On a hot and sunny Saturday, two Houston Press food writers and five friends gathered together to drink some beer and eat some grub. The reason? To find the best new burger in town. As you may have well noticed in the past month or two, there are a handful of new burgers in Houston vying for all your attention. So where do you even begin? How do you see through the hype? What should be at the top of your list? Such are the questions we hoped to answer.
Sadly, two new burgers were, in fact, missing from the taste test— burger chan, which just rebranded itself from Kuma Burgers, isn't open on the weekends so couldn't be in the competition. Also, BLT's already-beloved Party Melt couldn't make an appearance since the bar didn't open until the evening and this was a lunch-time affair. And anyway, does a patty melt— however perfectly salty, meaty and dreamy— count as a burger? Probably not.
The burgers that went head to head in our tasting have all debuted in Houston in the past year, most in the past three months alone. The competition included: The lesser talked about burger at Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, the plant-based meat-like wonder Impossible Burger from Hay Merchant, everybody's fast food go-to Shake Shack, the we-based-this-off-of-Shake-Shack burger at FM Kitchen, the hyped Heights burger at Balls Out, the simplest burger you can get at Hopdoddy in Rice Village, and the house burger from the relatively quiet Rice Village expansion of Island Grill, which boasts a burger section on its menu.
In terms of the burgers we selected, we went for the most basic on every menu. All of the burgers were actually, well, cheeseburgers.
What we found with our taste test may very well shock you. There were certainly some revelations among the tasters at the table. Seeing as most of these burgers are pretty hyped right now, it's really quite interesting to see how they really stack up head to head.
In order to do that, we stuck with an ultra-simple rating system, seven blind-tasters ranked the burgers on overall taste experience with a 1 to 5 rating system. Texture, quality of meat, the bun and toppings were all taken into consideration within the overall rating. It was quite the task. Some burgers disappeared much faster than others.
One caveat: These burgers all had to travel to an undisclosed location for the taste test. While none of the burgers seemed to lose their full integrity due to the car ride back to our testing place, this obviously isn't the same as enjoying one fresh off the griddle in its natural habitat, whether that be the capitalist hell hole known as the Galleria or a dark, welcoming beer bar in Montrose.
With all that in mind, you might want to rethink the next burger you'll be having in Houston. Here are the results.
7. Balls Out Burger, 1603 N Durham
This new spot in the Heights has based its entire concept around doing classic burgers well, but unfortunately the burger was the least favorite, coming in with numerous one-point ratings and the lowest ranking overall. While dryness seemed to be the overwhelming culprit of this $8 burger's lackluster performance, a few folks on the tasting panel saw past it.
One taster noted it was a "solid, standard no-frills burger with a Texas-sized patty," but they'd still prefer the burger to be "less cooked." Another fan noted it was a great patty, not overpacked like many of the competitors on the table, but the toppings had become a tad soggy, save for the cloaking of American cheese. Other tasters weren't so nice, noting "unseasoned beef" — albeit of a backyard quality— with "dry" and "overcooked" again being keywords included in a majority of the table's tasting notes and our post-tasting discussion.
"I'm still waiting for the balls to drop," joked one taster. This was a disappointing discovery considering the hype and press that this burger is getting, but we definitely want to give it another try in-house, just to see where the inconsistency really lies. Maybe the trip to our tasting table did hurt this poor fella. 12 out of 35 points.
6. Island Grill (Rice Village), 2365 Rice
Like this seemingly quiet new spot that opened in Little Liberty in Rice Village about a month ago, the burger itself doesn't really stand out among the crowd but appears to have a few die-hard fans. "It tasted like really organic beef to me, like, I think this might be the best beef," said one taster, but the burger itself, which comes on an untoasted sesame seed bun for about $9 (an extra $1 for cheese), didn't make much of a splash.
The meat was dense, and one person noted it was more "like a patty melt," a large one at that. This was the biggest burger on the table next to Bosscat, and when you take it to go, they leave all the toppings on the side in a piece of foil for you, so as not to hinder your burger with potential sogginess. Most tasters did find it to be "overcooked." 16 out of 35 points.
5. Impossible Burger , Hay Merchant and Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer
The team at Chris Shepherd's Montrose compound prefer you eat the Impossible Burger fresh off the griddle in house, but taking it to-go didn't seem to have a blasphemous effect on the plant-based burger. At $18, it's a splurge for the sustainable-minded eater, but at least it did come with fries, great ones at that. It was a really interesting experiment to see a bunch of meat eaters trying to figure out what the patty was sourced from... "This isn't beef, is it?" one taster asked of the smoky protein. "It's kind of gamey," said another.
Texture played a big part in why most of the tasters found this burger to be so weird or in one tasters words: "Just. Wrong." Another likened it to stringy raw beef. But flavor-wise, our panel of tasters were split. One noted "more pronounced meat flavor" and called it "unique and savory." The lone chef on the panel found it to be the most interesting and pleasing flavor-wise, noting that "there's something about it that's almost Asian. It made me want to keep eating." Fake-umami, another taster said from across the table. One thing everyone agreed upon? The pickles on this burger are incredible. 18 out of 35 points.
4. Shake Shack, 5015 Westheimer
"Boring but easy," seemed to be the prevailing sentiment for the Danny Meyer classic, which doesn't describe the actual arduous task of having to pick one of these things up at the Galleria on a Saturday at lunchtime.
The panel did note an overwhelmingly positive experience with the ShackBurger, a "classic griddle patty" that most believed had great flavor and was juicier than its competition, though at least person had "lots of gristle" in his cut. A "buttery bun" and even-char on the patty add to the overall flavor, but most tasters agreed that there was nothing particularly exciting compared to the competition. And for people like myself, who don't believe tomato has a place on a burger, let alone a fast food style burger, I'd just like to say ho-hum. 23 out of 35 points.
3. Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, 4310 Westheimer
"It's a River Oaks burger," said one taster.
"That's a fucking good burger," said another.
The table was torn about Bosscat, the largest burger in the competition (one would hope so with the $15 price tag that does not include a side, at least ours didn't). It's topped with both gruyere and blue cheese, along with onion, tomato, lettuce and tender sweet (maybe "overly sweet") grilled onions, lending a flavorful topping component that could be seen as either genius or fussy.
The light, fluffy bun was a great addition to most—it's the type with a sandy corn dusting on top, so not everybody took to it. But the downside for some was the patty itself— "innocuous," "nothing special," with one hater even noting a "mealy middle." A couple tasters did rank Bosscat as their favorite in the competition with a 5-point rating, noting that it's a perfectly cooked burger with natural flavor. The toppings just seem to be the main issue here. With that being said, the pickles on this burger do, in fact, rule. It's definitely worth a try if you're willing to overlook the hefty price and yuppie-stigma. 24 out of 35 points.
2. Hopdoddy, 5510 Morningside
There's no denying that part of this burger's glorious appeal is the perfectly toasted, buttery bun.
"The best bun," as one taster said.
But, oh yeah, the meat is very good too. It's a "solid, substantial" burger that's "cooked perfectly" with a medium center, "well-seasoned and juicy," though the accompanying sauce was "too much" for at least one taster, lending a sweetness, that much like Bosscat and its grilled onion, did not to speak to everyone.
Most tasters gave this burger a 4 on the scale of 1 to 5, and it's definitely worth a trip to a Hopdoddy (whether in Rice Village, River Oaks, or ) to try this bad boy. It'll set you back $7.75. 25 out of 35 points.
1. FM Kitchen, 1112 Shepherd
When former Triniti chef Ryan Hildreband told the Press that Shake Shack was the main influence for the burger at his new casual Heights eatery and patio-hang mecca FM Kitchen, he wasn't kidding. It's just that, well, he's pretty much managed to one-up them. The FM Kitchen burger is hands down the best new burger in Houston.
In fact, one taster even called the actual ShackBurger "a disappointing version" of the FM Burger, which proves that Hildrebrand has in fact set out what he originally planned to, creating a Shake Shack style burger that's actually better than Shake Shack. Plus, with a going price of just $5.69 this is also a pretty incredible value among the H-Town competition.
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This is a flavorful and well-balanced fast food style burger— salty, fatty and rich — with a spot-on soft bun. One taster said, "This would be a solid summer day burger." We have to agree. You should probably just stop what you're doing and go get one. 28 out of 35 points.
So that's it, the new burgers ranked by our panel, which consisted of a few super tasters by the way, one sommelier, one chef, one Italian, and several Texans who live and die for burgers from Lankford Grocery, Bellaire Broiler and Hubcap Grill. A few of the main takeaways that we gathered: Problems with underseasoning meat and also overpacking the meat into the burger patty seem to be the main culprits when it comes to inconsistencies among Houston's newest burger joints. A lot of this falls on the line and how well they're trained. Who is manning the grill that day? Who formed the patties? Was Kyle stoned again and forgot to add the pepper because he thought he'd already added it?
Overall, though, the taste test proved that Houston's newest additions to the burger game are actually pretty dang good. With three of the city's top contenders beating Shake Shack, we'd call that a major success for local burger spots. It's also proof that you can find an array of great burgers in different styles, from Bosscat's pub burger to Hopdoddy's homestyle burger to FM Kitchen's fast food-style stunner.
Next up, it's time to see how chef Hildreband's new burger fairs against the Houston classics. We'll make that happen soon in another taste test. Until then, maybe we'll go eat some salad or something.