Killen’s Burger Is Worth the Drive to Pearland

When Killen’s Burgers first opened, I approached it with some trepidation. First there was the pre-opening hype. Hype is a dangerous thing. Counterpoised to the hype were early reports of dry burgers, backed up by unappetizing photos splashed across social media. On my first visit, back in June, I got that mostly sorted out. It’s all a matter of knowing the ropes. At Killen’s, those ropes favor a clientele who favor a little less moo left in their meat.

By the time my first visit rolled around, the staff was asking customers how they’d like their burgers; the house standard is medium, tending toward medium well. That first burger I requested medium rare, and I was met with a gloriously gushing and broadly beefy patty, trimmed out with just the right touches for what may well have been the best burger I’ve had this year.

The Killen’s burger isn’t ostentatious. The standard issue (standard, to me, involves cheese) comes simply dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, along with a generous spread of Ronnie Killen’s riff on Thousand Island. Every single time I’ve ordered that burger cooked (a consistently perfect) medium rare, it’s been thrilling.

To a one, Killen’s burgers have come aggressively seasoned and aggressively griddled, with a thick and crunchy crust. That perfect medium rare yields a rosy bloom inside, the loosely formed patty oozing seductively under the slightest pressure. It is borderline pornographic. The beef itself is bold and nuanced, with a lovely edge of meaty, almost floral sweetness underneath its savory punch.

Killen’s signature sauce lends its own gentle sweetness, balanced by a nice acidity and just a hint of savory richness. Coupled with gently tart pickles, juicy tomatoes and fresh lettuce on a pillowy bun that maintains enough structure to stand up to the hefty burger and its drippings, it is a supremely well-balanced sandwich. Beefy, fatty, salty, tart, sweet. Crispy, yielding, slick, soft, crunchy. Super-flavorful, and not greasy or heavy despite its respectable (10 ounce) size and relatively high fat content.

That shifts when you let the kitchen do its normal thing, leaving your burger on the heat just long enough to strip it of its finer qualities. It’s still a decent bite, but certainly not destination-worthy. There is no sensuous ooze; the once blossoming beef is blunted, offering little nuance. That’s an easy problem to fix, though one may argue that it should not be up to the diner to fix a problem in the kitchen. Chalk it up to differing tastes, I suppose, and you can certainly understand how Killen would make the call to cater to those most likely to be his regulars.

While Killen’s Burgers doesn’t take as its stock-in-trade the sort of burger frippery that’s become increasingly common, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to branch out from the standard. The most obvious example of this is the #99, a burger designed by and served in honor of Texans star J.J. Watt, and the closest Killen’s comes to burger extremism.

Two ten-ounce patties root the sandwich, stacked wobblingly atop one another. A couple of slices of bacon stick out akimbo, while a leaf of lettuce provides a bit of comic relief, seeming vaguely ridiculous capping the mountain of meat. For better or for worse, the #99 is a perfect example of the dangers of burger temps. I didn’t specify a temp, and mine came to the table without any of that ruddy interior complexion. Fresh from the griddle, it’s an atavistic rush of beef and grease. The double-patty-whammy brings a huge dose of griddle-browned flavor and texture, and the girth of the thing has you inhaling eau de boeuf as you try to fit burger to face without embarrassing yourself and everyone eating with you. It is an impossible task. It is also a deliciously entertaining one, at least until the beef begins to cool. As it does, the meat seizes up a bit, seeming a little drier with every bite, exacerbated by the sheer size of the thing. Had I specified medium rare, it would have been a far messier, far more enjoyable experience.
For a different spin on the meatstravaganza, try the seared pork belly burger, a specials-board charmer that seems to be taking up permanent residence. For starters, there’s belly in the beef grind. While this shifts the doneness calibration, it does so with an added dose of lubricated fat that keeps the patty lush while adding an unmistakably porky note. Two strips of seared pork belly top the burger, not much thicker than extra-thick bacon. They are diminutive enough that you may be initially disappointed if you peer under the hood before taking the thing out for a drive. Still, the rashers are meltingly tender under a thin mantle of griddle crunch, and they reinforce the flavor of the burger more insistently, with a concentrated rush of semi-liquid pork fat storming your tastebuds with each bite. Salad stuff (LTPO) adds moisture, crunch and an acidic bulwark against all that richness. It’s a terrific burger. As tends to be the case here, it doesn’t feel fancy, but it’s very well put together.

There’s a sort of simplicity that underlines many of the best bites at Killen’s. This may be on its finest display in the chicken-fried steak sandwich, at $6 easily in the running for one of the best bang/buck ratios in the greater metropolitan area. It’s just a big slab of CFS, a good swipe of mayo, a handful of shredded lettuce and a few slices of tomato. Austere, in a way. It’s also pretty much perfect.

The oblong steak overlaps its glistening bun, craggy and rippling. The crackling crust is thin, adhering well to the steak. No naked bites on this CFS. The seasoning runs throughout, perfectly tuned. The beef is tender but resilient and full of flavor. When you finally get to the accoutrements (it takes a while), the payoff is considerable and considerably more than you may expect. Tomatoes rush your palate with a gently sweet acidity, and the mayo and its fat both lubricate and seem to enhance the flavor as a carrier. It’s easily the best CFS sandwich I’ve ever had, an umami bomb sheathed in wonderfully crispy crust.

The fried chicken sandwich takes its own spin on simplicity too far, the overly thin breaded breast set against nothing more than a few pickle slices for an overall effect that is bready and bland. A more generous bit of bird, juicy and flush, might help right the ship. As it is, it’s one of the few items at Killen’s I wouldn’t recommend.

Just riding that fence, the turkey burger is a bit of a toss-up. The patty bears the Killen’s hallmark crust, adding a needed dose of flavor to a salty-sweet impression that can be a bit much. It comes with a slice of Swiss cheese, but I recommend dressing it up a bit with grilled mushrooms and onions. They add layers of savory flavor and moisture, a necessary step to avoid the drying effect of the rough-seeming whole wheat bun, which seems there primarily as a signifier that hey, you’re trying to be healthy.
I want to spend more time with the blends board, which offers everything from akaushi to a brisket/short rib blend. The dry-aged blend seems particularly promising, offering a subtle but intriguing depth. My specimen was a bit unevenly cooked, with more tightly packed texture than is common here. I’ll have to give it another shot.

There are sides and shakes to go with your burger, but none is quite the match of the main event. Kennebec fries offer expansive potato flavor, but pale and wimpy exteriors; onion rings are delightfully textured, with a shatteringly crisp coating around fat, sweet onion; cafeteria-throwback crinkle fries are surprisingly dependable, even if they come from frozen. The kitchen has a fondness for specialty shakes, turning dessert classics like apple pie and banana pudding into frozen versions that are only marred by excessive additions of caramel or chocolate sauce, turning the delicately handled treats syrupy and borderline insipid.

You’re not going for shakes or fries, though. You’re going for burgers. They’re worth the drive to Pearland, and the risk of the occasional missed mark. It only takes a bit of knowledge to get Killen’s burgers at their best and, at their best, they’re easily among the best in the city. Sometimes, the hype is right.

Killen’s Burgers
2804 South Main, Pearland, 281-412-4922, killensburgerstx.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cheeseburger $7.50
#99 Burger $17
Dry-aged blend burger $9.50
Seared pork belly burger $11
Chicken-fried steak sandwich $6
Fried chicken sandwich $6
Swiss turkey burger with grilled onions and mushrooms $10.50
Kennebec fries $3.50
Crinkle-cut fries $2.75
Onion rings $5
Shakes $5
Specialty shakes $7
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall