Burger Bars

Top 10

With the new Texans season in full swing and plenty of great spots around town to catch the game, we decided to scope out the best burgers at our city's pubs and sports bars, because you can't put your body through the stress of an NFL game without a full belly.

Sorry, Arian Foster. None of these pub burgers are vegan, but they're all delicious.

Honorable mention goes to Crazy J's, the new icehouse from the owners of Little Bitty Burger Barn. While Crazy J's doesn't serve food (that and its newness are the only things keeping it from being included on the list), you can order it from LBBB down the block and have it delivered to you for no extra charge.

10. Rudyard's

While there is better food to be had at Rudz (try the $1 hot dogs or $1.50 chili dogs from 3 to 7 p.m. with purchase of an adult beverage), that doesn't mean its burger is shabby — it just means the rest of the food is fine stuff. The Rudz burger comes with the basics: lettuce, pickle, onion, tomato. But you can always jazz it up by ordering a basket of Nuts & Bolts on the side. (Go for the fried okra.)

9. Coaches Pub

Maybe the most surprising entry on the list for some, Coaches Pub in Midtown nevertheless turns out a very nice, cooked-to-order burger (ask for it medium-rare for maximum ooze potential) in addition to offering consistently friendly service. My favorite is the Coaches Pub Burger, which comes with sautéed mushrooms, onions, two kinds of cheese and barbecue sauce, plus a side of fries, and is less than $6 at lunch.

8. Community Bar

Burger nights are Thursday nights at Community Bar, which is equally famous (and deservedly so) for its Tuesday steak nights — all of it cooked up by owner/chef Bob Covington. For only $8, you'll get a home-cooked burger and fries, with the burger on a sweet bun that spills over with bacon, mushrooms, sautéed onions, cheese and much more. The only thing that would make Burger Night better at Community Bar is if they also started screening episodes of Community, too.

7. Christian's Tailgate

No matter which Christian's location you choose, you're guaranteed to have plenty of cold beer and big-screen TVs on which to watch the Texans. My favorite location for burgers, however, will always be the original on Washington — the Washington that's north of I-10. The hefty, iceberg-topped burger tastes like old-school Texas, and that's just what the doctor ordered sometimes.

6. The Hay Merchant

The Butcher's Burger at Hay Merchant is advertised as "the cheeseburger we'd give you at our house." And the finely textured meat that's ground daily surely attests to its homemade nature, but you'd expect only the best meat to show up at a beer bar that shares a kitchen with Underbelly. The burger is best enjoyed in its simplicity, but you can always top it with bacon and/or a fried egg.

5. Branch Water Tavern

Branch Water isn't a sports bar by any stretch, but it is a nice place to catch the game if a calmer and chicer climate suits you. In keeping with that climate, chef David Grossman offers an outstanding $13 Texas Wagyu beef burger that's worth every cent (Bon Appétit thinks so, too): Grossman grinds nine ounces of the Texas version of the thickly marbled Japanese beef, then tops it very simply with tomatoes, red onions, butter lettuce and his own pickles, all atop a fluffy bun that soaks up the steam of beef juices nicely. You'll still need plenty of napkins for this one, though.

4. Rockwell Tavern

You may not expect a stellar craft beer selection and big, beautiful homemade burgers in this little strip-center tavern in Cypress. But Rockwell Tavern has cultivated a fervent following for offering those two things in spades, and it shows in the regulars who pack the place each night. One of the best things about Rockwell's burgers is the sweet buns that sandwich the beefy patty in place, a nice eggy lightness to them in the face of all that meat.

3. BRC Gastropub

Monday night burger night at BRC isn't the madhouse you'd expect, given how damn good the burgers are — and how discounted. A burger on a normal night runs you $8.50 ($3 extra if you get fries). But burger night gives you BRC's classic burger — a sort of upscale version of the Big Mac, complete with "special sauce" but with bacon and cheese to boot — along with a basket of fresh, hot, homemade fries for only $6.50.

2. Petrol Station

Petrol is a less than ideal spot in which to watch any kind of sporting event — but that's because it's a pub first and foremost. The draft beer selection is among the city's best, and the special casks and kegs that Petrol taps keep the place a perennial favorite among craft beer lovers. Even folks who could care less about beer, however, come to Petrol for its famous burgers — especially now that the kitchen is back up and running. Burger and a pint night on Mondays may seem like the best night to go, but it's also the busiest. Stick to another night and enjoy the huge, craggy burger topped with salty cheddar cheese with a cool, crisp pint. (Or go whole hog and order The Rancor.)

1. The Queen Vic

This is the burger that caused me to question what I thought was a constant in my life: hamburger buns. Why don't more places use English muffins for buns? They are much sturdier than regular buns but still soft, their craggy interior soaks up meat juice admirably and they're far thinner, which means the important meat-to-bun ratio is always perfectly tipped in favor of the meat. Oh, and that meat — The Queen Vic's patties are ground fresh daily, then topped with housemade bread-and-butter pickles, salty English cheddar and peppy Colman's mustard for a truly out-of-this-world burger experience. You might even forget the Texans are on TV.


Go Figure
Partially anonymous food critic Alison Cook speaks at a public event, is dismayed when Eater runs a photo.

Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook appeared at a public event, speaking in front of a large group at the Metropolitan Cooking Show in Reliant Center. Several audience members took photos of Cook, one of which was published on Eater Houston last week under the headline: "Chronicle Critic Alison Cook Appears In Public, Sheds Anonymity At Metro Cooking Show."

Cook was dismayed at Eater's decision to run the photo, despite the fact that there's no expectation of privacy at a public event and despite the fact that she has long been recognized within the service industry by her own admission. Cook took to Twitter to express her frustration with the situation.

"So Eater Houston is going to run a photo of me. I knew this day would come. Doesn't mean I have to like it," Cook wrote. And in a reply to one follower, Cook further elaborated on Eater Editor Eric Sandler's decision to run the photo: "[A]pparently it's a necessary scalp for Eater to hang on its tent pole. That's how it goes."

Cook joins the ranks of fellow food critics S. Irene Virbila and Hanna Raskin, both of whom were recently unmasked in the social media arena. Los Angeles Times critic Virbila received a far rougher outing, with a photo snapped of her by a restaurant owner before she was asked to leave the restaurant. The photo circulated quickly, and Virbila's famously anonymous face was all over the food media within hours.

Raskin was outed by Eater Dallas when she arrived to work for Houston Press sister paper the Dallas Observer, as was her successor, Scott Reitz. Interestingly, a few months later, Reitz asked Anthony Bourdain in an interview about whether or not it was fair of media outlets to "out" anonymous critics. Bourdain responded: "Hey, fair is fair. The press takes pictures of civilians, and civilians should feel free to take pictures of press."

Cook's chagrin at Eater's decision to run her photo seems misplaced in light of the fact that she chose to appear in a public arena, knowing that photos would be taken. As the old saying goes, you don't poke the bear. Equally odd was Cook's statement to Eater Houston, in which she placed some of the blame for her unmasking on her employer.

"My comment is that my newspaper wants and needs me to be more visible, and I have honored that request," she told Sandler. "It's not a comfortable situation for a critic who has tried to keep a low profile for many years, and whose photo is not online."

In an e-mailed statement, Chronicle senior editor Melissa Aguilar said that the paper did take some credit for forcing the issue, but also admitted that Cook was not anonymous within the industry she covers:

"Alison Cook is an integral part of our food team at the Houston Chronicle. She's such a force in print and on social media that we decided it was time our readers meet her in person. I think most folks in the restaurant community have figured out who she is over the years."

And while it's true that — up until last week — there were no photos immediately available of Cook, she has plainly strived less in recent years to keep a low profile, at least among the industry persons that all Houston food writers cover on a regular basis.

Keeping a low profile is especially difficult, however, considering the way in which food coverage and interest have mushroomed in the last decade.

It's no longer enough for a food critic to write one restaurant review every one to two weeks. Food critics are now expected to be reporters (often writing 15 to 20 articles a week in addition to their reviews) and public figures as well as fulfilling many other roles for their publications. The shedding of anonymity, as happened with previous Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh, comes naturally as a result.

For my part, I never had a chance at anonymity. I was already known as the Houston Press Web editor and as a freelance food writer for the Press — with unflattering photos galore online — before I was offered the position of food critic. You can't put toothpaste back in the tube.

I took this job knowing that a lack of anonymity was the single biggest barrier to building trust with my readers (yes, bigger even than my lack of experience or my youth), but I strongly believe it can be accomplished. More important, it has to be accomplished in the times we live in, where everyone over the age of five has a cell-phone camera and the ability to TwitPic your face all day long.

Cook has clearly already built a huge foundation of trust with her readers over the years. The last vestiges of her anonymity being removed shouldn't change that.

Considering this as well as the facts that Cook has long been known to industry personnel, that she chose to appear at a public event, that anonymity is clearly becoming a relic of old-school food coverage and that Cook's outing appears to have been as close to "on her own terms" as possible, the shock and dismay seem more than a bit overwrought.

Perhaps Cook sees it that way, too, as one of her final Twitter statements on the matter indicated.

"The upside to Eater running my photo? One less thing to dread. Onward." Katharine Shilcutt

Bar Beat

The Continental Club?
29-95 releases another dive bar-free list of dive bars.

Three years ago, the Houston Chronicle released a pretty much dive bar-free list of 20 dive bars, and now their scrappy little sibling 29-95 has inflicted a similarly hapless collection of ten of the same.

On the 29-95 list: Rudyard's, Boondocks, Warren's, Poison Girl, Catbirds, the Continental Club, the Mink, Dean's, Notsuoh and Cecil's.

Yes, we admit it. In our guidebook to Houston dive bars, we included six of those, with the caveat that they were only included because they were centrally located, lacked the pretension of many other Inner Loop joints and because most Houstonians (erroneously) understood them to be true dives. (The six I included: Notsuoh, Cecil's, Rudyard's, Warren's, Poison Girl and Catbirds.) Leaving them out would have generated howls of protest, even though including them stretched the meaning of dive bar beyond what I was comfortable with.

Getting back to 29-95, there are a few problem bars on the list and many more glaring omissions.

First there's the Mink. It was never a dive, and it has been closed for more than a month. (Nice to see a pic of legendary nightlife figure and current denizen of the "Where are they now?" file Tim Murrah behind the bar again, though. We kid, Tim.)

Then there's the Continental Club. Pure music venues are never dive bars. Period. Why not put the Big Top on there instead?

Like the late Mink, Boondocks is a hipstertorium. Hipstertoria are not dives, no matter how thrift store the attire of the clientele nor how much Lone Star the bartenders sling. The same goes for Dean's, only a little less so.

Now how about what they left off?

Half the bars on the list are in Montrose, two are in Midtown and three are in downtown.

In Montrose, the list ignored Lola's. Inexcusable.

Downtown, they left off the Lone Star Saloon. Unpardonable.

As for Midtown...well, there aren't any true dives left there, now that Leon's has gone upscale (if not obnoxiously so). Even still, the Big Top, Grand Prize (stretching the boundaries of Midtown beyond the breaking point), Khon's, Komodo and Community Bar would have been better choices than either the Continental (a showcase venue) or the Mink.

Which, as we said before, is closed.

Somehow 29-95 managed to ignore the greater Heights, where without leaving the confines of 610 they could have selected from the Spot, T-Bone Tom's, Shiloh Club, C+F Drive Inn, the Tall Texan, the Rose Garden and Shady Tavern.

Nor did they venture east of 288 or 59, where they could have cherrypicked from the D&W Inn, Mr. Gino's, the Harrisburg Country Club and the Red Rooster.

Then there's Spring Branch, home of Lynn's Longbranch, the Blue Lagoon, Club Max, Millie's, the Sundown Saloon, TA's Cargo Club, Robbie's Lounge and Faces.

On Wakefield Street alone on the near northwest side, there's Red's Country Place and the Dutchman, right across the street from each other, and Catty Corner Ice House and Petrol Station right down the street. (That last is a neo-dive, but it's on the path to true dive status.)

None of the great southwest side joints (Hunter's Pub, Carolyn's, Cozy Corner) made it, either, nor far west legends like Burlap Barrel.

As for the absence of Jimmie's and the West Alabama Icehouse...maybe there was a "no icehouse" rule. Understandable but incorrect.

Sigh. This stuff matters, man.

A few years ago, a twentysomething told me he was scared to go to Griff's because it was such a rough-and-tumble dive. Griff's freakin' Shenanigans.

But then, why shouldn't he think that way when the Chron has set the bar for a dive at places like the Harp? (Which was on their 2009 list.)

If present trends continue, if 29-95 keeps churning out misinformed pap like this, the next generation will shudder at the prospect of a night in Little Woodrow's. John Nova Lomax

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
What the hell happened last week, Houston?

Seriously, guys. What the living hell. Last week was one of the craziest weeks for openings and closings that I can recall in a long time. So when I say prepare for a ton of news ahead, I mean it.

The biggest news of an already huge news week was word that Bobby Heugel and company are the new operating partners for the original Ninfa's on Navigation as well as the Antone's Famous Po'Boys chain. It's heartening to see a younger generation of restaurateurs stepping up to be stewards of two restaurants that should be well-preserved for future generations of Houstonians to enjoy.

Legacy Restaurants, which bought Ninfa's on Navigation and Antone's in 2006, will still own and operate the restaurants, and the talented Alex Padilla will still serve as executive chef for both. Heugel, Michael Burnett and Kevin Floyd will be responsible for the future operations of both the Original Ninfa's and Antone's, while Niel Morgan and his son Chase will continue as owners and custodians of two of Houston's oldest and most iconic brands — both of which are celebrating anniversaries soon. Ninfa's will turn 40 next year, while Antone's will turn 50.

"We have worked hard to preserve both the Original Ninfa's and Antone's traditions for a new generation to enjoy. There is no other group of restaurateurs we would trust more to help us continue this effort," said Niel Morgan in a press release. "Their dedication and success in preserving and enhancing the culinary scene of Houston makes them perfect."

Meanwhile, Ninfa's on Navigation is getting a new neighbor — and some serious competition — in the form of a brand-new El Tiempo Cantina. The restaurant chain has Houston roots that go even deeper than Ninfa's, too: It's been around for 55 years and is run by none other than Dominic Laurenzo, grandson of Mama Ninfa Laurenzo herself. Dominic's father, Roland, purchased the property next door to his mother's original restaurant and has already laid the slab for what will be a $1.75 million restaurant when it opens early next year.

Another culinary team has announced big plans: The Revival Market crew will be opening Coltivare this coming spring in the Heights at 3320 White Oak, not far from Revival's current location. Coltivare, which means "to cultivate" in Italian, will serve Italian food created with local, seasonal ingredients — many of which executive chef Ryan Pera hopes will come from Coltivare's adjoining 3,000-square-foot garden.

"The Italian cooking philosophy is all about using the seasonal ingredients on hand and keeping the preparation pure and simple," said Pera in a press release. "At Revival Market, we've cultivated an environment in which our diners come to experience the purest essence or presentation of a given dish, whether it be the perfect cup of coffee, the best B.L.T. sandwich, the kolache that gets you up in the morning. I cannot wait to get at the challenge of making a pizza worthy of the Revival name."

Coltivare plans to open in the spring for dinner and weekend brunch. And in keeping with the Heights' "dry" tradition, the restaurant will offer "private club" membership with a unique wine list and full bar.

Since leaving Concepción earlier this month (which, I might add, is still open for business), Jonathan Jones has already secured a new position: as executive chef for the Monarch at the Hotel Zaza. Chef Adam West left to pursue other interests, leaving a spot open for Jones, who hopes to shake things up at the hip Museum District hotel.

"I will...take two weeks to assess the team and the menu," reported Jones. "It's a large operation with many working parts. But they want a dynamic fall menu based around farm-to-table produce and proteins and an aggressive Gulf-to-table seafood program." Jones starts at the Monarch this week.

The grocery store that Houstonians have been waiting for with fanaticism and fervor finally opened its doors last Friday: Trader Joe's has finished its renovation of the Alabama Theater and is open for business. Preservationists will thrill to see the original art deco medallions inside have been restored to their original glory, even if the theater is otherwise unrecognizable in its new incarnation.

Also now open: The Shack in Cypress, which has reopened after a temporary absence and changed its name from Love Shack.

And last but not least, pour some tequila out for Vida Sexy Tex-Mex. The ill-fated Tex-Mex restaurant that we gave a scathing review back in February has closed. Owner Trey Melcher tells Sarah Rufca at CultureMap that he plans another concept for the space, one which will hopefully be more well-received. Katharine Shilcutt

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