Restaurant Reviews

Grafitti’s at Union St. Can Be Great, or Greatly Disappointing, Depending on the Day

I am confused by and frustrated with Grafitti’s at Union St. I am confused by the dual concept, only one-half of which ever seems to be open. Across several visits, the odd little tucked-away “lounge” was empty of both customers and staff. I might have rolled the dice with a Sazerac or an old-fashioned, but the bartender never seemed to be in. In fact, it feels like he’s never been in, like the bar has never had patrons belly up for a couple of “vintage cocktails.” Though the rails and back bar broadcast the right message, it feels like a simulacrum, like a recorded greeting playing in an empty room.

I am confused because that very lounge feels so very much at odds with the family-friendly roadhouse shtick at play in the main space, where the environs traffic in the artifice of Route 66 nostalgia. I suppose that artifice is their main connection, both feeling like airport departure lounge replicas of someone else’s memory. Still, I wouldn’t mind eating on a soundstage left over from The Langoliers if the food fared better.

That’s where Grafitti’s gets frustrating. I am frustrated that it was only on my final visit — arranged after my original deadline just so I could mesh the conflicting results of previous visits — that I finally received what I can call an unequivocally good burger. It was a Cadillac, enthusiastically recommended by the man behind the counter. I had intended to repeat a previous order, as a means of calibration. I’m glad I didn’t. Had this burger defined my experiences here, Grafitti’s would get high marks.

Decked out in a sweet bourbon glaze, grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, roasted tomato, cheddar cheese and mayo (the latter two smoked, the menu tells me), it was by far the best thing I ate here. The patty came well-crusted (the only thing for which Grafitti’s burgers get consistently high marks), its aggressive griddling adding both flavor and texture. Under that thick, crunchy mantle, the burger was deeply beefy, and juicy despite the default-medium cook, the patty loosely formed and delightfully craggy. Sweet and tangy bourbon sauce highlighted the burger’s meaty oomph, amplified by the savory punch of sautéed mushrooms. Grilled onions, tender yet still retaining just a hint of gentle crunch, added their own layer of savory sweetness. Even the golden-domed, just-soft-enough poppy seed bun worked well, softening just right without tearing or turning to mush under the onslaught of beefy-saucy drippage. Each element stood out, identifiable among the many components, yet melding together into an altogether delicious whole.

I can’t say the same for the other burgers. Almost no matter which I tried, everything smoothed together into an indistinguishable amalgam of dense, heavy flavors. Nothing stood out, but neither did things blend together harmoniously. Despite the different names and descriptors, it’s hard to recall individual characteristics of any of them without good notes and a look back at the menu.

I suppose the Studebaker burger came with rémoulade (though it tasted more like Thousand Island, and a sweetish, heavy rendition at that), and I suppose the patty got a shake of blackening seasoning before its hard-turn on the griddle, making it the most flavorful burger ordered one evening. I suppose it had a scoop of slaw, limp and listless though it was, but those are just words lifted from careful mental notes made while examining the burger and its menu description, not sense memories culled from actually eating the thing. The memories themselves are dull and plodding, heavy and vague, weighed down by fried toppings (were there both fried pickles and fried onion strings?), struggling for air.

I’m confused that a simpler burger, avoiding the traps of overmatched beef, fared no better. Had it been the undressed version of that Cadillac I finally received, I’d have been quite happy. Instead of being straightforward and satisfying, The Deuce was basic and boring, with a tightly formed and slightly springy patty lacking any serious beef flavor or flood of beefy juice.
I’m equally confused that, until that Cadillac, the best burger I’d had was the most overwrought — and most expensive — one on the menu. A towering example of excess, The Imperial is exactly the sort of burger I tend to avoid. Usually, the relationship between quality and excessive topping on a burger is (sort of) inversely proportional. There’s a sort of uncanny burger valley, where the more tasty stuff you put on a burger the better, until you reach a point where you’ve gone too far, the result teetering into the ridiculous. That’s fully what I expected here, but not quite what I got. All of the pieces fit together into an ungainly but effective whole. The haphazard, kitchen-sink stacking of mac and cheese, crispy onion strings, bacon chunks, roasted poblanos and a fried egg should have overwhelmed the half-pound burger, despite its custom short rib/brisket grind. It did overwhelm, but somehow everything came together. Still, you shouldn’t have to spend close to $20 and deploy nearly everything in the kitchen to get a decent burger on a menu full of them.

I’m frustrated that the gargantuan chicken-fried steak, looking every bit the part, didn’t consistently live up to the promise of its expanse of rippling crust. Served spilling over the sides of a quarter-sheet pan, the mammoth steak was a visual stunner. Unfortunately, one visit’s CFS was all bark and no bite, its craggy, rippling edges writing checks this CFS just couldn’t cash.

Edged by flabby crust, it was an exercise in disappointment writ large, enough to make me loathe our unofficial state motto. Better is better, y’all. Among the litany of issues: The thing was woefully oversalted; the crust had no adhesion, slipping off the encased beef at the slightest suggestion of effort; too many bites wound up beefless, many by virtue of the aforementioned skin-shedding, but just as many seemed to have come that way directly from the fryer, making me wonder exactly what proportion of the giant steak was actually just batter, there for the sake of a Texas-size illusion of grandeur.

On the next visit, I actually enjoyed the steak. The rippled and craggy crust adhered well to the beef underneath; a thin sheathing, not a gummy morass, with the kind of satisfying crispness a good CFS needs. The salting issue was mostly gone as well. It was downright odd how much different this steak was from the downright insulting version I received on my first visit. I don’t know if it was praise by association, but even the mashed potatoes seemed better, with a pleasantly rough-hewn texture and a sure garlic note. A crisply coated bite of steak, topped with a dollop of mashed potatoes and dragged through the barrel of simple, black-pepper-bitten cream gravy, proved beguiling enough to make me wonder what had happened that first go-round. Confusing. Frustrating.

I’m confused and frustrated that something so seemingly simple as a side of fried pickles with homemade ranch could show similarly split personality. On one visit they were dry and too-thickly breaded, with none of the vinegar tang and swagger that makes fried pickles taste like something other than just generic fried stuff. Later, they were thinly coated and vibrant. I still would have liked a thicker-cut pickle with a more assertive twang, but the two orders were worlds apart.

So, too, with the ranch dipping sauce that accompanies many of the fried items. The first order was pale and wan, with no buttermilk backbone and little herby zip. A subsequent serving was punchy and assertive, with a sure edge of buttermilk and a nice herbal kick.

The rest of the menu is of similarly split personality. A fried-chicken sandwich, done in the crunchy-coated Southern style, proved one of the best things on the menu, with a gracefully fried coating and the herbal punch of dill in what we’re told is “spicy mayo” providing a nice hit of freshness. I even liked the paving of smoked gouda and the double punch of fried pickles and onion strings, which added layers of textural interest. It was clean and well-proportioned, revelatory compared to that evening’s lackluster burgers.
Then there was the Javelin, a foot-long all-beef dog crowding its quarter-sheet pan that proved the polar opposite. Served on a bun far too yielding for the overwhelming blanket of semi-melted cheddar cheese, the dog also piled on chili, chopped onions, “Texas pepper slaw,” smoked mayo, Dijon mustard and horseradish. It was a mess of clashing elements, never really coalescing. The hot dog itself was good, and well-grilled for some nice crunchy charred bits, but came adrift amid all that other stuff. For all that excess, though, the kitchen was oddly stingy with the chili.

Find a sturdier bun, swipe the dog with mustard, chili and maybe even some of that slaw (here, it added an admittedly nice, necessary burst of acidity and a bit of crunchy contrast), and reduce the smothering blanket of cheese, and this might be a fine dog. Of course, when you’re asking ten bucks for a hot dog, I can understand the urge to gild the lily. I remember balking at an $8 hot dog at nearby Good Dog a couple of years ago, but those proved their worth at their price point. This one doesn’t.

An appealing-sounding banana pudding milkshake had muddy, artificial flavors and a saccharine edge, while an Oreo Cookie shake proved clean and well balanced, with delightful chunks of cookie strewn throughout. It’s an odd thing when even the milkshakes turn Jekyll and Hyde, especially at a place where milkshakes seem to get top billing. Which brings me to my final point of confusion and frustration, and that’s exactly what kind of place Grafitti’s wants to be. It’s a “family-friendly” burger and dog joint that will set four folks back a neat $60 or so before tax and tip. It’s a menu of fried standbys that frequently fail to deliver. It’s a speakeasy lounge that’s never open. It’s a beer and cocktail menu that only occasionally appears, leaving unknowing guests to think the tap options far more limited than they actually are (though good luck getting that cocktail). It’s a different restaurant each time you go, swinging like a pendulum between truly disappointing and surprisingly delicious. Even if you hit the middle of the arc, I’m not sure middling burgers — burgers that settle in as some of the priciest burger-joint burgers in the city, no less — warrant aiming for what passes for a confusing, frustrating sweet spot at Grafitti’s.

Grafitti’s at Union St.
2003 Union Street, 713-869-7000, Hours: 10:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

?Fried pickles $6.95
The Deuce burger $11.95
The Studebaker burger $14.95
The Cadillac burger $14.95
The Imperial burger $17.45
Super Bee $14.95
The Javelin $9.95
The Duke Platter (CFS) $15.95
Milkshakes $4.95