On any given day, you'll probably see someone standing outside Anthropologie's rustic storefront or across the street by the gurgling water feature and grassy expanse surrounding Ruggles Green handing out coupons to passersby, shoppers and businesspeople, enticing them to come in for a bite.
You'll accept a slip of paper from the earnest marketer — more out of courtesy than genuine interest — but the coupon's offer will be too enticing to pass up. The generous invitation to stop by for a free milkshake or order of fries seems as good a reason as any to head to the space above Urban Outfitters in City Centre and try the fare. But once you're there and you sit down for a barbecue sauce-smothered burger and a shake spiked with bourbon, you'll realize this: The coupon is totally unnecessary.
One meal at Grub Burger Bar and you'll likely conclude, as I did after my first sip of chocolate milkshake with a tequila tang, that the food, service and swanky seating area are worth the price, discount or not. One bite of the Luau fries will have you making mental notes about when you'll next be in the area so you can stop in for freshly cut twig-thin slices of fried potato crisped and covered with smoky pulled pork, a tangy mixture of teriyaki and barbecue sauces, sliced and sautéed jalapeños, and improbably crave-worthy chunks of pineapple. Each bite contains the subtle starch of the fries, which helps to soothe the mouth in the presence of spicy peppers and acidic pineapple, but the overall effect is indeed that of a rustic luau feast. As you chew, you can picture the pig roasting on the spit before being transferred to a table so the juicy upper shoulder can be cut and shredded. You can see the woman (wearing, of course, a lei) chopping fresh pineapples to pair with the pork and the man tossing baskets of fries onto paper towels so that they can cool slightly before he tops them with all the accoutrements that make them so evocative of a Hawaiian-style celebration.
Or at least that's where my mind went. And my friends had the same mental interlude, from what I could tell.
"Oh my God, those fries. I could eat those every day," one of them said. "I'm obsessed with this milkshake," said the other, gesturing toward a tall, chilled glass filled with vanilla ice cream and bourbon drizzled with caramel and a puff of whipped cream. "And I don't even like caramel." They both looked at me hopefully.
"So...do you have to come eat here again tomorrow?"
I suspect most Houstonians who know the origin of Grub Burger Bar were surprised by how much they like the place, too. After all, it's not exactly a chain, nor is it a restaurant we developed here in Houston with the help of our city's array of culinary talent and cutting-edge idea people. Nope. It came to us in the summer of 2013 by way of College Station, where two guys who had once worked together and risen through the ranks at Outback Steakhouse reconnected and decided to start a restaurant of their own.
Grub was standing-room-only when it debuted in College Station in spring 2012, thanks in large part to the reputation of the owners, Jimmy Loup and Tom Kenney, as well as the large student population eager for a tricked-out burger and boozy milkshake. The Houston location has seen a slower start, but the crowds do come, especially on the weekends, when the shotgun-style space fills with teenagers in athletic attire, hungry shoppers, City Centre workers and the few Inner Loopers who can't resist Grub's call.
The menu is a single, highly manageable page of gourmet burgers, appetizers the size of meals, inexpensive side dishes, interesting salads and five sandwiches under the heading "Burgers That Don't Moo." The entire back page of the menu is filled with booze. That's right, not only is Grub Burger Bar a burger joint, it's also (as the name suggests) a bar. The signature cocktails aren't anything unusual, but the Grub 'Ritas, like the refreshing blend of Cuervo Silver tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice and a hint of sugar in the Ruby Red Rita, pack a tasty punch.
Better still are the spiked milkshakes, which, unlike some weak shakes that only claim to be boozy, taste just enough of liquor to burn a little on the way down. The Bourbon and Caramel shake manages to keep from being overly sweet, tasting more of burned sugar than fake sugar syrup, and the Mint Chocolate Chip, which features vodka, coffee liqueur and crème de menthe blended with ice cream, Andes mints and chocolate syrup, is a decadent dessert that you will want to slurp.
All the shakes are served with oversize straws made for sucking up tapioca pearls in bubble tea but that here serve to deliver maximum milkshake to the mouth as rapidly as possible. My only complaint — and one that I will continue to spout until the world takes note — is the use of canned whipped cream to top off the shakes. Far from tasting like homemade cream, it dissolves as soon as it touches the tongue, denying me the mouth-coating richness (and calories) of real cream. But if I was able to move past the faux topping, you will be too, and you'll be glad you did, for the burgers are not to be missed.