See more of The Refinery's petroleum-themed dining room that pays homage to Houston's history in our slideshow.
Even though it's only been open a few months, The Refinery is already shaping up to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of place. Some people love the oilfield-themed decor, while others find it kitschy. Some enjoy the view of downtown's imposing skyline up close and personal, while others see I-45 as a noisy distraction when they sit outside. Some like the taste of the Sheila Partin sweet sourdough buns that The Refinery uses on its burgers, while others think they're too sugary for the patties and toppings.
Personally, I'm firmly in the "love it" camp — with some reservations.
Chief among those reservations is the sweet sourdough bun The Refinery uses for its burgers. Because The Refinery is a burger-centric icehouse first and foremost, and while it's gotten the "icehouse" part very right so far, the burger part still needs some tweaks. You get a choice of pretzel bun or "Sheila bun," as the restaurant calls it, for your burger and neither is a particularly good match for the meat below. On one recent visit, our waiter compared the Sheila bun to a sweet King's Hawaiian roll — and he wasn't far off.
While the Sheila bun is absolutely delicious in and of itself — fluffy yet substantial, with an eggy sweetness that's almost like angel food cake — the burger patties need to be seasoned far more aggressively to pull off such a big, bold pairing. Each time I go, I tear off a piece of the hand-formed Angus beef patties at The Refinery to see if the seasoning has finally bulked up, and each time I'm disappointed. It's a shame, too, because the meat is too good to taste this bland.
It's an especially heinous waste because The Refinery's other toppings are above-average stuff: crusty strips of jalapeño-smoked bacon on the Red Adair burger; thick slices of sharp cheddar that's never been housed in a single-serve plastic envelope; house-made pickles that remind me of the sweet dills my East Texas grandmother makes. There's even a delightfully chunky pimento cheese that tops a half-pork, half-beef burger called The Wild Hog. (Although let us not speak of the chili here, which contains — steel yourselves — beans.) But none of these toppings are enough to boost the burger below.
So how can I love a place whose burgers need so much work? Simple: potential. I believe the burgers will continue getting better, just as they've already done.
When The Refinery was first built out of the remains of a long-abandoned strip center on West Dallas, just inching outside of downtown proper, it didn't look like much. I found the dining room to be cold and impersonal, with music blaring too loudly for one to have a proper conversation over dinner (yes, too loud even for an icehouse). But the doors of the place opened onto a yawning construction site where twin patios would soon stand and the draft beer list looked as if it would shape up nicely.
More than three months later, the beer list routinely features excellent selections that are difficult to find elsewhere — Franconia Oktoberfest and Coney Island Freak were two recent winners — and the dual patios are a triumph of cedar. The fresh smell of the wood still lingers in the air every time I sit outside, which is routinely. During the day, the patios are covered just enough to keep you from burning up in the unseasonably warm weather and by night they give way to a cool breeze and the stunning light show from the downtown skyline.
And although my wings and burgers were rather uninspired during my first visit, both have seen significant improvements. Where my first burger was overcooked and dry, subsequent patties have always been cooked to my requested medium-rare. Where the chicken wings were dessicated and tough, they are now consistently juicy and plump — coated in your choice of Buffalo-style hot sauce, a sweet-and-sour Asian sauce or left "naked" as they came.
The Refinery definitely excels in this area, the gray zone where finger food meets pub grub. Fried pickles are coated in an oddly sweet, puffy, tempura-style batter that somehow works well against the salty-sour crunch of the pickle slices. Nachos are served with nearly white queso on top instead of suspiciously orange squeeze-pump cheese, then topped with fresh guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and two kinds of cheese. They make a great snack to share with friends, if they'll let you have any. (Avoid the bland waffle fries, however, as both versions are stodgy and not worth the calories.)
Solo snackers will love the petite grilled cheese (served with a side of queso for dipping, because it's Texas) or the fried bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise on hearty slices of white bread, both of which are packed with as much nostalgia as cholesterol. Ditto the classic cocktails served at the full bar, which features an expansive whiskey selection your grandfather would undoubtedly applaud. That's the idea, after all. The Refinery oozes nostalgia from its bricks and mortar: It's in the old, scavenged filling-station signs on the walls and the repurposed well caps, pipe fittings and crude oil drums that flesh out the space. Because although green energy is the future, oil and gas are what Houston and its history were built on.
The Refinery's mission statement is simple. It's plainly stated on the back of each menu, beginning with two questions: "Remember the day your dad took you to his favorite hole in the wall burger joint? You watched as he tossed his tie over his shoulder as to not drip grease on it?" I do; for my father and me, it was the original Christian's Tailgate and Bellaire Broiler Burger. I wonder if future generations will one day boast of dining at The Refinery with their own dads.
It's certainly a possibility, as lunchtime features huge, migratory flocks of suited-up office workers that walk over/under I-45 from downtown to flood The Refinery's patio, ties tossed back in triumph as they attack their burgers or build-your-own hot dogs. (Some men tuck their ties in, but they're usually eating salads.) What's keeping them from bringing their own kids here someday?
I've already seen that The Refinery is capable of hosting families and businessmen with equal aplomb. And true to another part of its mission statement — to be "a place where blue collar and white collar gathered under one American banner that of 'Hand Packed Beef Patties'" — you'll see people of all stripes here at all hours of the day. In the evenings, it's Snap-On salesmen and young office workers relaxing over beers. On the weekends, it's families with well-minded children eating grilled cheese sandwiches or football fans watching the game on one of The Refinery's dozen or so flat-screen TVs with a well full of iced beers in each wooden picnic table outside.
In an effort to reverse the roles a bit, I even took my own father here recently. True to form, he tossed back his tie and rolled up his sleeves before digging into a Texamex burger topped with guacamole and pepper jack cheese. We ate with typical abandon — inhaling the well-battered onion rings, draining Mason jar after Mason jar of iced tea — but were in no rush to leave after the meal was torn apart. And that's the loveliest thing about The Refinery: Watching the bloom of color from a Texas sunset on the patio, I always feel the urge to linger for as long as they'll let me.