The name comes from this Saturday Night Live routine about a diner where they said, 'No Coke, Pepsi' all the time, and that's why we have no Coke, only Pepsi products," the teenage waiter at Cheeburger Cheeburger told us with a big smile. Located in the Vintage Park Shopping Center at the Louetta exit off Highway 249, this outpost of a Florida-based gourmet hamburger franchise is decorated in pink neon and stainless steel to mimic a vintage neighborhood joint of the 1950s.
"We are so old, we actually watched Saturday Night Live back then," my tablemate told the crew-cut waiter. Sitting in the wholesome environs of Cheeburger Cheeburger thinking about the obnoxious Greek diner parodied by John Belushi was like listening to the elevator version of Paint It Black.
"I was actually shooting up speedballs with John Belushi the night he died," I wanted to tell the well-scrubbed serviceperson — but there were small children present. They were given crayons and a coloring book placemat when they walked in the door, so they loved the place.
At a nearby table, the entire waitstaff burst into applause and placed a giant fake two-foot hamburger sculpture next to a kid of about 11 and took his picture. Apparently, anybody under 12 who consumes an entire half-pound burger in this kid-friendly family restaurant gets their photo hung on the wall. Adults have to consumer a 20-ounce hamburger to receive the same sort of dubious notoriety. I resisted the temptation.
There were five sizes of cheeseburgers offered with nine varieties of cheese. (You can get "no cheese" if you insist.) The 20-ounce burger is called a Pounder despite being four ounces over a pound. Then comes the Delirious, at three-quarters of a pound, the Serious at a half pound, the Semi-Serious at seven ounces and, finally, the Classic at five-and-a-half ounces. You select your condiments from a long list of possibilities.
My adult tablemate got a Classic with the "Greek burger" condiments of feta, black olives, banana peppers, lettuce and tomato. Whoever assembled it had obviously never heard of a Greek burger. Instead of a burger nestled in Greek salad condiments, she got a burger with way too much pickled peppers and olives, a sparse dusting of feta and a little shredded iceberg.
Our "regular-sized" Best of Both basket, a half-and-half order of hand-cut French fries and onion rings, was excellent. But the regular-size basket was the size of a small canoe. It's all in keeping with the restaurant's slogan, "Big is Better."
The one item that captured the undivided attention of the entire table, young and old, was the milkshake. Cheeburger Cheeburger makes a big production out of their milkshakes. There are something like 75 flavors, and every milkshake comes with two straws and a spoon. I got the small size and asked for the double chocolate flavor — malted. I can't remember the last time I had a chocolate malt, but I need another one very soon.
I got the Delirious burger and asked for medium (which is as rare as they allow) with the usual compliment of Texas condiments plus jalapeños. The boy-waiter told me that I would have to apply my own mustard from the squeeze bottle on the table. The burger was remarkable in size. The meat patty had lots of cracks and fissures that might have given it an interesting texture, but unfortunately it was cooked to well-done and very dry. My dining companion, who likes her burgers well-done, abandoned her Greek tragedy and took half of my Delirious burger instead. She pronounced it excellent.
The first time I visited Cheeburger Cheeburger, shortly after they opened, I'd gotten a juicy half-pounder that was quite pink in the center. The whole reason I ordered the oversize three-quarter-pound Delirious was that I thought the thicker meat patty would be even pinker and juicier. That obviously didn't work out. I suspect that the cracks in the meat patty came from excessive spatula pressure.
The proper application of the spatula to the top of a hamburger while cooking is the subject of much discussion among burger chefs. "Don't keep pushing down on top of the burger with the spatula," the winner of a burger-cooking contest once advised when I asked him his secrets. "That just squeezes all of the juice out."
Whacking a burger with a spatula as soon as it hits the griddle, on the other hand, is a classic burger-joint technique I first observed at Dirty Martin's Kum-Bak Place, an Austin burger joint that opened in 1926. Dirty's served a spectacular burger for more than half a century, until an overzealous Austin Health Department inspector ruined it in the 1990s. Dirty's was prohibited from whacking their never-been-frozen ground beef because of the fear that the little particles of raw meat that flew off the grill might contaminate the kitchen with e. coli and other bacteria. Dirty's switched over to a frozen patty and their burgers were never the same.
Spatula-whacked burger meat is the theme of the hugely successful Smashburger franchise out of Denver, which has recently taken up residence in Houston at the corner of Main and Kirby. Smashing the meat gives it a lot of cracks and oddly shaped notches that cook to different degrees of doneness, giving the burger an interestingly varied texture. The burgers at Smashburger remind me of the ones I had at Dirty's back in the good old days, which is to say they are excellent.
Houston is under invasion by gourmet hamburger chains from other regions at the moment. Along with Florida's Cheeburger Cheeburger and Denver's Smashburger, Houston recently has also seen the opening of 5 Guys Burgers and Fries out of Washington D.C. and Mooyah Burger from Dallas. So why us?
According to George Motz, author of Hamburger America, Houston and L.A. are America's top hamburger cities because of the automobile. "Driving cities like L.A. and Houston are burger cities," Motz told me. Besides, Chicago has hot dogs, New Haven has pizza, Cincinnati has chili, but neither L.A. or Houston has an nationally known iconic food item other than the burger, Motz said.
"Houston has an excellent mix of demographics, a stronger economy than many in the country right now, a predisposition to eating beef and a very open mind-set to trying 'the latest and greatest,'" says Joe Hodas, a press spokesman for Smashburger. The Houston Smashburger is already doing bigger numbers than most of the chain's Denver locations.
"We, like I'm sure our competitors did, saw that there was no strong better-burger player in this market of 6 million people," says Hodas. "And by strong, I don't mean that a local chain like Beck's Prime or one-off like Christian's Totem doesn't make a great burger. I just mean that they haven't necessarily tapped out the market potential there for burger lovers."
Of the new arrivals, I suspect Smashburger is doing the best due to its Medical Center location. The others are well outside of town. 5 Guys Burgers and Fries is in Rosenberg; Mooyah Burger is down near NASA; and Cheeburger Cheeburger is most of the way to Tomball. That real estate strategy backfired when the economy slowed down suburban expansion. The Vintage Park shopping center where Cheeburger Cheeburger is located is a carbon copy of Uptown Park. Except most of the stores are empty. It looks like an upscale ghost town.
Cheeburger Cheeburger is the only one of the new burger joints that isn't sparsely furnished and noisy. Most of these gourmet burger franchises seem to be designed to encourage you to turn the table over quickly. Cheeburger Cheeburger, on the other hand, is trying to be a family restaurant and hangout. While we ate our burgers, the Happy Days atmosphere grew on me. The malt shop look, the 1960s rock and roll on the sound system, the Elvis posters and kid-friendly touches were also drawing a decent crowd of families with children.
If you go, be sure and have a malt. And tell them to lay off the spatula whacking and bring you a burger that's pink and juicy.