Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell gets inside the food industry's pursuit of the perfect spaghetti sauce -- and makes a larger argument about the nature of choice and happiness.

I returned to Coal Burger on Thursday.  After eating a superlative burger, I was eager to sample more from the menu.  Unfortunately they were closed; problems with the ventilation system meant that the restaurant was too smoky when the coal-fired oven was operating.

But I did have the pleasure of meeting more of the people behind the restaurant, including one big surprise that explained a lot of things.
Chef Bradford Thompson is the corporate chef at the Grimaldi's organization, working behind the scenes on the food at Coal Burger.
Chef Bradford Thompson
(Photo courtesy Culinary Vegetable Institute)
Chef Thompson is the James Beard Award-winning chef who has numerous other accolades to his credit, including a AAA Five Diamond Award (at Mary Elaine's in Scottsdale), A Wine Spectator Grand Award, and multiple recognitions by Food and Wine Magazine.

Thompson also worked with the legendary Chef Daniel Boulud in Manhattan, helping plan and develop both Cafe Boulud and DB Bistro Moderne.  Chef Thompson also was in charge of private dining at New York's famed Restaurant Daniel.

What is a chef of this stature doing working for a small burger chain?  Developing the menu.  I spoke with Chef Thompson about his participation, and his enthusiasm was palpable.  Here is a man who has built a superb French kitchen in Manhattan, but he is pouring his heart into creating a superlative burger concept, one that can both deliver a $4 burger and be run in a socially responsible manner.
Listening to the chef talk about why the burger was designed as it was, and the other myriad decisions that went into creating Coal Burger was like taking a master class in designing a burger joint.  Clearly, Chef Thompson knows his burgers, and those of us who eat at Coal Burger are the happy beneficiaries of his knowledge and skill.
The chef spoke in detail about why the burger features quarter-pound patties instead of the larger ones favored by many steak houses.  (It's all about the multiple layers of char.)  He detailed the benefits of Niman Ranch beef and the other ingredients he selected.  He even talked about the decision to make Coal Burger an environmentally conscious restaurant, but not to overwhelm the customer with a "green" message. 
Clearly, the vision of a world-class chef has resulted in a very impressive product.  But his knowledge of the entire restaurant business is shaping Coal Burger to be considerably different than its competitors in the burger arena.  His culinary knowledge is a formidable secret weapon.
Unfortunately, Chef Thompson isn't going to be overseeing the Woodlands Coal Burger on a daily basis.  He'll be back in Manhattan, at the helm of his West Village Jamaican restaurant, Miss Lily's Favourite Cakes, and no doubt continuing his contributions to Food and Wine, Gourmet, Art Culinare, and the New York Times.

We're always skeptical when a successful restaurant group branches out into a new type of restaurant.  Too often we've seen incredibly successful organizations stumble when they try to translate their successful formula to an entirely different cuisine.

So we greeted the news of Coal Burger with a good deal of skepticism.  This small restaurant chain (the Woodlands location is their third store, and their first outside of Arizona) is owned by the same group as Grimaldi's Pizza, the iconic Brooklyn pizza joint that has branched out into locations all over the nation (and not coincidentally, right next door to Coal Burger.)  Would success in the pizza field translate into the highly competitive burger arena?

Half-pound Coal Burger, with cheese and bacon

We aren't sure.  But we love a good burger, and have a great deal of respect for the Grimaldi's organization, so we visited Coal Burger today, on its opening day, to see just what they are all about.  It was a rainy Tuesday, so we headed down to Waterway Square in the Woodlands, and managed to snag a nearby parking spot.  We zipped through a building to avoid the rain, and came out across the street from the Coal Burger location.  There is no sign, but it is located on the back side of the same building that houses Grimaldi's.

Coal Burger in the Woodlands.  That's the entrance at the right

We crossed the street and entered the bright, airy restaurant.  We saw plenty of green-shirted staff members being trained on opening day.  Everyone was bright and friendly, and we learned quite a bit about the philosophy behind Coal Burger before we even ordered.

Coal Burger isn't an ordinary burger joint.  There is a great focus on sustainable, high quality, healthy ingredients.  The organization is green, but it's not pushed in the customer's face as a self-conscious selling point.  We noticed that the disposable drink containers were compostable, the ingredients are from responsible sources like Niman Ranch, and little touches like LED light fixtures point to a thoughtful focus on the environment.  We applaud this approach.

Orders are placed at the counter, so we walked up and gave them ours.

The woman at the counter was very friendly, and in short order we were headed to the table to await our Coal Burgers.  On the way we grabbed a soda - no Coca-Cola or Pepsi products here, but rather a selection of Boylan sodas, all sweetened with real cane sugar.  So we had to skip our beloved Dr Pepper, and instead chose Boylan Ginger Ale.  A sip confirmed that real ginger is a prominent ingredient in this beverage.

After a short wait, the burger appeared, wrapped neatly in paper.  Ours was a half-pound of all-natural Niman Ranch Beef, hand-formed into two patties, topped with American cheese, beautiful thick-cut bacon, shredded lettuce, and crisp sliced pickles.  Only the bun seemed pedestrian, but we later learned that a Brioche bun is available upon request.

A half-pound burger at Coal Burger

Biting into this tall, narrow burger was delightful.  The first sensation was the crispness of the sliced pickles, which was quickly followed by a rich, charry, beefy burst of flavor.  Following the Grimaldi's tradition, the burger patties are grilled in a coal-fired oven.

Coal Burger's coal-fired oven

This magical device imparts a delightful char to the high quality beef.  And it does so quickly, leaving a nice juicy ooze and a pinkish center to contrast to the dark brown exterior char.

The American cheese we selected was thickly sliced and high quality.  The bacon had a slightly sweet, smoky bite.  The result was a superb rendition of a backyard burger, typically grilled over charcoal.  But this one was grilled over real coal, and the result was how one would dream a backyard burger would taste - no home cooked burger we've sampled has sported such an aggressive char and rich, complex flavor.

We realize that it's unfair to judge a restaurant on its opening day, but we were very impressed by the burger at Coal Burger.  We were also happy to talk with Darien, the manager, and to see that he and his staff are very interested in feedback and focused on making the Coal Burger experience a good one.

We'll be back.  Soon.

UPDATE: We learn the secret behind Coal Burger

Coal Burger | 20 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-292-6385

Coal Burger on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands area is not lacking for choices when you're in the mood for Tex-Mex.  From Chuy's to Los Cucos to the Rico's empire, there's a Tex-Mex spot on just about any corner.

So you can imagine my indifference when I learned that the large restaurant being built at the intersection of 2920 and Kuykendahl was going to be another Tex-Mex spot.  I enjoy the cuisine, but feel that the area would be better served by just about any other type of restaurant.

Nevertheless, a recent weekend found us shopping at Lowe's (across the big parking lot) and hungry.  Alicia's building was inviting, so we walked over and entered.

We were immediately impressed by the beautiful setting and attractive decor.  The proprietor had clearly invested some money in his new establishment, and the result was impressive.  Dining areas were in different rooms (we tire of the single, huge cavern that seems to be popular with many restaurant designers) and an inviting bar was off to the side.

One of the dining rooms at Alicias (Unused at the time)

We were led to our table, and fresh housemade chips and salsa were quickly brought.  Chips and salsa are one's first impression of a Tex-Mex spot's cuisine, and we think they're very important.  Alicia's did not disappoint - the chips were thin and crisp, glowing with a thin sheen of oil that didn't result in a heavy taste.  The salsa was light, fresh, and had the bite of citrus, an excellent choice for a hot Texas summer.

Perusing the menu, we saw all the traditional Tex-Mex favorites, plus an emphasis on grilled meats.  My eye was drawn to one of their combinations.  Called simply "Cowboy Steak", it featured a 6 oz. black Angus outside cut of skirt steak, grilled and topped with three chipotle shrimp.  A pair of cheese enchiladas, and the de rigueur rice and beans completed the dish.

Cowboy Steak at Alicia's Mexican Grille

What came out was impressive.  An aggressively-charred, lime-marianated slab of honest-to-Robb skirt steak, topped with larger-than-expected, perfectly grilled shrimp.  The chipotle sauce provided a nice, smoky counterpoint to both the skirt steak and the shrimp, forming a delightful Gulf Coast / Border version of central Texas BBQ.  It was a fusion that worked.

Perhaps even more remarkable were the cheese enchiladas.  I consider this dish to be another benchmark for measuring a Tex-Mex spot, and Alicia's did not disappoint.  Fresh tortillas rolled around melted, oozing yellow cheese, topped with a very nice housemade chili gravy.  None of the mystery red sauce that some places substitute... a revelation.  These may be the best cheese enchiladas in the Houston area.

We're looking forward to returning to Alicia's in the very near future.  But it's going to be tough to order anything else on the menu.

The man had more cool in his pinky than four dozen hipsters have in their entire bodies ...

(Via @LettersOfNote)

OK, I feel better.  It's not just me.

Hubbell & Hudson's Bleu Cheese Burger

A new report released by food industry consultants Technomic revealed that Americans are eating more burgers, and better ones.  Nearly half of the Americans surveyed now eat burgers at least once a week.

(I think that they're all in line at Hubcap Grill when I stop by.)  That's up from 38% in 2009.

Another encouraging trend - consumers are willing to spend more for better burgers.  Taste and convenience were ranked ahead of price when choosing which burger to enjoy.  This bodes well for Houston's wide variety of better burger joints, from burger boutiques like Burger Guys to local success story / superlative burger chain Beck's Prime.

A fact that surprises some but doesn't surprise us: 99% of Americans surveyed say that they eat some kind of burger, even if only occasionally.

Source: Huffington Post.

Summer is in full swing, and for many of us that means it's time to get outside and cook some meat.  There's nothing more American than standing outside by the fire, breathing in the aroma and anticipating a delicious meal.

We're fans of grilled meat, but we're even bigger fans of real BBQ.  And yes, there is a difference, as any pitmaster will tell you.  Grilling is done fast, with the meat directly over a high heat source.  Bar-b-cuing is done slowly, with the fire away from the meat, and the meat spending quality time in a relatively low-heat, smoky atmosphere, slowly cooking and absorbing the flavor from the smoke.

Meat like this comes from a BBQ smoker, not a grill

(To us, grilling is like a good song, but real smoked BBQ is like a symphony.  The great smokehouses of Texas become legendary, with people driving hundreds of miles and waiting in long lines to sample their delicacies.)

So you want to BBQ at home.  The first step is to determine what you want to cook.  We think the place to start is with beef brisket, and we're fond of the selection at HEB.

You also need the right equipment.  You need a real smoker, not just a regular grill.  A quick perusal of the local big-box retailers (Lowe's, Home Depot, and Walmart) turned up plenty of outdoor grills but not a single BBQ smoker.  So we did what any smart food geek would do - we asked around, and everyone suggested that we search online.

We ran across a great source for BBQ equipment (and regular grills, too.)  Called csgrills.com, they're a one-stop shop for grills, BBQ smokers, and accessories.  Their prices are very competitive.  And for novices, they've got some handy guides including this one telling how to choose the right smoker.

Browsing the website, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  They have a vast selection of grills and smokers at a wide variety of price points.  They offer free shipping, too.

And if you're looking for a great gift for your favorite Houston food blogger, these guys can help.

From all of us at H-Town Chow Down, we'd like to wish all of our readers a happy and safe Independence Day.  A special thanks goes out to everyone in our armed forces, both at home and abroad, who have made tremendous sacrifices to keep our nation free and safe.

Have fun out there!

Conventional wisdom tells us that eating too much saturated fat is bad for cardiovascular health.  Millions of people have given up the joys of eating delicious, flavorful food in favor of something that's considered to be more "heart healthy".

But now, a breakthrough meta-study turns this conventional wisdom on its ear.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute have concluded a meta analysis of twenty-one different studies.  Ranging from five to 23 years, these studies followed over 340,000 subjects, and analyzed their dietary habits, incidence of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

The meta analysis of these epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease, inclusive of stroke.
Fellow burger lovers, rejoice.

The full report is available online from PubMed.  (link)
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