Our 2013 Best of Houston issue is here, and in many cases, picking the best item in many of the categories was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we'll be rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétitt!
Speaking of no easy task, on to burgers.
When you search "burgers" on our blog, you get 2,615 entries. That's how much we love burgers. We write about them alllll the time. There are a lot of them in this town, too -- far more than ten -- but this list is comprised of the ten very best burgers around, from the plain janes to the totally out there.
I may have complained about gourmet burgers in the past, but that was before I encountered all that Houston has to offer, burger-wise. This city is a veritable playground for the wondrous and the whimsical in burger-making.
So, without further ado, these are our top ten favorites from around Houston. We know you have your favorites too. So come on, let us have it in the comments.
10. Little Bigs Yes, the beefy treats here are sliders, not full-on burgers, but there's something to be said for a slider that gets it so right that even the most ardent burger fanatics will come around when they taste it. The hamburger slider (Little Bigs offers a number of other sliders as well, like pulled pork or black bean) is the picture of simple perfection. A three-ounce fresh-ground beef patty (never frozen) that's owner Bryan Caswell's own recipe is perched on a light, yeasty roll then topped with caramelized onions. If you want anything else on your slider, there's a condiment and topping bar with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, sriracha and the like. But I doubt you'll even remember it's there once you bite into that juicy little slider.
9. Del Frisco's Grille I know it's a chain, but hear me out. The Grille Prime Cheeseburger is far better than the average steakhouse chain offering. It's not what I'd call a gourmet burger, though, for the simple fact that there's nothing on it that you wouldn't find on a fast food burger. It's two thin and crispy (but juicy in the middle) beef patties made steak trimmings and ground prime brisket. Each USDA prime burger is topped with an oozy yellow cheese blend, lettuce, tomatoes and a homemade "sloppy sauce" reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing. I always thought that barbecue was the best thing one could do with brisket. Friends, I was so wrong. This is brisket at it best.
8. Down House As a food writer, I often have to eat multiple lunches or dinners in one day, and I've learned that such an endeavor is impossible unless I merely taste the food everywhere I go rather than cleaning my plate. Down House totally threw off my game when I ordered the Lone Star Burger on a recent visit. It's a big ol' hunk of grass-fed beef that's ground in-house and cooked over a fire for a texture that's seared and crispy on the outside and still gloriously juicy on the inside. A very generous helping of Vermont Cabot cheddar cheese is melted all over the patty to the point that it covers the entire thing. I was most pleasantly surprised by the house mustard and aioli that were hiding beneath other ingredients until I got into the middle of the burger and found the zesty, garlicky condiments. Oh yeah, and then I ate the whole thing when I knew full well I had more eating left to do that afternoon. Damn you, Down House. Damn you and your delicious burger!
7. Cottonwood Though some of the previous burgers on this list are large and in charge, the Cottonwood burgers are the first ones so far that I'd label "gourmet." I give the gourmet distinction to burgers that feature ingredients not readily available at the average burger joint. Like blue cheese, bacon jam and peppery shoestring onion rings. Cottonwood makes two stellar burgers: the blue cheese-stuffed and the "Squirrel Master Burger" (the winner of the No. 7 spot on this list), which is stuffed with chopped poblano peppers then covered in Pepper jack cheese and a fried egg with bits of bright green jalapeño sprinkled on top. This burger doesn't need a single other ingredient. Forget the ketchup. Forget the mustard. Forget my beloved sriracha and Tabasco. The Squirrel Master is a complex work of art, and it is perfect just as it is.
6. Bernie's Burger Bus Bernie's burgers are so good that I will literally drive around in circles looking for the distinctive yellow buses parked in apartment complexes, then climb over remote-controlled fences at said apartment complexes to reach them. This exact scenario has happened on more than one occasion. Chef and owner Justin Turner grinds the fatty Black Angus beef in-house (or rather, in-bus), and he even makes his own condiments. Admittedly, Bernie's burgers and fries never make it all the way home in my car because I've been known to pull over and devour them in some random parking lot in between the bus and my apartment. The best Bernie's burger, the Detention, features two applewood-smoked bacon grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. Need I say more?
5. Lankford Grocery Lankford has been making magnificently messy burgers for three-quarters of a century now, and while some say the quality has suffered in recent years, I say that if the current burger incarnations are somehow lesser in quality than they used to be I can't even imagine what they were like in Lankford's glory days. From the Grim Burger topped with bacon, jalapeños, a fried egg and macaroni and cheese to my preferred burger, the pineapple wasabi burger, a newer addition to Lankford's menu. It features a hearty burger topped with Swiss cheese, red onions, wasabi mayo and a big slice of grilled pineapple. The sweet and tart pineapple adds another bright, fresh dimension to a meal that's usually very rich and savory. Keep up the good work, Lankford.
4. The Hay Merchant/Underbelly Originally the "UB Double Double," the double-patty, double-cheese burger's name had to be changed after chef Chris Shepherd received a cease and desist letter from In-N-Out Burger claiming that "Double Double" was trademarked. Shepherd complied, and the Cease and Desist Burger was born. It's the closest thing you'll get to an In-N-Out burger here in Houston, but it's also just about as far from fast food as you're going to get, because the top-notch beef is butchered in-house, the pickles are homemade, and the heirloom tomatoes are locally sourced. And the tasty challah bun is from local baker Slow Dough. It's simple, and in spite of the double meat and cheese, not over the top. Everything a burger should be.
3. Hubcap Grill It's difficult to go wrong with anything you order at Hubcap, but my personal favorites are the Greek Burger and the Muffaletta Burger. I love the Greek Burger because Greek salad items like feta cheese and bell peppers pair well with grilled beef and because I can fool myself into thinking it's healthy. My favorite is the Muffaletta burger, though, because why did no one think of burgers and olives before?! The combination of the zesty, pickle-y olives with Swiss cheese and a freshly ground beef patty is so simple yet so genius. Other more ballsy menu options include the frito pie burger, which, yes, has an actual frito pie on top of the patty, and the sticky burger, which boasts a generous helping of peanut butter and cheese. But I'm still all about the muffaletta, which is a brilliant feat of burgerdom.
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2. Plonk When I first read that Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro made a great burger, I was skeptical. It's a wine bar, you guys. Wine bars are supposed to have delicate finger food to munch on while sipping rosé, right? Well, not Plonk. The cozy wine bar offers up a Guanciale Burger, which is essentially a bacon cheeseburger featuring guanciale (unsmoked jowl or cheek meat, most often pork) instead of traditional bacon. Swiss cheese is melted straight onto the onion bun, which allows it to hold in the juices from the ground beef and ground pork patty. Together with caramelized onions, this creates a sweet, smoky, rich burger experience that will make you say, "Oh, did they have booze here? I forgot."
1. Brooklyn Athletic Club The Clubhouse Burger at BAC sounds like something fancy one might nibble on while sipping a mimosa at Sunday brunch. But get ready. This is one heckova burger. It comes with "LTO" (lettuce, tomatoes and onions) as well as green tomato and jalapeño jam, but you can add on bacon and a fried egg for a little something extra, and I strongly recommend you do so. BAC invariably cooks the fried eggs just right so that the yolk oozed all over the slightly charred burger patty. The chefs will add some American cheese or Texas Veldhuizen "Redneck Cheddar" to the mix too if you want, which takes this (now giant) burger to a whole other level. It's like a build-a-burger. But really, it's great even in its simplest form thanks to the almost-too-sweet-but-just-right tomato and jalapeño jam and the grilled Hereford beef patty. Whatever else you want on this beaut' is up to you.