As any private eye from 1930s’ noir will tell you, there are some days you regret answering your office phone. More specifically and more colorfully, there are days you regret leaving your office door unlocked so a gorgeous dame can step inside, cry on your rock-hard shoulder and beg you to help locate her missing husband. Updated to 2012, and into my own work and world, there are days you regret that some magazine editor asked you to taste Houston’s super-stacked burgers. Even when the assignment lets you tear into this Big Mac-inspired double-decker at Haven with chef Randy Evans looking on.
Evans’ new burger, which I have rechristened the “Farm to Table Big Mac,” completely mimics the high-volume, near-mythical original down to the sesame seed bun; he just does it better, with better stuff. The patties add up to three-quarters of a pound of beef, but even that isn’t the best part. That’s an honor reserved for his version of the Big Mac’s “special sauce,” here named for Avery Island in southwest Louisiana because of the Tabasco mash adding plenty of zing.
So, you’re surely asking yourself: How hard can this really be? Tasting five burgers already selected from photographs by the editor and publisher of Prime Living magazine? I mean: you go, you take a couple bites, and then you write a hundred words about each. Sure. Well, that’s before you face the likes of Max’s Wine Dive’s Kobe beef burger (shown here) with an “upgrade” of sliced avocado, cotija cheese and habanero salsa. And that’s definitely before all the other burger-loving restaurants in Houston find out what you’re up to and then insist you come try theirs. I’m sorry, you try to explain, we’ve already got our five. Come anyway, they all say.
Directly above is chef Rolando Sosa’s terrific new burger creation at CityCentre’s Bistro Alex. The 8-10 ounces of grilled Kobe beef rest on a jalapeno cheese bun that’s been slathered with mayo and pungent New Orleans-style Creole mustard, then covered in Texas-made cheese, caramelized onion and sliced avocado, followed by an egg fried in clarified butter and a green tomato salsa verde. By the way, the “fries” are panko-crusted avocado.
The new Houston Texans Grille at CityCentre, all themed-up and official, wasn’t content to serve me their Ginormous BLT Double Grilled Cheese Ranch Burger requested by the editors, who by the way didn’t dare show up for one of these tastings. Oh no. The Grille had to also bring me their Soon-to-be-Famous Deep Fried Cheeseburger, as grand a tribute to state-fair-meets-rodeo-carnival cooking as I have ever tasted anywhere. The whole cheeseburger gets made and set inside a bun with spicy ketchup, mustard and mayo. Then the entire affair gets dunked in tempura batter and deep-fried. Out of sheer spite, it shows up wearing a healthy leaf of lettuce on top like a silly clown suit.
A burger implies an all-beef patty, right? Well, at Houston’s ever-popular Rainbow Lodge with owner Donnette Hansen and chef Mario Valdez, that’s not an assumption you ought to make. Burgers turn up at RL just once a week, on Fridays, and only as long as the dozen they make hold out. That typically doesn’t take long, since the patty itself is formed of some ever-changing percentage of venison, bison and wild boar, all in need of a boost from a little pork belly. One of Chef Mario’s best variations is this multi-meat patty on a Slow Dough challah bun, with melty pimento cheese and fried cornmeal-crusted avocado. Those housemade pickles – bread and butter-style, but with an extra kick – are amazing too.
With his French accent and legendary good looks, chef Philippe Schmit seems the last person you’d expert to catch “flippin’ burgers.” As it turns out, even at his fine-dining Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, there’s demand for a burger and fries done right. The experience starts with 8 to 10 ounces of organic, hormone-free beef grilled somewhere between medium-rare and medium (to your taste), then set on an olive-oil brioche bun baked by Philippe’s own pastry chef. The pickles are housemade, as is the mayo and mustard, as is the North African-style harissa that provides a kick to the ketchup. The molten cheese is mild gouda, the chef explains, so as not to distract diners from the meat and the bun.
Our journey ended last night more or less where it began, with one beloved Houston chef wowing me with how far he could carry the burger from its mostly humble roots. Except, of course, the end came 11 burgers spread over 10 days after it began – three over a single painful lunch period – with any and all the added waistline those 11 burgers entailed. At RDG + Bar Annie, Robert del Grande applies the same Ph.D. in biochemistry to his burger that he applies to, well, everything else.
The bun from Slow Dough, he tells me, has to be a little sweet (with the slightest dusting of chestnut flour after toasting in the kitchen) and, while puffy, able to be squished down to fit into the average human mouth. The half-pound of beef is USDA Prime, from the flavorful shoulder cuts, and grilled over an oakwood fire. Del Grande’s “secret sauce” involves a mayo, ketchup and mustard base (“like every secret sauce,” he says) with layer after layer of smoked gouda cheese, smoked chile (chipotle), steamed garlic, roasted shallots and what he, in highly technical Ph.D.speak, calls “a whole bunch of stuff.” Honestly, if I had to eat one burger in farewell – I DO think I’ll swear off the things for a while, and maybe get back to the gym – I can’t think of a better burger to remember them all by.