Died and Gone to [Burger] Heaven at Zelko Bistro

A strange thing happened last Sunday evening. I found my new favorite burger in Houston -- and possibly in Texas -- in the most unexpected of places.

Chef Jamie Zelko is known these days for the delicious comfort food she serves at her restaurant, Zelko Bistro (the subject of this week's cafe review), so perhaps it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. But I initially thought of her brand of comfort food as things like meatloaf, shrimp & grits and fried chicken. It never really entered my mind to order a burger from the beautiful little bungalow in the Heights; I mostly reserve my burger eating for greasy roadside stands and my parents' grill on the weekends.

But when the Boss Burger came out in all its homemade-looking glory -- a fat hunk of medium rare meat on a fluffy brioche bun -- I could tell my mind was about to be changed.

The burger at Zelko certainly doesn't taste anything like one of those greasy roadside gems; it does, however, taste like it came straight from your backyard grill, right down to the bright red tomatoes that are sliced perhaps too thickly and spill over messily as you bite through it all.

Zelko even mixes together the mustard and mayo that coats the bun (calling it Dijonnaise on the menu, although it doesn't taste like the store-bought stuff at all) like I did when I was a kid, and still do. No ketchup here, purists; don't worry. And the thick slice of cheddar on top had simultaneously melted into the sauteed onions and the meat at once, absolutely ideal conditions for a wonderfully gooey bite each time.

The burger is greater than the sum of its parts and would fall apart completely if even one of those parts was omitted: perfectly cooked and seasoned beef, melty cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, thick and crispy strips of bacon, tangy dijonnaise and that wonderfully sweet, ever-so-slightly dense brioche bun.

I was shocked at how quickly I wolfed the burger down, eating both halves -- a task which I rarely accomplish, especially with a burger this big -- and how the taste and the smell and the feel of it stayed with me all night and well into the next day. I'm still thinking about it today, even if the medley of perfectly balanced flavors has somewhat slipped away in that time.

I never expected a chef like Jamie Zelko -- she of the illustrious and high-profile kitchens like Jean Georges Vongerichten's Bank (now Voice) and Brennan's, one of the few women in Houston to hold an executive chef title and run her own restaurant -- to slay me with a simple burger. But there you have it.

And if the kitchen can turn out a burger this wonderful, you know that the rest of the food is top-notch too.

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Katharine Shilcutt