At first blush, Kuma Burgers seems a little improbable: a burger counter tucked into a business center food court, run by a chef who cut his teeth in the kitchen at Oxheart, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant best known for sophisticated, vegetable-forward and painterly plates. Of course, Houston has always been a take-all-comers kind of town, where anyone with the drive and the chops can carve out a space for himself, no matter how improbable that spot may seem. Kuma Burgers is definitely doing that in Greenway Plaza, tucked in next to similarly minded iconoclasts like Greenway Coffee and Tea (the launching pad for David Buehrer’s Blacksmith and Morningstar) and The Rice Box (the brick and mortar outpost of the plucky food truck favorite).
In figuring out what that spot is, Kuma chef Willet Feng ducks a handful of burger trends, landing somewhere between chef-y burger frippery and straightforward beef worship. Feng’s burgers don’t challenge diners’ jaws with rosy-hued and towering patties, nor do they rely on an overly complex array of fanciful luxury toppings. Kuma’s burgers rely on balance to make their mark.
That balance is on unlikely display in the Spicy!!! Burger, whose array of fiery toppers sounds ready to send the whole thing teetering off into niche territory, a belt-notching burger for masochistics. You do have to like a bit of fire, but this is not the mouth-scorcher you might expect. Instead, the sandwich ripples with waves of variegated chile heat. The fresh crunch of raw jalapeño hits first, smoothed out by creamy pepperjack cheese. The piquant punch of pickled chiles slices through next, balanced against the salt and savor of the thin and frizzled patty itself. Charred jalapeños thrum a bass note against a suave and mildly funky sambal mayo, all of it bookended by the tender and just-sweet-enough sourdough bun.
The balance doesn’t always come through on other selections, unfortunately. The sweet-spiced house chili almost cancels out the sweet-leaning all-beef hot dog, their profiles reading too close to each other for contrast or complement. Similarly, the finely minced texture of the chili mirrors the finely emulsified texture of the dog, melding with the soft chew of the bun, which gives the whole thing a slightly one-note quality. The chili fares better on its own, its fine texture an asset when played solely against a scatter of minced onion. While the lack of beans reads Texas, the blend of warm baking spices might make purists balk.
The kimchi dog — dressed in cheddar, charred jalapeños, scallion aioli and kimchi relish — fares better, but still suffers from texture issues. The relish packs plenty of funky, fermented punch, playing nicely alongside the sweet-leaning profile of the hot dog, but the whole thing is texturally boring.
Of course, Kuma is a burger joint, and it shines when put to that straightforward task. A basic burger will set you back a shockingly affordable $4 (the handful of house specialties only hit $7), and you can customize as you please. A cheeseburger dressed in classic Texas roadside style, with LTPO and a swipe each of mayo and mustard, comes in at $5 (cheese is a buck), and is a real steal for those enamored of the style.
If you’re not into the whole brevity thing, you might try an ad-hoc loco moco burger. Add an extra patty, grilled Spam, cheddar, a fried egg and a swipe of sambal mayo, all served on Kuma’s novel but awkward gluten-free rice “bun,” and you turn Kuma’s balance on its head. Hyper-aggressive griddling on the beef patties leaves their edges trailing off like a beefy continental shelf, rife with fissures and peninsulas of crust sealed with melted cheese and providing inlets for the flow of a perfectly over-easy egg. Sambal mayo lends creaminess and just a spark of heat. Grilled Spam adds spiced fat and salt, edging up against the prickly sambal. It’s greasy, fatty, meaty and indulgent, balanced by its very imbalance.
The rice bun is a bit tricky. You may find yourself eating your burger like a plate lunch, attacking it with knife and fork when the compressed discs of griddled rice refuse to adopt sandwich-ness. The rice has a pleasant chew within, a toasty nuttiness without, absorbing and buffering all the richness of the burger.
That double-patty trick might serve well elsewhere on the menu, as with the Texan burger, whose thin patty is overmatched by a thick smear of chunky, pleasantly austere guacamole.
If the greasy glory of that custom loco moco burger speaks to you, you might find favor with a recent special, a well-tuned patty melt. While the grilled rye bread could use a bit more crunchy texture, and a deeper tangle of finely grilled onions would be nice, the overall effect is swell.
Kuma Burgers’ fries are admirable. Well-bronzed and crispy, with a fluffy and potato-sweet interior and just the right level of salt, they’re pretty perfect. If you want to, you can get yours topped with chili, either the standard version or the bean-flecked vegetarian variant. While the former actually works quite well as a fry topper, its sweet profile and smooth texture playing well against the salty crisp of the potatoes, the vegetarian variety is less persuasive, leaving me ever more convinced that bean-based chili is no friend to fries, even if I’m more accommodating than most Texans.
For a better option, go with the loaded fries. Despite the name, you’ll receive a basket of fries remarkable for its restraint. Much as the Italian attitude toward the sauce-pasta relationship favors the one as a sparingly applied enhancement for the other, the loaded fries come not loaded but graced with bacon, sour cream, cheddar and green onions.
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For those seeking meatless offerings, the veggie burger is an interesting option. A thick slab of eggplant is braised in soy before being breaded and deep-fried, serving as the base for the same slate of house-styled sandwiches and build-your-own options as the standard burger. While the breading on the eggplant quickly softens from its crisp, it still boasts a dense meatiness that, while it won’t convince you you’re eating a burger, will leave you surprisingly satisfied. Waves of umami from the soy-bathed eggplant, sautéed mushrooms and onions are lit up by scallion aioli, then smoothed out by kitty-cornered tiles of Swiss cheese on the mushroom Swiss version.
To wash down your burger, it’s hard to top the black sesame shake. The shake has perfect texture, both thin enough to draw through the plus-size boba straw and thick enough to read shake. The flavor is deeply appealing, familiar enough to be comforting, but subtle and nuanced enough to make you take note. Like a peanut butter shake’s more interesting, slightly mysterious cousin, this shake is nutty and rich but without that cloying edge that peanut butter often has. It’s only mildly sweet. The other flavors (strawberry, caramel, vanilla and chocolate malt) are similarly compelling, but occasionally marred by a slightly grainy texture.
Ultimately, Kuma Burgers is a worthy new entrant into Houston’s already robust burger ecosystem. From the well-griddled, crust-heavy and deeply flavorful smashed patties to a host of housemade ingredients, it’s easy to find a very good burger at Kuma, and not at all hard to find a truly excellent one. A few of the ready-made models could use a bit of tweaking to line up with the balance that defines the best of Kuma’s options. These are not intimidating, medium-rare, meat-forward burgers or baroquely built curiosities. Their tendency toward simplicity, however, is very purposeful and very delicious. That’s a space worth carving out.
3 Greenway Plaza, Suite C220, 832-542-3528, kumaburgers.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
SPICY!!! Burger $7
Texan Burger $7
Blank Canvas $4 (Extra charge for cheese, “extra protein” and “premium veggies”)
Patty melt $7
Mushroom Swiss veggie burger $7
Kimchi dog $6
Chili cheese dog $6
Loaded baked potato fries $5
Texas chili $6
Veggie chili cheese fries $5
Small black sesame shake $3.75
Hand-cut fries $3