Monday, March 28, 2011

Better Late than Never - My Visit to The Burger Guys

You know that great book you've got on the shelf that you've been meaning to read?  Or that film in your Netflix queue that you've meant to watch for months, but you keep putting off?  If you write a food blog, the same thing happens with restaurants.  I've got several that I've been meaning to try, but a variety of excuses keeps popping up.  "I'm on the wrong side of town."  "My bride won't like it."  "James Beard Award nominee Katharine Shilcutt just reviewed it, and I'll never get a table."

Here's what I've been avoiding.  Yes, I'm an idiot.

You know the drill.

Regardless, I was recently visiting with some friends, and the discussion of what to do for dinner came up.  Being the resident foodie, everyone looked in my direction.  We were on the northwest side of town, right by the Beltway, so I immediately thought of a burger place that I've been grossly negligent about trying: The Burger Guys.  Fortunately, the idea was a popular one, so we caravaned down Beltway 8 to Westheimer, then headed west to find The Burger Guys.

Even though it was plotted on our GPS, the store was tricky to find.  Why?  Because they have perhaps the smallest sign known to mankind, and Westheimer is not a street known for subtle advertising.


That, my friends, was what we had to find along Westheimer.  Fortunately, my eagle-eyed bride spotted the sign as we passed, so we did the U-ey and pulled into the lot.

Entering The Burger Guys was a challenge - the counter where you order doesn't have a lot of space near it; the open kitchen and the dining area take up almost all of the restaurant's space.  I let my friends order, then approached the counter.  I asked the charming, knowledgeable woman a couple of questions, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear firm, direct answers.  "The Sonoma over the Houston.  No question."  "The salted caramel shake is fantastic."  It's frustrating when the staff has no opinion, or offers the dreaded "Everything is fantastic!!!"  (You can hear all three exclamation points)  None of this was a problem at the Burger Guys, and that was a great start.

We ordered, then were lucky to discover that the first member of our party had staked a claim to most of the long counter facing the kitchen.  The Burger Guys isn't set up for large parties, so if you come with a big group, expect to be split up or to get very lucky, as we did.  We sat down, absorbed the aromas and the vibe, and watched the parade of burgers and sides coming out.

Houston can be a small town at times, but we were way outside the loop, so we were astonished to run into Vic and Anthony's Michael Fulmer, a man known to frequent only the finest restaurants and houses of ill repute around town.  I'd never seen Fulmer outside the loop, and I had assumed that he would turn to salt if he stepped outside the perimeter of 610... and here he was outside the Beltway.  "Trust me.  It's worth it" he prophesied, and with that, he was gone.  If Fulmer will make the drive to this place, I'm expecting great things.

While waiting, it was time to grab a drink.  We walked over to the dispenser at the back of the room, and this is what we saw:

Be still, my beating heart.

But wait... there's more.

Instead of the generic Coca-Cola (or, heaven forbid, Pepsi) slate of products, we saw remarkably unique soda choices, headlined by none other than Dublin Dr Pepper, the mythical version of Dr Pepper made with real Imperial sugar, and usually only available in the immediate vicinity of Dublin, Texas.  How did The Burger Guys get this beverage that isn't sold in Houston?

"They call me Bootlegger" laughed Jake Mazzu, one of the owners, and thus one of The Burger Guys.  "I drive up to Dublin, and come back with 3,000 pounds of syrup."  That's a 550 mile round trip, and fortunately, the DPS has not been called out to stop Mr. Mazzu, at least not yet.  I was floored.  I was previously impressed by Ricky Craig at Hubcap Grill, and how he only sells bottled soda because he won't tolerate the variations in the mixture.  Here is a kindred spirit; he's willing to personally drive across Texas to source the beverages for his restaurant.  This attention to detail is rare, and as my experience with Hubcap Grill has shown, it can lead to a fantastic burger.

Mazzu introduced me to Clint Wilkinson, his sous chef.  "A sous chef at a burger place?"  would be a reasonable question, but after experiencing The Burger Guys, it doesn't seem presumptuous at all.  These guys could succeed in any kitchen in town (Wilkinson is an alum of Randy Rucker's kitchen, and seems to have survived the experience with his sense of humor intact) and we're lucky to have them all under one roof sharing their passion for burgers.  Wilkinson concocted a milkshake for me, and this was no ordinary milkshake.  Salted Caramel was the flavor, the ice cream was made in house, and yes, it tasted like fresh caramel that had been chilled and salted to balance out the sweetness and creaminess.  My conclusion:  If Clint Wilkinson tells you that he has created a Tabasco and Durian milkshake, you'd be smart to try it.

As if on cue, the food started to appear.  First came the fries.  Normally, I'd be miffed if everything didn't come out at once, but here the fries seemed more like an appetizer.  They were freshly cut, fried in duck fat, nicely crisped outside and tender inside, and flecked with kosher salt.  They were also right out of the fryer, and were hot to the touch.  

Direct from the fryer's duck fat to you

Going beyond Fancy ketchup (detect a trend yet?), The Burger Guys offers a wide variety of housemade dipping sauces, and our group sampled many of them.  Their take on the traditional ketchup grabbed me; it was sweeter than usual, with tangy undertones that I couldn't single out.  I'm not a huge ketchup fan, but this stuff is addictive.  All in all, the Burger Guys produce a top-quality fry, and enhance them with a wide variety of unique dipping sauces.  Again, they go above and beyond.

Now the main course arrived.  All the burger guys burgers carry geographic names appropriate to their blend of ingredients.  I'd chose the Sonoma; I felt it was closest to the basic cheeseburger that I use as a benchmark to compare burger joints.  I did have them leave off the avocado (very Sonoma county, dude) and the aoili, because I am not a fan of mayonnaise on burgers, even if it is housemade.

Superlative ingredients prepared by an expert chef

All burgers start with their beef, and The Burger Guys again go beyond the pale.  They source Akaushi beef, the Texas breed of waygu cattle.  The best steak I've ever eaten was an Akaushi ribeye I enjoyed at Tony's, and I believe that there is no finer beef to be found in America, but I digress.  I was skeptical about its use in a hamburger; I've had several burgers purportedly made from Kobe beef, and none have lived up to the high expectations of this expensive meat.  My theory is that the fatty marbling that makes Kobe so delicious in a steak is ruined in the grinding; it separates from the muscle tissue and boils off on the griddle.  

"We worked with Jonathan Jones (executive chef at Beaver's) and Chris Shepherd (executive chef at Catalan), experimenting until we got the grind just right." Mazzu explained.  I believe that Beaver's makes one of the best burgers in Houston, and Chris Shepherd is renowned for his knowledge of meat and butchering, so putting together this beefy dream team to help get the patty right is a rather impressive accomplishment.  Jake Mazzu is used to working with the best -- in a previous life, he worked at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal's English temple to molecular gastronomy, and one of the most creative kitchens in the world.  The source of Mazzu's high standards and willingness to go to extremes was coming into focus.

But back to the burger.  The half-pound Akaushi patty was expertly griddled; lightly pink in the middle, with a feisty char top and bottom.  Seasoning was restrained; a bit of salt and pepper were all I could taste.  A slice of mild cheddar melted into the top of the patty, and two thick slices of peppery Applewood-smoked bacon hung over the sides.  The bun was an eggy challah-based foundation; fluffy and yellow, with the bottom absorbing much of the delicious ooze that seeped from the patty.  The mouthfeel of the beef is soft and smooth, a characteristic we've noticed every time we've enjoyed Akaushi.  The seasoning was spot on - a nice bold, beefy swagger accented by just enough salt.  Even with the bold toppings the beefy flavor never plays second fiddle.  This is an example of a Burger Perfect Storm:  Superlative ingredients, expert handling, and creative flair balanced by respect for the classics.  Getting any two of these right typically results in a great burger; rare is the restaurant that can pull off all four.

In short, Mazzu is a grandmaster of the grill; here is a brief video of him seasoning and starting a phalanx of burgers.


He makes it look so easy.  I would no doubt be on the receiving end of third-degree burns if I tried this at home.

Others in our group sampled a variety of burgers, and were patient enough to indulge me and let me photograph them as they came out:




Not surprisingly, once the burgers came out (and were photographed) things fell silent in our group, with the exception of occasional happy sounds coming from the full mouths of the assembled burgerphiles.  



Everyone agreed that The Burger Guys creates a fantastic burger, and that the same meticulous attention to detail shown in the burgers extends to the fries, the shakes, and even the fountain sodas.  They have burgers ranging from creative takes on standards to exotic creations with toppings like shredded papaya, roasted beets, daikon, and housemade kimchee.  Remarkably, all cost $8, which is a bargain considering the quality of the ingredients, nevermind the time that goes into each burger.

So where does The Burger Guys fall in the pantheon of Houston burger joints?  Clearly it's one of the rare places at the summit; it's a worthy competitor to Samba Grille, Beaver's, Hubble & Hudson and Hubcap Grill.  But which one is best?

That is a decision that I cannot make for you.  Each of these establishments serves a truly superlative burger.  We in Houston are lucky to have them to choose from.  My suggestion:  If you can't pick, try 'em all.

The Burger Guys | 12225 Westheimer Road | Houston, Texas
281-497-GUYS | TheBurgerGuys.com


Burger Guys on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 21, 2011

2011 James Beard Award Nominations - Caswell, Shilcutt, and Walsh Represent Houston

Today, the James Beard Foundation announced the nominations for the 2011 awards, and Houston was well represented.

Bryan Caswell has been nominated for Best Chef: Southwest.  Caswell is executive chef and an owner of Reef, and is an owner of Little Bigs, Stella Sola, and El Real Tex Mex.  Caswell also appeared on the Next Iron Chef.

Katharine Shilcutt, has been nominated for best Multimedia Food Feature, for her story Designer Meats. Shilcutt  is the food critic for the Houston Press.

Robb Walsh has been nominated for best Food Culture / Travel for his story in Garden & Gun.  Walsh was the long-time food critic for the Houston Press and is a noted author and an owner of El Real Tex Mex.

Congratulations to Bryan, Katharine, Robb, and all the other nominees!

Road Trip Chow Down: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (Memphis, Part 1)

March means many things - the return of spring, NCAA basketball, and spring break.  We were itching to get out of Houston, and wanted to explore a new part of the country, so we decided it was time for a road trip.

As Texans, we've done road trips all over the state, so we decided on a new destination:  Tennessee.  Far enough away to be different than what you'd see in Texas, but close enough so that we could complete the journey in a week.  So we did some reasearch, plotted our course, packed up and headed to the Volunteer state.

Our journey out of Texas was taken down US 59 toward Texarkana.  Since we were leaving Texas, we decided to grab Tex-Mex as our last meal in the Lone Star State, and ended up consuming some forgettable enchiladas in a forgettable small town along the route.

Before long we were in the great state of Arkansas, heading east on I-30.  My memory of Arkansas was that there is nothing interesting to see along the entire stretch of I-30.  And that's a shame, because for many driving through the state, that's all they'll see.  We passed through Little Rock and merged with I-40, and took that highway into our first destination:  Memphis.

Memphis is perhaps the prototypical southern city.  Known for the blues, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King,, Jr. Sun Records, and Beale Street, Memphis has a rich history and a strong tradition of friendly southern hospitality.



Memphis is a town that's on the short list for BBQ lovers, so we knew we'd have to try the city's specialty: Pork ribs.  But our research also revealed that Memphis is known for two other comfort foods:  Burgers and fried chicken.  So we planned to investigate each of these offerings, with the goal of learning how Memphis compared to Houston for these three Southern favorites.  Knowing that schedules can be fluid for some hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we targeted a couple of recommendations from locals in Memphis for the best places to visit to sample these dishes.

First up is fried chicken, and one place kept being mentioned: Gus's Fried Chicken.  This humble spot downtown near the Mississippi River is beloved by locals and visiting foodies alike, so we decided that dinner there was a must.

Gus's was within a mile of our downtown hotel, and on-street parking was available about a block away.  We parked in the slightly sketchy neighborhood, and walked up to this Memphis landmark.


Upon entering Gus's, we made our way past the clot of people waiting for their tables; the line was almost but not quite out the door.  The friendly counterman put our name on the list, and we ended up waiting about 30 minutes for a table. Gus's is a slightly dingy but homey chicken joint filled with everyone from families to couples to business types, and apparently they were all in the mood for fried chicken.  The juke box played a good selection of Memphis blues, making us feel at home and setting the stage for our meal.


Once we were seated, we placed our order and waited for another 20 minutes or so.  Gus's is clearly not a place for folks who are in a hurry.  Locals were split on the merits of white meat vs dark meat at Gus's, so we ordered a piece of each, along with seasoned fries and dirty rice.


After a brief wait, our chicken arrived, and it was time to dig in.  The crust was golden brown and very smooth, and was fairly thick - no one would confuse this for fast-food chicken.  Fried to a golden brown, locals assured us that this was chicken that we would remember.


Our first bite of the breast was a revelation.

The crust was indeed thick and crunchy, and nicely seasoned with just enough heat to keep this Texan's attention.  The chicken within was perfectly cooked and remarkably juicy; I can't remember ever experiencing fried chicken that was this moist.  The spicy seasoning permeated the chicken, and I happily gobbled down every bite.

Next up was the drumstick, also coated with a nice, thick crust.  Biting into it was a slight letdown after the stellar breast; it too was juicy, but almost too juicy as the natural oil of the dark meat was present in copious quantities.

Sides were excellent.  The dirty rice was moderately spicy and had a delicious, earthy flavor.  The fries were frozen but well cooked, with a crispy snap, good fluffy potato flavor, and lightly seasoned.

Gus's World Famous Fried chicken lives up to its reputation.  I've eaten some good fried chicken in Houston, but none measured up to Gus's stellar chicken breast.  So if you're craving the best friend chicken, it's time to drive Outside the Loop and head to Memphis.

Score:  Memphis 1, Houston 0

Next up:  Burgers

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken - 310 S. Front Street - Memphis, TN 38103 - 901-527-4877


Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cirque du Soleil's OVO - A Bug's Life is a Lot of Fun

The latest Cirque du Soleil touring show opens today under the Grand Chapiteau at Sam Houston Race Park, and it promises to provide a memorable evening.  We were invited by Cirque du Soleil for a media preview / dress rehearsal last night, and enjoyed a spectacular performance.


This 25th Cirque du Soleil production is titled OVO, it is a journey into the world of insects, a headlong rush into a thriving, colorful ecosystem populated by some very unique characters.  The show was written, directed and choreographed by Deborah Colker.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill targets the Woodlands for first Texas store

Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group has leased 5,821 square feet at 25 Waterway Avenue, located on the southwest corner of Lake Robbins Drive and Waterway Avenue, for Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill, according to Dan Leverett, vice president of commercial for The Woodlands Development Company. This will be the first Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill in Texas. It is expected to open in May.

Stir Crazy is a full-service Asian restaurant that offers a diverse menu of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food. The Asian fare is served in a fun, vibrant atmosphere with a focus on fresh, quality ingredients and bold flavors to deliver a truly unique casual dining experience for its guests. Prepared from scratch with no added MSG and minimal oil, Stir Crazy’s menu features more than 65 “mouth-watering” appetizers, entrees, desserts and its popular Market Bar, where diners can create their own Stir Crazy wok-tossed dish from more than 20 fresh ingredients and eight sauces.

A Stir Crazy highlight is the full-service bar featuring an extensive drink menu with a list of 35 quality and award-winning wines available by the glass or bottle. Beer, sake and several signature drinks are also available.

The restaurant will also include a large, outdoor patio.

"We are truly delighted that Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill will have its first new location in 2011 built at Waterway Square in The Woodlands, Texas," said Greg Carey, president and COO of Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group. "The entire community of The Woodlands has such a beautiful, upbeat, yet relaxed feel to it that we couldn't think of a more perfect place to open our first Texas restaurant. Stir Crazy is about fresh, quality, upscale casual dining and we think the residents of The Woodlands will agree that Stir Crazy is a great fit."

Flat Out Crazy operates 30 restaurants in eight states – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New York, Missouri and Wisconsin - consisting of 14 Stir Crazy locations and 16 FlatTop Grill locations. For more information, visit www.stircrazy.com.

(Via Talk of the Woodlands)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo - Third Annual Gold Buckle Foodie Awards

Funnel Cake is the most popular food at the rodeo.
For the past three years, the best of the various foods offered at the Houston Livestock Show are honored with the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards.  Contrary to popular belief, rodeo food isn't just funnel cakes and BBQ, although you'll find plenty of examples of both.

Here are 2011's winners:

Best Breakfast Food:
1st: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich
2nd: Yoakum Packing Company’s Bacon Blast
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s grilled breakfast burrito

Best Taco/Burrito:
1st Freebirds World Burrito’s carnitas burrito
2nd Tad’s Bodacious Burrito’s garlic chicken burrito
3rd Texas Pride Grill’s fajita taco

Best Seafood:
1st Berryhill Baja Grill’s crispy shrimp taco
2nd Sudie’s Catfish House’s duo of fried shrimp and oysters

Best Baked Potato:
1st: Harlon’s Bar-B-Que’s super baked potato
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork super potato
3rd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Just-Do-It Baked Potato

Best Burger:
1st: Holmes Smokehouse’s angus, bacon, cheese mushroom burger
2nd: Paradise Burger’s ½ lb bacon cheeseburger
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s cheesy burger bites

Best Food on a Stick:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate covered bananas and strawberries
2nd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s jalapeno & cheese sausage on a stick
3rd: Burton Sausage’s Rodeo K-bob

Best BBQ:
1st: Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s pork spare ribs (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork bbq sandwich
3rd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s bar-b-que pork ribs

Best Fried Food:
1st: Sweet Cheeks’ deep fried moon pie (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Bear Mountain Bison’s Buffalo chips with The Works
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Tornado Potato Fries smothered and covered

Favorite Food:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate dipped cheesecake
2nd: Sill’s Funnel Cake Hause’s funnel cake
3rd: Saltgrass Steakhouse’s ribs and chicken platter

Most Creative:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s fried Snickers
2nd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Juicy Lucy Cheeseburger
3rd: Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill’s pulled pork sundae

Best Dessert:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s banana split funnel cake
2nd: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ cinnamon roll with “The Works”
3rd: Cobbler Café’s pecan cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream

Best New Flavor:
1st: Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Grub chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya
2nd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Lava Flow Smoothie
3rd: Paradise Burger’s fried brownie bites

Best Gourmet:
1st: DGZ Chocolates & Fudge’s Toffarazzi (toffee)
2nd: The Caramel Candy Co.’s pecan caramel
3rd: Kettle Korn of Texas’s ribeye sandwich

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Landmark Houston Restaurants: Revisiting Christian's Totem

If you've been following this blog, you might have noticed that I have a thing for cheeseburgers.  I travel far and wide trying to find the best burgers around, trying to visit all the new or undiscovered spots that could be hiding the next great burger.

But a Houston burger lover has to keep his scale calibrated.  For a long time, discussion of the best burger in Houston revolved around two places: Lankford Grocery, and the subject of today's post, Christian's Totem.  (They've since opened a second location and rebranded themselves as Christian's Tailgate, but I use the older name to refer to the original I-10 location.)


When I first visited Christian's Totem years ago, it was a revelation.  I'd recently moved back to Houston from Austin, and I was trying to find a great fast-food style burger, in the vein of Dan's Hamburgers in Austin: Thin, griddled patties, oozy melting American cheese, a nicely griddled bun, and fresh veggies.  As much as I enjoy the more upscale burgers, with their thick patties, exotic buns and cheeses, I consider a great fast-food burger to be an iconic meal.  Sometimes it's what is required to satisfy the burger purist in me.

Christian's Totem created the benchmark fast-food burger in Houston, and I'd not been by in a couple of years.  So when I found myself in the area (and hungry) I realized it was time to visit this Houston landmark and determine how well their current burger compares to the best burgers being created around town today.

Entering Christian's Tailgate / Totem, I was first struck with how the shop had been updated.  Gone was the long counter / bar from which you used to order; the feel has become more slick and polished.  I wandered over to the new ordering station, and placed my order, then sat down.  The mid-day crowd was a bit more sparse than I remembered.

After a 15-minute wait, I was still sans-burger, so I walked up to the counter to see how much longer it would be.  "Five more minutes" I was told, and my burger appeared shortly thereafter.


The burger featured a slightly thickish hand-formed patty, griddled and topped with melting American cheese, just how I remembered it.  But closer inspection revealed that it was missing was Christian's near-perfect ooze, and ominous sign.  The patty was only slightly moist, and the cheese was only slightly melty.

Biting into the burger was a bit disappointment

The beef's flavor was completely unremarkable; the bold rich beefy flavor that's a hallmark of the best burgers was absent.  The beef had been cooked more than a bit too enthusiastically; it was uniformly grey all the way through.  And the half-melted cheese congealed quickly, and had an unremarkable flavor and texture.  The generic bun, which had been griddled to a golden brown on my last visit, was only slightly warmed, and rather mushy.

Saving graces were the nicely fresh vegetables; the snap of the lettuce demonstrated just how fresh it was.  But that wasn't enough to save this iconic burger.

If I had been served this burger at Whataburger, I'd have been pleasantly surprised.  But this was Christian's, named by many (myself included) among the best burgers in Houston.

This burger simply didn't measure up.  It is with great sadness that I remove Christian's from the list of Houston's Best Burgers.

Five years ago, Christian's served the benchmark Houston burger.  But the current version was a mere shadow of what had been.  At the same time, upstarts like Hubcap Grill, Beaver's Icehouse, and Samba Grille have advanced the burger game considerably.  Heck, even the out-of-town SmashBurger chain now has a superior product.

The best burger in Houston is a moving target, and sadly Christian's is moving in the wrong direction.  This is the second legendary Houston burger joint that disappointed me, and I hope this trend reverses very soon.

Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon