASCAR event.
The Hill is located on a ten-acre tract of pastureland at the intersection of Haley Road and FM 362, a few miles south of Business 290 in Waller. The sign for the business has a giant horse on top of it. I don't know whether it was a coincidence or part of a plan, but both times I visited, the horses grazing in the pasture right in front of the restaurant were light brown Appaloosas, just like the one on top of the sign.
Horseback riders and Harley-Davidson drivers are among The Hill Bar & Grill's biggest fans. Trail-drive groups and motorcycle clubs use the restaurant as their headquarters during big gatherings. The ten acres of pasture land become a campground.
On Saturday nights, The Hill Bar & Grill is a dance hall. I called the restaurant and asked an employee what the music was like. "Country and old rock 'n' roll," she said. She called the bar and restaurant "a place to hang out in the country."
She also explained a recent change in management. For the last 20 years, The Hill Bar & Grill was run by founder Leonard Borchgardt. He recently turned over the reins to his son, Bobby Borchgardt, a building contractor who brought in a partner. The new owners have recently done a lot of work on the place, though the improvements aren't all that obvious, since the interior of the restaurant looked like the inside of a barn before and after its renovation.
My lunch mate was a burger purist. We had sampled "The Hill Hamburger" and "The Top of the Hill Cheeseburger" on a previous visit. He didn't agree with my enthusiastic assessment of the J's Special on Texas Toast. He said he liked the simple Hill burger better. Of course, we are talking about a man who orders his burgers well-done.
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I told him that what I didn't love about the regular burger at The Hill was the bun. There was something odd about the texture of the top crust — the brown skin that formed on top of the white bread was sort of loose and tacky, sticking to my front teeth a little when I bit in. Given the overall excellence of the burger, that's an extremely minor fault. But I say, why not just go for the Texas Toast?
Sides are inconsistent. On my first visit, I got the regular hand-cut french fries, and they were terrific. The bits of skin that still clung to the potato gave them lots of flavor, and they were fried to crispy perfection. The second time around, I went with Hill's seasoned fries. They were limp, greasy and utterly inedible. I doubt that the seasoning had anything to do with the problem. It seemed more like a problem with the temperature of the frying oil.
The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are as good as they get. A burger and mashed potatoes don't sound like a very good combination, although they have another special, which I didn't get to try, called the Rocking F. It's a hamburger steak smothered with onions that might taste fine with those buttermilk mashed potatoes.
On Sundays, they have an all-day happy hour with dollar drafts and 38-cent chicken wings. I'm thinking that in the summer of 2008, The Hill Bar & Grill is a perfect destination for a Sunday drive. It's out in the country — but not so far that you can't afford the gas.