Better Late than Never - My Visit to The Burger Guys
March 28, 2011
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