One of our passions is finding great burgers, and we love bringing you photos of some of the delicious and often beautiful burgers that we find.

This isn't that kind of post.

We'd read about McDonald's in France's newish Dark Vador burger, a misguided attempt to use a poorly spelled version of a movie tie-in to create a hamburger.  But not just any hamburger.  Perhaps the least appetizing hamburger that we've ever seen.


If you know of a less appetizing burger (actually sold by a restaurant; we don't need to see examples of the sorts of disgusting things that our twisted readers can place between the buns) leave us a link in the comments.

Bon appetit.

A recent lunch at Beck's Prime made me wonder:  Who started the whole gourmet burger trend in Houston?  Beck's has been my benchmark gourmet burger for years; they opened their first store in 1985.

You, pretty burger, are responsible for all this.

Before that, I remember burgers from Prince's Drive-In and Bellaire Broiler Burger, but while good, they aren't the same sort of burgers that Beck's.  Same goes for Rosnovsky's and Someburger.  Been around forever, but they serve fast food-style burgers, albeit very good ones.

An astute Twitterer, Jennifer King, remembered that Cafe Express started around the same time period, but while they do serve burgers, I don't think they're in the same class as Beck's.

Another of the Twitterati, Joey, reminded us about Annie's on South Post Oak.  I'm a fan, but I wouldn't consider them to offer a high-end experience.

So I'll put it to the experts here:  Who started the gourmet burger craze in Houston?

We have sad news to report during National Burger Month.  Coal Burger, the coal fired oven burger concept from the folks at Grimaldi's, has closed.  We were fans of the burger, but will admit that there were consistency issues:  Sometimes the burger was perfect, sometimes it was dried out.  Apparently cooking ground beef in a 1000+ degree coal-fired oven requires a very deft touch.

Combine the consistency issues with the notoriously dicey parking situation at the Woodlands Waterway, and Grimaldi's decided to close this restaurant after less than a year.

According to our sources, Grimaldi's plans to expand its pizza operation into the Coal Burger space.

We have no word on whether other Coal Burger locations in Arizona are closing as well.

Growing up, I enjoyed burgers, but like many teenagers, considered them to all be pretty much the same.  Only when I moved up to Austin to attend UT did I begin to appreciate the differences between a good burger and truly exceptional one.  And on my frequent visits back to Houston, I'd often crave a burger.

On one trip, I was fortunate enough to stumble into the then-new Beck's Prime, and I realized I had found a real Houston treasure.  Beck's is a chain, but it's locally owned and run; the opposite of an impersonal franchise.  And the burgers - thick, juicy, with quality ingredients and the mesquite-charred flavor that was anything but mundane.  Beck's became my go-to burger place, and to this day remains my benchmark for an excellent burger.

I realized that I'd not visited Beck's in months, and thought it would be the perfect way to kick of National Burger Month.  I met fellow burger aficionado Kerry Stessell (of Hot Line Pepper Products fame) at the scenic Woodlands location, ordered at the counter, and grabbed a table.

Dining Room at Beck's Prime

In short order our burgers appeared.  I went with the classic - a simple cheeseburger.  It's a favorite of mine; the fresh veggies and American cheese compliment rather than overpower the lush mesquite flavor of the beef, and the freshly baked bun serves as a foundation to this formidable burger.

Cheeseburger at Becks' Prime

My companion ordered one of Beck's signature options, Bill's Burger.  It adds cheddar cheese, grilled onions, thick-cut bacon, and special Bill's sauce to the Beck's formula.  Here the sass of the grilled onions and the slight sweetness of the bacon combine with the mesquite-tinged beef to create a very satisfying combination.

Bill's Burger at Beck's Prime

Beck's also offers a formidable ahi tuna sandwich among it's non-burger offerings.  Heck, you can even get your choice of prime steaks... through the drive-through window.

A great burger or a prime steak through a drive-through window?  It's things like this that make Beck's Prime unique, and distinctly Houston.  It was a perfect way to kick of National Burger Month, and it's one of the best burgers in town.

Becks Prime (The Woodlands) on Urbanspoon

[box type="note" fontsize="14"]Update: Things have changed at JerryBuilt, and we take another look.[/box]

It wouldn't be unfair to say that a great burger is one of my favorite things. There's something essentially American about the hamburger - it's portable, filling, and available in every big city and tiny hamlet from coast to coast. Some burgers are inexpensive, some are very pricey. Many are uninspiring; a few are extraordinary. The search for extraordinary burgers was one of the original motivations for creating this blog, and it's an obsession that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, we attended a media preview of the brand-spanking-new JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers location on Holcombe. It is the prototype store, and after chatting with the owners, I was thrilled to discover that a second location would follow shortly, this one being in the Woodlands.

When opening day arrived (no pre-opening events for this now seasoned team) we made a trek to the Woodlands Mall parking lot to JerryBuilt's new location. Unlike the standalone Holcombe location (in a converted bank building) the Woodlands store is located in a small strip center on the north side of the Mall's ring road. Parking is ample, and there's even shade; an important consideration around lunchtime in Texas.

The Woodlands store is a larger location, with plenty of seating. The interior has a similar design ethic as the gorgeous Holcomb location; clearly the owners care about proving a pleasant, family-friendly setting. Being a new restaurant in the Woodlands the place was packed; business types, teens out shopping, and plenty of families. The well-trained staff was handling the deluge of hungry diners with ease, we were impressed with the smoothness of the operation on opening day.

We ordered at the counter, grabbed our cups, and went to find a table. On the way, we spent some quality time with the Coke Freestyle machine, a hulking red behemoth that's touchscreen operated and a big draw with the iPad generation. Over 100 possible combinations can be concocted.

After filling our beverages, we headed back towards the seating area, and glanced into the open prep area. This is something we love about JerryBuilt - they're proud to show the world where and how they prep their food. We saw hardworking staff members laying out mounds of Three Brothers Bakery dough, ready to be baked into buns.

This brings us to a key part of the JerryBuilt philosophy: Great ingredients, locally sourced when practical. From the aforementioned Three Brothers dough to Niman Ranch beef to high quality produce, it's clear that JerryBuilt cares about putting a high quality product out for its customers. They go as far as to list the source of their ingredients on a blackboard wall in the main room.

As many high end burger places do, JerryBuilt cuts their fries fresh in house, but they take it one step further: They have a device that crinkle-cuts fresh potatoes. We don't know what sort of wizardry is behind such a device, but we approve heartily.

Attention to detail is an operational philosophy, and it shows everywhere you look. A highlight is an automated handwashing station at the side of the dining area. We saw preteen boys voluntarily washing their hands, a miracle as any parent can attest.

On our first visit to JerryBuilt, my bride was frustrated because there was nowhere to pour ketchup for her fries. She mentioned this to one of the owners, and lo and behold there was a dispenser by the new ketchup pumps, and it was stocked with tiny disposable cups to hold condiments. Many restaurateurs listen to customer feedback, but these guys were acting on it. Bravo.

We snared a good seat near the middle of the room, and in short order our burgers appeared. The packaging is unique - both burgers and fries are presented in small cardboard boxes, adorned with thoughtful sayings from sources as diverse as Albert Einstein and singer-songwriter Steve Forbert.

Looking inside, we were presented with a compact burger, carefully assembled from quality ingredients. The petite (by today's standards) quarter pound patty was placed atop the stunningly fresh veggies, nestled in the just-baked Three Brothers bun.

Biting into the burger reinforced the feeling of freshness. But it also revealed our lone disappointment with JerryBuilt... and unfortuately, it is a big one. We were underwhelmed with the flavor and texture of the beef. We noticed this first on our original visit to the Holcombe store, and wrote it off as a pre-opening snafu. But the impression was confirmed on two subsequent visits.

The Niman Ranch beef was cooked to medium well, and remained moderately juicy, a coup. But the texture was somewhat mushy, and the flavor of the beef was unappealing. Instead of the rich, beefy swagger we identify with the best burgers in town, we tasted a softer yet distinct flavor, one that we didn't find appealing. We experienced the same flavor on all three visits to JerryBuilt, so it must be by design.

Discussing the food at JerryBuilt with several friends who'd visited revealed a dichotomy of responses. Some friends loved the burgers. Others didn't, and all of those (including the Chronicle's esteemed food critic Alison Cook) commented on the flavor of the beef. Considering how seriously the owners of JerryBuilt are about listening to customer feedback, we have high hopes that this issue will be resolved promptly.

Other than this one shortcoming, we are very impressed by both the concept and the execution at JerryBuilt Burgers. We expect great things from them, and look forward to sampling more of their offerings in the near future.

JerryBuilt Homemade Burgers | 1335 Lake Woodlands Drive (in the Mall parking lot), The Woodlands  77380 | 281-367-2874 |

Jerry Built Burger on Urbanspoon

JerryBuilt Burgers, the hot new fast-casual burger place, has announced that the grand opening of its Woodlands location will be this Saturday, March 31, at 11am.  The Woodlands location is located just off the ring road around the Woodlands Mall, near the Container Store.

JerryBuilt Burgers is a locally owned chain that features high quality ingredients that are locally sourced when possible.  They serve Niman Ranch beef, Blue Bell ice cream, and buns from Three Brothers Bakery, for example.

We previewed JerryBuilt's first location on Holcombe, and were very impressed with the thoughtfullness and attention to detail behind this burger concept.  When we visited they were still fine-tuning the burger, so we're looking forward to seeing how they've tweaked their creation.

I'm planning to be there for the opening, so if you're in the area, please stop by and be sure to say hello.

There's a new player on the fiercely competitive Houston burger scene, and it's one that's worth checking out.  So we trekked down from the Woodlands to Holcombe Blvd. to find out more.

Called JerryBuilt Burgers, it's a new fast casual chain that does things a bit differently than other burger joints.  We were invited to for a preview dinner a couple of days before the grand opening, and here are our impressions.

First, the building.  Entering the lofty, airy space you'd never guess that the building was previously an abandoned WaMu bank that was never completed.

The interior designers did a remarkable job, and thoughtful touches are everywhere.  On one side of the dining room is a large mural featuring numerous Houston landmarks.

There is even a unique feature - an automated handwashing station in the dining room.  Alex, our 13-year-old, actually washed his hands without being cajoled, and he pronounced the automated machine "cool".  We concur.

But you don't read this blog for our architectural critiques - you're interested in the food.  Jerry Built isn't trying to be a health food restaurant, but there is a focus on quality ingredients.  They're proudly displayed on the wall, right beside the eye-catching mural.

From Niman Ranch beef and Buddy's Natural Chicken to organic veggies to Blue Bell ice cream and (be still my heart) Three Brothers Bakery buns, the focus on quality ingredients impressive.  It's part of an overall attention to detail that's rare anywhere in the restaurant business, much less in the fast casual sector.

All these quality ingredients are great, but unless they're combined with skill and care, they're wasted.  Fortunately, that wasn't a problem.  After we ordered at the counter from the well-trained staff, our order appeared very quickly, and attractively packaged.

Looking inside the well-designed recyclable packaging, we found a truly gorgeous burger, char-grilled over an open flame with just the right amount of melty cheese, and fresh, crunchy veggies.

The result is a stunningly attractive burger, artfully arranged between the freshly sliced Three Brothers Bakery bun.  We enjoyed this burger, but we're reserving final comments on its flavor until we can sample a few more examples.  Oh, the sacrifices we make for our readers.

We're looking forward to returning to JerryBuilt Burgers after they've opened to the public to sample more of their offerings, and to enjoy the stylish, comfortable environment they have created.  With the attention to detail that was already displayed, we predicted great success for this new, home-grown burger brand.

(We were happy to learn that they've already begun construction on a second location that's located in the Woodlands.  They're aiming for a March opening.)

JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers | 3501 W Holcombe Blvd | Houston, TX 77025
713-664-2874 |

Jerry Built Burger on Urbanspoon

As Texans, we profess our love of Whataburger, the state's home-grown burger chain.  Founded in 1950 by Harmon Dobson in Corpus Christi, Whataburger is known for its very good burgers, its fantastic customization options, and last but not least, it's delicious Fancy Ketchup.

But 2012 is a time of change (just ask the Mayans) and in honor of the end of the Long Count (ok, not really) Whataburger is introducing its new Spicy Ketchup.  Taking the legendary sweet/savory combination of Fancy Ketchup one step further, Corpus Christi turns to the Valley to turn up the heat, adding real jalapeño pepper paste to their established formula.
We'll be waiting on January 2 to check out Spicy Ketchup for ourselves.  (On the fries.  Not on the burger.)  Watch this space for an update.  And if when you try it, let us know what you think.

We're fans of Coal Burger, the Arizona-based burger chain from the Grimaldi's Pizza folks.  Their Woodlands Waterway location is the first store outside of Arizona, and we think they serve an excellent burger.

But we've heard reports of some less-than-spectacular burgers being served.  The culprit is overcooked beef.  But the mastermind behind Coal Burger, Chef Bradford Thompson, has devised a simple solution to the problem.

The original Coal Burger was architected around a quarter-pound patty.  The half-pound burger was simply two of these patties, stacked up.  The good news is that there is plenty of exposed surface to hold an aggressive char.  The downside is that the interior of the burger gets hot quickly, and unless the cooking is perfectly timed, all the juices evaporate in the intense heat of the coal-fired oven (over 1000 degrees.)  A juicy Coal Burger is a superlative burger, a dry one loses a good deal of its appeal.  So how do you keep the patty from drying out as it cooks and develops that wonderful char?

The solution is an elegantly simple one:  Enlarge the patty.  The petite quarter-pound patty is now a thicker third-pound patty, and the larger mass of beef holds up better to the intense heat, holding in the juices with aplomb.  Patrons preferring a larger burger now get their half-pound of beef in a single patty.

The new third-pound Coal Burger

After learning about this clever solution, we wanted to grab a table and sample the result.  This led to discovering the other big change at Coal Burger - table service in the evenings.  A hostess, plenty of waiters and tables dressed with silverware and cloth napkins contribute to the decidedly upscale atmosphere; the view overlooking the sparkling lights of Waterway Square completes the setting.

Table service at night, and a beautiful view

We found the idea of table service to be pretty unique for a burger joint, albeit a high-end one occupying prime real estate in the Woodlands.  Coal Burger's staff made it work well; waiters are friendly, service is good, and the result makes for a great date night experience.

So how was the burger?  In short, it's the bacon cheeseburger of backyard dreams, but now with a thicker, beefier, jucier patty.  High quality cheese (American for us.)  Thick cut, smoky bacon.  Fresh veggies.  And that's a win in my book.

We like the changes at Coal Burger, and applaud the attention of Chef Bradford and his staff to refining a great burger experience and making it even better.

Coal Burger on Urbanspoon

Have you ever wondered why the spectacularly lovely burger you see in a fast food commercial actually looks like a sad, dreary shadow of its buffed-up self when it is served to you?

Our friends at Snotr (we just link to 'em, we didn't name 'em) have an answer.

WARNING: Turn down the sound before you press play.  This video is LOUD.

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