The waiter at the Houston Texans Grille in City Center winced when we ordered the tempura-battered, deep-fried cheeseburger. “It’s really just a novelty,” he told us. Customers who order it usually don’t like it, he warned. We didn’t pay attention. You should.

And think twice before ordering the King Burger at Ripps Grille on Memorial, which is topped with peanut butter and bananas. It might make Elvis happy, but probably not. 

As for the Latino version of the King Burger at Guru Burgers in Sugar Land, it substitutes plantains for the bananas and adds jelly. After a couple of bites, we gave the Latino King Burger to the kids, who liked it all right.

Their favorite was Guru Burger’s toothache-sweet “Fig Newton” burger, which features reconstituted dried figs. If you like burgers that taste like cookies, you’re in luck.

We could go on. But let’s just say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your favorite burgers in Houston, as the saying goes. And no, we didn’t eat any actual frog burgers on our quest. But there was a gator burger.. That one was pretty good.

Houston is one of America’s top burger cities, and we’ve always had our own civic quirks, such as our propensity for eating burgers in convenience stores, groceries, and ice houses. We have our own rules about what belongs on a burger and what doesn’t—iceberg lettuce and yellow mustard are definitive. We don’t mind the addition of jalapeños or roasted poblanos, and fried eggs are okay, but not ketchup. Never ketchup. The old-fashioned burgers that have long dominated our top picks are still there. But as this search got under way, we realized that the Houston burger scene has changed. 

For one thing, Texas ranchers are among the pioneers of the American Wagyu cattle industry, and Houston is the test market for many of their super-premium meats. Kobe and Akaushi ground-beef blends aren’t just expensive curiosities anymore—they are now served on quite a few of Houston’s favorite burgers (see “What’s Your Beef,” page 47). A lot of serious chefs have added burgers to their menus. In fact, it’s hard to find a Houston restaurant that doesn’t serve a burger these days—Tony’s, Underbelly, and even Étoile Cuisine et Bar, the new French restaurant in Uptown Park (see our review) have burgers on their lunch menus. 

But the mere fact that a burger is prepared by a chef doesn’t give it any special cred in our book. You won’t find Étoile’s half-pound gruyere-covered cheeseburger on our top burger list. As great as it tasted, it was edged out in the French category by the amazing Akaushi brie-mushroom burger at
Burger Palace. There are a lot of other damn good burgers that didn’t make the cut either.

Houstonia’s Top 30 burgers are an eccentric selection of our favorites. They come from across the spectrum—restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, drive-ins, convenience stores, food trucks, even a carwash. There were no particular rules to our search. Some burgers were chosen for their individual excellence, some for representing a particular style, some as illustrations of our multicultural dining scene, and a few just for grins.

Our survey was by no means comprehensive—for every burger we ate, we got suggestions for three more. After eating 50 or so, we threw up our greasy hands and called it a day. No doubt you have a few recommendations of your own to share. Send them to us at gastronaut@houstoniamag.com.

Update: Four of the restaurants on our list have closed; we remember our fallen friends at Gastronaut.

Historic Hamburgers

Classic

Stanton’s City Bites’ Bacon Cheeseburger

The burger patty, featured on the cover of Houstonia, is crispy on the edges, with a fissure that splits the half pound of meat. American cheese has melted into drippy globs that ooze down the meat in slow motion, and iridescent purple onion loops and fresh, neon-green jalapeño slices shine above the bed of lettuce, tomato, and pickle chips. When you pick up the sandwich, your fingers sink deeply into the fluffy sesame-seed hamburger bun. The combination of perfect ingredients makes for a symphony of flavor.

A transplanted San Francisco butcher named Stanton Fong founded Stanton’s in 1961. Stanton’s son Art met his wife, Theresa Fong, in Hong Kong; she came back with him and went to work in the kitchen. They were already selling one of the best cheeseburgers in the city at the little ramshackle convenience store and deli in the First Ward when, a few years ago, they brought in their godson, Vince Balsamo. Balsamo updated Stanton’s burgers with those fresh, soft-as-angel-food-cake, sesame seed-dotted Slow Dough Bakery buns and revamped the menu. 

Balsamo also changed Stanton’s white Styrofoam box presentation and to-go-only policy by adding a couple of tables and putting the burger in a basket for eating there. More tables and chairs followed, along with the introduction of a huge selection of craft beers and sodas, transforming the old, worn-out-looking corner grocery store into “Stanton’s City Bites,” one of the city’s top burger destinations. “It’s an ugly restaurant with beautiful food,” Balsamo says.

  • Price: Bacon Cheeseburger $6
  • Patty: Half-pound, hand-formed
  • Meat: Custom-cut beef, ground and seasoned in-house
  • Bun: Slow Dough soft sesame bun
  • Cheese: American
  • Spreads: Mayo, mustard
  • With: Bacon, lettuce, tomato
  • Recommended Additions: Fresh jalapeño slices (75¢)
  • 1420 Edwards St, 713-227-4893, stantonscitybites.com

Icehouse

Christian's Tailgate's Large Cheeseburger

Balanced on the edge of a bright red plastic basket and tightly wrapped in tissue paper, the huge wedge of lettuce, white raw onion rings, vivid red tomato slices and split-edged burger patty topped with American cheese protrude shockingly from the buns in a seductive display of burger cleavage. The hand-formed patty is cracked with crispy edges, and the freshly ground beef shimmers with just enough juiciness; crunchy jalapeños come courtesy of Cajun Chef in St. Martinsville. Unwrap your sandwich and lift up the top bun to admire the dark circle imparted by a serious toasting. Now take a bite of a classic.

The history of the original Christian’s location on Washington Avenue goes all the way back to 1917, when Camp Logan was built during World War I. Christian’s Totem was an ice house built on the former site of the camp store by owner Steve Christian’s grandfather. Christian served burgers at the convenience store for decades before turning it into a sports bar and changing the name to Christian’s Tailgate several years ago. He has expanded to several other locations, but try the burger at the original first.

Price: Large Burger $9.49
Patty: Half pound, hand-formed
Meat: Fresh-ground, well-seasoned
Bun: Standard, buttered, and griddle-toasted
Cheese: American
Spreads: Mayo, mustard
With: Iceberg, tomatoes, white onion slices, and dill pickle chips
Recommended Additions: Cheese and pickled jalapeño slices (75¢ each)
7340 Washington Ave, 713-864-9744 (multiple locations), christianstailgate.com

Comeback

Tookie’s Squealer

This salty, succulent hamburger has the alluring aroma of hickory-smoked bacon—which makes sense, because the meat patties for the “Squealer” are made by grinding up beef and bacon together. The Squealer is a vast improvement over your regular bacon burger because the bacon grease is captured inside the patty. You can order a Squealer medium-well or even well-done and still get a juicy burger. Thanks in part to the high praise given the creation in George Motz’s book Hamburger America, Tookie’s Squealer is now widely imitated. 

Tookie’s opened on Highway 146 in Seabrook in 1975 and closed in 2008, when Hurricane Ike put it out of business. The owners decided not to reopen, but Barry Terrell, who also owns T-Bone Tom’s a few miles down the road, bought Tookie’s, along with all its recipes, and reopened the place in the summer of 2011.

I talked to Motz after he visited the new Tookie’s and he told me the burgers were even better than before. He was right. The new management has increased the standard size of all the burgers to a half pound. If you used to eat the double version of the Squealer (known as the Piggyback) at the old Tookie’s, be forewarned that the double burger now comes with a whole pound of ground meat. Another favorite, the Stomp’s Icehouse Special, is slathered with Pace picante sauce and loaded with chopped jalapeños, while the Champion is marinated in wine. Whichever burger you choose, make sure to order some of Tookie’s awesome onion rings. 

Price:
$6.25
Patty:
Half pound, hand-formed
Meat:
Certified Angus Beef ground with bacon
Bun:
Standard, buttered, and griddle-toasted
Cheese:
Cheddar
Spreads:
Mayo (mustard by request)
With:
Lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion
Recommended Additions:
Pickled jalapeño slices (69¢)
1202 Baytown Blvd (Hwy 146), Seabrook, 281-942-9334, tookiesburgers.com

Downhome

Blake's Kick Burger

It’s easy to see why these burgers have become famous. The meat patty on a Blake’s burger is loosely hand-packed into an uneven patty and griddle-cooked so that the edges get dark-brown and crispy. And the toasting process transforms plain old white-bread hamburger buns into glistening rounds of hot, buttery goodness that might remind you of something you once ate in a bakery in Paris (Texas). 

When Don Blake first opened his BBQ joint over 30 years ago, Jeanetta was a dirt road between Westheimer and Richmond on the western edge of town. The burger business was just a sideline, but it took off one day when the meat company forgot to deliver the frozen burger patties. “I ran to the supermarket and asked the butcher to grind up some chuck,” Blake remembers. His customers went crazy over the handmade burgers, so he cancelled his order for the frozen discs and started buying fresh ground beef. 

The burger has an upside-down construction, with the mayo on the meat side and the mustard next to the vegetables. “It tastes sort of like salad dressing,” said George Motz, star of the Travel Channel’s Burger Land, of the mustard-iceberg combination, when we ate there with him recently. I prefer the Kick Burger, which comes with jalapeños and pepper jack cheese. Motz ordered Blake’s cheeseburger without the jalapeños because, he said, he prefers classic purity. But then again, he’s from New York City.

Ask for your burger to be cooked medium-rare. The patty will probably come out close to medium anyway, and you’ll get a fresh-cooked one. 

Price:
$9
Patty:
Seven ounces, hand-formed
Meat:
Fresh ground chuck, seasoned on the griddle
Bun:
Standard, roller-buttered, and griddle-toasted
Cheese:
Pepper Jack
Spreads:
Mayo, mustard
With:
Shredded iceberg, tomatoes, white onion slices, dill pickel chips, and jalapeños
Recommended Additions:
Bacon ($1)
2916 Jeanetta St, 713-266-6860, blakesbbqandburgers.com

Man Vs. Burger

Mel’s Country Café’s Mega Mel Burger

If you eat the whole thing, you get your name on the wall, a monument to the more than 100 intrepid souls who’ve eaten a burger made from a pound and a half of fresh ground beef, a pound of bacon, a quarter pound of American cheese, and a whole lot of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. To become a part of history, at least in Tomball, you have to eat the Mega Mel Burger following these posted rules:

  • If you leave anything on your plate, you will be disqualified.
  • If anyone takes anything off your plate, you will be disqualified.
  • You must be able to walk and talk after finishing the Mega Mel Burger.
  • If you get sick at any time, you will be disqualified.
  • You have two hours to eat the Mega Mel Burger.
  • We will stop you from eating if at any time we feel you are about to get sick.
  • The most important thing to remember is that the Mega Mel Burger is a fun event. 
Price: $19.95 
Patty: One and a half pounds 
Meat: Beef 
Bun: Standard 
Cheese: Quarter-pound American 
Spreads: Mayo 
With: One pound bacon, lettuce, tomato 
24814 Standolind Rd, Tomball, 281-255-6357, melscountrycafe.com

UPDATEFour of the restaurants on our list have closed; we remember our fallen friends at Gastronaut.

“Of the Moment” Burgers

Car Wash

Facundo Café’s Picante Burger

The homemade salsa and jalapeños make the Picante Burger the best choice at Facundo Café. There are eight other burgers to choose from here, from the simple “Classic” to a pineapple-and-teriyaki-sauce-topped “Mahalo.” The half-pound patties are made from pre-formed Friedman Brother’s Angus beef brought in fresh and grilled to a slightly pink medium. The burger is tasty enough, but it’s the multitasking opportunities that make it really delicious. 

Facundo Café is located inside the Dr. Gleem Carwash on Ella at 31st Street. It’s a little difficult to find, as you have to walk through a busy hair salon at the carwash’s entrance to get to the counter of the café midway through the building. While we had our burgers, we got the $10 Basic Wash, which includes interior vacuum cleaning and windows (inside and out). 

Price: $8.95 
Patty: Half-pound fresh, pre-formed 
Meat: Friedman Brother's Angus 
Bun: Choice of white or wheat 
Cheese: Monterey Jack 
Spreads: Choice of mayo and/or mustard 
With: Pickled jalapeños, homemade salsa, lettuce, tomato 
Recommended Additions: $10 Basic carwash 
3103 Ella Blvd, 713-880-0898, facundocafe.com

Neo-Classic

Underbelly’s Wagyu Double Double

By forming a half pound of house-ground Wagyu beef into two thin patties and cooking it on a hot griddle, Underbelly, the hip new Lower Westheimer eatery, manages to get the outside of the ground meat dark and crispy while keeping the inside oozing moist and medium-rare. The two patties are topped with old-fashioned American cheese squares. The name and the four-ounce patty format are a nod to the California In-N-Out chain, whose “double double” comes with double meat, double cheese.

Underbelly Chef Chris Shepherd used to serve a Wagyu version of a “Juicy Lucy,” a Midwestern “stuffed burger” made by sandwiching two four-ounce meat patties around a stuffing of Redneck Cheddar before cooking. But the cheese had a habit of leaking out, and the burger patties didn’t always get cooked through. The new burger is more consistent, and the crunchy texture of the meat is much more satisfying. By switching to American cheese singles and borrowing the In-N-Out format, Underbelly has created an upscale Wagyu version of the California classic. 

Price: $14 with fries 
Patty: Two four-ounce, hand-formed 
Meat: House-butchered Wagyu 
Bun: Buttered and griddle-toasted 
Cheese: 
American 
Spreads: Colman's mustard, mayo 
With: Lettuce, tomatoes, white onion slices, house-made pickles 
Recommended Additions:
None
1100 Westheimer Rd, 713-528-9800, underbellyhouston.com

Old School

Bernie’s Burger Bus’s Homeroom Burger 

If you don’t mind a mess, the mushiest, squishiest burger in the city will provide you with an out-of-body experience. Egg yolk, mayo, and meat juice start dripping from this sandwich the second you pick it up. The bacon and a fried egg make it taste a little like breakfast, and when the bus is parked in front of Inversion Coffee House on Montrose, you can complete the flavor combo with a café latte. At night when the bus pulls up to Little Woodrow’s in the Heights, you might pair the sandwich with brown ale. If you order the signature “Principal” burger instead of the Homeroom, be forewarned that it comes with ketchup—heresy to Texas burger purists. Then again, at least the ketchup, like the mayonnaise, mustard, and pickles, is handmade from scratch. 

To find one of Bernie’s Burger Buses (there are three), check the website for a schedule.

Price: $9.75 
Patty: Approximately seven-ounce 
Meat: Blend of three cuts of Black Angus beef 
Bun: Rolls fresh-baked daily 
Cheese: Cheddar 
Spreads: House-made mayo, mustard, pickles 
With: Applewood-smoked bacon, carmelized onions, chipotle aioli, and fried egg 
Recommended Additions: None 
berniesburgerbus.com
 

Monster

Petrol Station’s The Rancor Burger

The menu is scrawled on a blackboard above the beer taps in this dive pub located in a former filling station in the Oak Forest area. When asked what the “Rancor Burger” name was all about, the bearded bartender with the scarf on his head pointed to a poster on the wall that depicts a reptilian monster with enormous teeth about to devour a scantily clad woman. “The owner is a Star Wars geek,” he said. The poster captures the moment when Jabba the Hutt tried to feed the enslaved Princess Leia to the slobbering Rancor monster. The caption reads: “Its only desire was to feed!”

I assume the name refers to the appetite of the monster and the stunning proportions of the oversized Rancor burger. The generous toppings are piled so high, it’s nearly impossible to pick up this sandwich without a tomato or the patty itself squirting out of the middle. But even though it’s difficult to handle, the rich taste of thick bacon, egg yolk, and juicy beef is seductive.

Price:
$8.95
Patty:
Half pound, half-formed
Meat:
Angus beef
Bun:
Soft, shiny-topped artisan rolls
Cheese:
Cheddar
Spreads:
Mayo
With:
Bacon, fried egg, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles
Recommended Additions:
Tabasco sauce
985 Wakefield Dr, 713-957-2875

 

Beast

Valentino Vin Bar’s Roughneck

It’s kind of a shock to bite into a ground alligator patty; the other-other white meat has a fishy, gamy aroma. But it’s really no funkier than the smell of a fried fish, and once you get over the fact that you’re eating reptile meat, the sandwich is pretty great. Alligator meat is ground with bacon and pork fat so it holds together, and the resulting patty is moist and salty. Grilled peppers and onions add sweetness and a slick texture, while the vinegar and orange zest in the A1 Steak Sauce provide a little tartness—don’t worry, these toppings don’t overwhelm the bold flavor of the meat. The menu suggests pairing it with a Guinness. 

Located in the chic Derek Hotel at Westheimer and 610, Valentino’s also offers Kobe sliders, ground sirloin burgers, and a wild boar burger—which we couldn’t resist trying. Unfortunately, while barbecue sauce and coleslaw are standard on pulled pork sandwiches in the south, they don’t really work on the wild boar burger. Besides disguising the flavor of the wild game, the juicy sauce and slaw mixture was too drippy. 


Price:
$22
Patty:
Hand-formed
Meat:
60% alligator, 20% bacon, 20% pork fat
Bun:
Ciabatta bun
Cheese:
Pepper Jack
Spreads:
A1 Steak Sauce
With:
Grilled pepper and onions, lettuce, tomato
Recommended Additions:
None
2525A West Loop S, 713-850-9200, valentinorestaurants.com

Gastropub

Shepherd Park Draught House’s Smoked Gouda and Bacon Burger 

It’s hard to fault a burger with perfectly cooked, medium-rare Akaushi beef, smoked bacon, caramelized onions and pears, and smoked gouda cheese, topped with fresh salad greens and served on a well-toasted artisan bread roll. The truth is that the onions and pears that sound so intriguing on the menu take this sandwich a tad too far into the sweet zone, but it’s nothing a liberal dose of Tabasco can’t fix. There are several other creative burgers on the list, including a poblano jack cheeseburger and one with bacon, a fried egg, and cranberry preserves. The folks who own Pink’s Pizza run this Garden Oaks pub, which specializes in craft brews and beer-friendly foods like wings, chili, fried ravioli, sea salt pretzels, and fancy burgers. Check out the live music schedule on the website. 

Price: 
$11.50
Patty:
Six-ounce
Meat:
Akaushi
Bun:
Well-toasted artisan roll
Cheese:
Smoked gouda
Spreads:
Mayonnaise
With:
Smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and caramelized pears
Recommended Additions:
None
3402 N Shepherd Dr, 832-767-1380, shepherdparktx.com

UPDATEFour of the restaurants on our list have closed; we remember our fallen friends at Gastronaut.

Born in the USA

Philly

Pappa Geno’s Steak & Cheese Hoagie Burger 

This unlikely marriage of a burger and a Philly cheesesteak looks like a train wreck on a roll, but you won’t believe your taste buds when you take a bite. A toasted Philly cheesesteak roll is lined with two cut-in-half hamburger patties, then topped with a gooey mound of melted provolone and shaved ribeye steak. Order it with hot oil peppers and a bowl of “whiz” on the side for dipping.

Don’t bother with the similar-sounding Philly Cheeseburger on Pappa Geno’s menu—it just ain’t the same without that hoagie roll. Pappa Geno’s is a no-nonsense sandwich stand near the convoluted intersection of Ella, T.C. Jester and 18th Street, with only a couple of tables in front of the walk-up counter. Be prepared to get your sandwich to go.  

Price: $7.99 
Patty: Two five-ounce, cut in half 
Meat:Fresh ground, pre-formed 
Bun: Hoagie Roll 
Cheese: Melted white American, provolone 
Spreads: Mayo 
With: Shredded steak, grilled onions 
Recommended Additions: 
Hot oil peppers 
1801 Ella Blvd, 713-863-1222, pappagenos.com

Hawaii

Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar’s Hawaiian MacCock

You see Hawaiian burgers featuring grilled pineapple slices at burger joints around town. For purists, these fall into the same “too lame to order” category as Hawaiian pizzas. But the crunchy English muffin, runny fried egg, and salty, crispy round of fried Spam take Liberty Kitchen’s pineapple-free Hawaiian MacCock to the top of the hula hut league. The burger is remarkably similar in flavor to the insanely delectable combination of burger patty, Spam and fried egg in the iconic Hawaiian dish called loco moco. The “MacCock” name probably has something to do with the fact that Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar is the Heights’ hipster-sister restaurant to BRC (Big Red Cock) on Shepherd. The two restaurants have the same owners, and BRC grinds the burger meat for both. 

Price: $13.50 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: House-ground custom blend 
Bun: English muffin 
Cheese: American, cheddar 
Spreads: BRC sauce (akin to Thousand Island dressing) 
With: Crispy spam, fried egg 
Recommended Additions: None 
1050 Studewood St, 713-802-0533, libertykitchenoysterbar.com

L.A.

Chili Shak’s SoCal Chili Cheeseburger with Double Meat

Chili Shak is Houston’s only chili parlor. The frozen ground meat patties on this burger are unworthy of your attention, but the chili is amazing. Sure, lettuce, tomato, and chili sound like a terrible combination, but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Owner Bernard Montgomery, who comes from Southern California, uses his grandma’s recipe for his chili, which makes his burger, chili dog, and Frito Pie sensational.

Since Texas is the birthplace of chili con carne, you’d think chili burgers would be a Tex-Mex specialty. But the fact is, they’re much more common in Los Angeles than Houston. And here, the best chili burgers aren’t found in Tex-Mex restaurants, but in African-American joints like Sparkle Burger on Dowling or Chili Shak in Fondren Southwest.

 
Price: $6 
Patty: Two five-ounce 
Meat: Frozen, pre-formed 
Bun: Toasted, large standard white bread 
Cheese: American 
Spreads: Mustard 

With: Greenleaf lettuce, tomato, dill pickles 
Recommended Additions: None 

9600 Fondren Rd, 713-995-1101,
thechilishak.com

NYC

Kenny & Ziggy’s Big Reubowski 

Take a bite and consider the contrast of tastes and textures that explodes on your tongue. The satisfying juice from the premium ground beef mixes with the delightfully chewy firmness of the thin-sliced corned beef, while the sauerkraut and Swiss cheese add the bold aromas and flavors of a New York deli. If you love burgers and you love Reubens, be prepared to reenact the When Harry Met Sally deli scene over this one. 

The moist, flavorful ground meat in the half-pound burger is a custom blend made by Pat LaFrieda & Sons Meat Purveyors of New Jersey, an outfit that makes ground meat for gourmet burger outlets across the country. The corned beef on top of the hamburger patty is made in-house by third-generation New York deli man Ziggy Gruber. The hamburger is topped with aged Swiss cheese and sauerkraut and served on your choice of a toasted challah or ciabatta bun spread with Russian dressing. 

It looks and sounds over the top, but it works perfectly. Combining several meats on an overstuffed sandwich is a New York deli tradition. And as strange as it may seem, no less an authority than Save the Deli author David Sax has called the Galleria area’s Kenny & Ziggy’s “one of the best delis in the country.”

Price: $16.95 
Patty: Eight-ounce, pre-formed, fresh 

Meat: Pat La Frieda custom brisket and short rib blend 
Bun: Ciabatta or challah 
Cheese: Swiss 
Spreads: Russian Dressing 
With: Corned Beef, sauerkraut 
Recommended Additions: None 
2327 Post Oak Blvd, 713-871-8883, 
kennyandziggys.com

Latino Burgers

Tostada Regia’s Hamburguesa Monterrey 

An authentic hamburguesa estilo Monterrey calls for a meat patty served on a roll with avocado, ham, lettuce, and tomato on top. The patty, made from ground meat blended with breadcrumbs, onions, and seasonings, tastes like a flat meatball. The Houston hamburguesa gigante served at Tostada Regia’s location on Gessner just north of Long Point Road borrows the authentic toppings but substitutes a beautifully charred, meaty, well-seasoned patty without any breadcrumbs or fillers. 

At lunchtime, the place is packed with Nuevo Leon expats eating their home food. Photos of the saddle-shaped mountain called Cerro de la Silla and other famous sites of the Monterrey regia (region) hang on the walls. The menu features favorites like the mini steak tacos called tacos de bistec and the sour cream-topped tostada regia (sometimes called a “tostada Siberia”).

Price: $6.25 
Patty: Half-pound 
Meat: Fresh-ground inhouse with Mexican seasonings 
Bun: Telera bun, toasted top and bottom 
Cheese: Chihuahua 
Spreads: Mayo, mustard 
With: Avocado, iceberg, tomatoes, ham, jalapeño (on the side) 
Recommended Additions: Green salsa (served with the chips) 
1519 Gessner Dr, 713--636-3914 (plus other locations), tostadaregia.com

Tortaburger

Tortas El Angel’s Doble Torta Burger Gigante

What a mess! This is a full-on, real-deal Mexican tortahamburguesa with creamy refried beans, avocado, and jalapeño slices, as well as lettuce, tomato, and chipotle sauce. But it’s the roll that makes the sandwich. Fresh-baked Mexican telera bread is soft on the inside so it absorbs the wet ingredients and meat juices, but a firm crust holds the messy sandwich together. 

Tortas El Angel on Shepherd just south of 11th Street in the Heights uses authentic telera bread for its Mexican sandwiches that’s too big for a single hamburger, so the menu offers a regular-size torta burger on half a roll, or a gigante sandwich with two burger patties side by side on a whole one. The flavors are remarkable, but the problem is, the thickness of the bread as well as the refried beans, avocado slices, and other salad items tend to overwhelm the not very large burger patties. That’s why it’s best to order a gigante with double meat (a full telera roll with four burger patties), then cut the gigante down the middle, between the two double stacks of hamburger patties, to serve two. Or cut the big sandwich into four to six sections to serve a (less hungry) crowd.

Price: $7.99 
Patty: Four six-ounce 
Meat: Fresh-ground in house with Mexican seasonings 
Bun: Large telera roll, toasted 
Cheese: Quesillo 
Spreads: Chipotle Mayo 
With: Refried beans, avocado, iceberg, tomatoes, thin slice of ham, jalapeños, chipotle mayo 
Recommended Additions: House red and green salsas 
1018 N Shepherd Dr, 713-862-9222, lastortaselangel.com

Tejano

Hubbell & Hudson Sandwich Bar’s Southwest Chipotle Poblano Burger 

You can get anything you like at the sandwich bar in front of the deli case at this high-end specialty food store in The Woodlands, but there are a few specials. The Southwest chipotle poblano burger, a new creation, features a house-ground burger patty with a smoky chipotle tang, cooked perfectly to medium-rare, then topped with half a roasted poblano chile and mozzarella, along with the traditional lettuce and tomato. It’s all served on a soft brioche bun spread with the poblano hummus that the gourmet market calls “hummus al verde.” This spicy, drippy, $10 chile cheeseburger is nothing short of amazing.

Chef Austin Simmons, who once worked at the now-shuttered Tesar’s, is the chef at Hubbell & Hudson’s Bistro. Since Tesar’s burger was among the best in Houston, it would stand to reason that the chef knows a thing or two about great burgers. Offerings at Hubbell & Hudson’s elegant bistro include a Wagyu burger topped with prosciutto and arugula on an English muffin for $16, and a dry-aged sirloin burger with white cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon and herb-roasted tomatoes on a sesame seed brioche bun for $14 ($15 if you want to substitute Maytag blue cheese). These sound fantastic, if generic. Either would be equally at home in California wine country or a Vermont inn. It’s nice to have choices, but we pick H & H sandwich bar’s chipotle poblano burger.

Price: $10 
Patty: Six-ounce, rubbed with chipotle 
Meat: Angus ribeye, sirloin, and brisket 
Bun: Brioche 
Cheese: Mozzarella 
Spreads: Poblano hummus 
With: Roasted poblano, red onions, tomato 
Recommended Additions: Hot Pepper Sauce 
24 Waterway Ave Ste. 125, The Woodlands, 281-203-5641, hubbellandhudson.com

¡Piquante!

Tornado Burger’s Hellfire and Brimstone

Two spicy burger patties are topped with three whole roasted jalapeños along with a sprinkling of chopped raw jalapeños in this fire-breathing creation. But since roasted jalapeños are much milder than fresh ones, the sandwich isn’t as hot as it looks. In fact, the burn is quite pleasant, if you like that sort of thing. (We do.) Most super-spicy burgers, such as the Stomp’s Icehouse Special at Tookie’s, get their heat from hot sauce—you leave a pool of it on the plate when you try to pick one up. By comparison, Tornado Burger’s Hellfire and Brimstone is fairly easy to eat. But the big advantage is the patty itself. 

California’s In-N-Out chain was the inspiration for the Tornado Burger, which has improved on the four-ounce patty format by offering a choice of regular, salt-and-pepper-seasoned patties or spicy ones made with garlic, onion, spices, and chopped jalapeños. With the regular patties, a Tornado Burger is just another sandwich. But any Tornado burger with spicy patties on it is already muy piquante. The original Tornado Burger is in Missouri City, but we visited the newer drive-in location on Long Point. Be warned: the new place lacks indoor seating.  

Price: $6.20 
Patty: Two spicy four-ounce, seasoned with garlic and peppers 
Meat: Fresh-ground USDA Choice Beef Chuck 
Bun: Standard, buttered, and toasted 
Cheese: Double cheddar 
Spreads: Mayo (mustard by request) 
With: Lettuce, tomato, onions, fresh jalapeños, roasted jalapeños 
Recommended Additions: None 
9101 Long Point Rd, 713-984-2000, tornadoburger.com

Tex-Mex

El Gran Malo’s Torta Burger 

The regular torta burger at El Gran Malo, a half-pound Angus burger with roasted poblano pepper strips, spicy jack cheese, and Mexican crema fresca on a crispy toasted bolillo, is pretty stellar.But order it topped with unctuous pork belly and a fried egg to take the already excellent chile cheeseburger into the nuevo Tex-Mex stratosphere. 

El Gran Malo, located on Ella in the Heights, isn’t open for lunch except on the weekends, but the kitchen stays open late (until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday), and the torta burger is a lovely late-night snack with a couple of beers or the bar’s signature infused tequila cocktails. 

Price: $8.95 
Patty: Half-pound 
Meat: Black Angus 
Bun: Bolillo 
Cheese: Pepper Jack 
Spreads: Crema fresca 
With: Poblano pepper, lettuce, tomato, onion 
Recommended Additions: Pork belly $4, fried egg $2, chorizo $3 
2307 Ella Blvd, 832-767-3405, elgranmalo.com
 

Green Chile

Line & Lariat’s Poblano-Gruyère Akaushi Burger

Melt-in-your-mouth ground Akaushi beef, aggressive gruyere cheese, roasted poblano chiles, and sweet grilled onions, served on a bun with the crunchy texture of mustard seeds: every component of this “green chile” cheeseburger is outstanding. And yet it remains a simple-looking sandwich without a pile of extra stuff on top. What a delight to pick a burger up without worrying about the fillings sliding out, or wondering how you’re going to fit the monster in your mouth—and what an explosion of flavors you get when you bite in.

The green chile cheeseburger is a New Mexico tradition; you make one by putting roasted green chiles in between the burger patty and the cheese. Variations on the theme have become popular in Houston, except that we tend to substitute the more intense poblano chile for the long green chiles from Hatch. Line & Lariat, the latest restaurant concept to occupy the grand expanse of a former bank lobby inside the Hotel Icon, calls its food “modern Texas cuisine”—we call this the luxury-hotel version of a Houston green chile cheeseburger.

Price: $15
Patty: Six-ounce
Meat: Akaushi
Bun: Soft, artisanal, with poppy and mustard seeds
Cheese: Green's Creek Gruyère
Spreads: Mayo
With: Roasted poblano chili strips and grilled onions
Recommended Additions: None
220 Main St, 832-667-4470, hotelicon.com

Mutt City Mash-Ups

Indian

Pondicheri’s Lamb Mint Burger 

It looks like an ordinary burger, but the flavor will open your eyes wide. The meat patty, made of lamb, not beef, is seasoned with spicy masala and chopped mint, sending an uncanny hot and cool wave across your palate. It works perfectly with the other ingredients: Amul processed cheddar, the Indian answer to Velveeta, mixed with goat cheese; cilantro chutney, which brings a bright herbal note; and purple kale leaves, which stand in for lettuce and occasionally come with tiny purple flowers.

There are some other Indian sandwiches on the menu at this River Oaks chaat house, which the restaurant calls “burgers,” including a fish, a chicken masala, and a vegetarian version. Wednesday is Burger Night, with your choice of a burger, fries, and a local beer for just $10.

Price: $11 
Patty: Six-ounce, seasoned with garam masala, chile powder, and fresh mint 
Meat: Lamb 
Bun: Brioche 
Cheese: Amul, goat, and cream cheese 
Spreads: Cilantro chutney 
With: Purple kale and sliced onions 
Recommended Additions: None 
2800 Kirby Dr, 713-522-2022, pondichericafe.com

Greek

Hubcap Grill’s Greek Burger

The combination of a well-cooked, fresh-ground beef patty with crispy green peppers, iceberg lettuce, tomato, raw onion, feta, and big, purple kalamata olive slices makes this stunning sandwich taste like you dropped your burger in a Greek salad. Maybe the flavor is so familiar because Hubcap’s owner, Ricky Craig, grew up making the Greek salads at his parents’ deli, Craiganale’s, right around the corner from the burger joint’s original downtown location. Hubcap offers all kinds of wacky burgers, including a Cheeto burger and one topped with peanut butter, along with more traditional versions.

A burger perfectionist who has studied at the feet of the masters, Craig named his restaurants in a nod to the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the line cooks actually put hubcaps over the burgers while they’re cooking. He keeps a close eye on the quality of the meat, buns, condiments, and craft sodas at both of his locations, which is why Hubcap is one of Houston’s favorite burger joints.

Price: $6.99 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Fresh-ground chuck 
Bun: Fresh-baked daily 
Cheese: Feta 
Spreads: House mayo sauce 
With: Kalamata olives, onions, green bell peppers, lettuce, tomato 
Recommended Additions: None 
1111 Prairie St, 713-223-5885, hubcapgrill.com

French

Burger Palace’s French Connection

While burgers and beer are a natural pairing, now and then you run across a burger that cries out for a glass of red wine. This sexy Akaushi burger—topped with gooey brie, an awesome garlic-and-tarragon mayo, sautéed baby portabella mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach—screams for a red wine. The Real McCoy Napa Valley Pinot Noir that the restaurant sells by the glass for $11 fits the bill just fine. 

Burger Palace, located just south of the Galleria Macy’s, in a space formerly occupied by the Mint Café, has dark wood furnishings and elegant tables, chairs, and wine racks, giving this place a surprisingly posh atmosphere for a burger joint. The Akaushi French Connection blew away all competition in the crowded French burger category—including the burgers served at several high-end French restaurants.  

Price: $11.95 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Akaushi 
Bun: Fresh-baked artisan roll 
Cheese: Brie 
Spreads: Tarragon and watercress aioli 
With: Sautéed crimini mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach 
Recommended Additions: None 
2800 Sage Rd. Ste. 1100, 713-877-9700, burgerpalacehouston.com

Korean

Down House’s Kim Chi Burger

The crunchy cabbage in the hot-sour, house-made kim chi and the spicy bulgogi sauce combine with runny egg and Grafton cheddar cheese to give this burger a Korean barbecue flavor. You’d expect one of the Korean-Mexican food trucks, or the Korean-owned Burger Tex location out on Gessner, to supply Houston with the definitive Korean burger, but the “bulgogi burgers” they serve are generally made by piling the popular shaved ribeye steak of Korean barbecue fame on a bun with kim chi or some selection of condiments. While those hybridized Korean-American sandwiches are delicious, the lack of ground meat brings their burger credentials into question. If you know of a better Korean burger, let us know.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep eating the kim chi burger at Down House, a Heights café serving a short menu of inspired items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with coffee and local beers. Named for Charles Darwin’s estate south of London and decorated with science-lab paraphernalia, it’s a pleasantly eccentric place to hang out.  

Price: $11 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Beef 
Bun: Slow Dough challah 
Cheese: Grafton cheddar 
Spreads: House mayo and bulgogi sauce 
With: Housemade kim chi, sunnyside-up egg 
Recommended Additions: None 
1801 Yale St, 713-864-3696, downhousehouston.wordpress.com

Italian

Plonk’s Guanciale Burger

Guanciale is an Italian salumi specialty made from air-cured hog jowls. Plonk buys theirs from the famous Niman Ranch in Northern California. Chef Mario Batali, who made guanciale famous in the U.S., says it “adds a perceptible brilliance to anything it touches.” And once you take a bite of this hand-formed Angus beef patty covered with gruyère cheese and smothered with caramelized onions, with guanciale where you’d expect to find the bacon, you will agree that the burger is pretty damn brilliant. 

Plonkis an old nickname for cheap wine, and the name sets the mood at this “wine and beer bistro” in Oak Forest that prides itself on not having a sign. It isn’t really an Italian restaurant, but the open-hearth oven and affordable wine list make it a good place for a bottle of plonk and a pizza pie—or a salumi burger.  

Price: $14 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Angus beef, Niman Ranch guanciale 
Bun: Shallot roll 
Cheese: Gruyère 
Spreads: Sriracha aioli on the side 
With: Carmelized onions 
Recommended Additions: None 
1214 W 43rd St, 713-290-1070, plonkbistro.com
 

Pakistani

Bismillah’s Beef Chapli Kebab Burger

Bismillah serves some of the spiciest burgers in the city, and they don’t need any jalapeños (though the kitchen will add them if you like)—the fiery kebab seasoning in the beef patties themselves will set your mouth ablaze. The beef chapli kebab burger is the item on the menu that most closely resembles an American hamburger, but if you care to widen your horizons a bit, sample a bun kebab, which substitutes an insanely spicy and slightly squishy beef-and-lentil patty for the conventional meat one. Both the chapli kebab and bun kebab are topped with a square of scrambled eggs, herb chutney, and some raita. That’s the way they like their burgers in Karachi.

Bismillah Restaurant, which sits on the south side of Hot Breads Bakery in the Hillcroft Shopping Center, is a popular destination for fish curries and other delights. The burgers are sold at a separate establishment called the Bismillah Café on the north side of Hot Breads. When I asked for a burger recently, the guy behind the grill insisted that what I really wanted was the snack bar’s popular “Ten Chicken Sandwich.” Maybe next time. 

Price: $6.99
Patty: Highly spiced patty kebab
Meat: Beef
Bun: Hard roll
Cheese: Yogurt
Spreads: Chutney
With: Scrambled eggs, lettuce, raw onions
Recommended Additions: More hot sauce if you dare
5702 Hillcroft St, 713-781-5000, bismillahrestaurant.com

Japanese/Brazilian

Guru Burger’s Japaniero

Take an Akaushi beef patty, then add some Brazilian plantains and chimichurri sauce, and you’ve got a terrific burger with a Japaneiro pedigree. The combination of caramelized onions and fried plantains on Guru’s Japaneiro burger make the sandwich too sweet, but all it takes to turn this burger into a sublime treat is a liberal splash of hot peppers and vinegar—just ask the waiter for a bottle of Tabasco sauce. 

As you probably already know, “Japaneiro” is a reference to Brazilian-Japanese culture, which has produced many intriguing culinary combinations. You can sample a few of these at Japaneiro’s Sushi Bistro and Latin Grill in Sugar Land, which has the same owners as the nearby offshoot Guru Burgers and Crepes.

Price: $8 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Grass-fed Texas Akaushi beef 
Bun: Egg twist (recommended); also whole wheat and gluten free 
Cheese: None 
Spreads: Chimichurri 
With: Fried plantain strips, cilantro, caramelized onions, Bibb lettuce, Roma tomatoes 
Recommended Additions:
 Tabasco Sauce
2268 Texas Dr, Sugar Land, 281-313-0026, gurukitchen.com

$$$

Burger Guys’ B.M.F. (Foie Gras Burger) 

The price of the most expensive burger on our list is understandable, considering the large hunk of foie gras on top of the Akaushi patty. The garlic aioli and onion-bacon jam complement the rest of the sandwich nicely, but we have a problem with the gastriquereduction. The head burger flipper at the Westheimer and Dairy-Ashford location told us the balsamic vinegar is needed to balance the fattiness of the foie gras and Akaushi. While something acidic is a good idea, a commercial balsamic vinegar reduction isn’t our first choice. 

We suggest you tell them to hold the gastrique and take advantage of the no-corkage-fee BYOB policy by bringing your own grease cutter. How about a hoppy Imperial Stout, a glass of red wine, or even the traditional foie gras accompaniment, a sweet white? Too bad this modern burger joint isn’t a tad more romantic, or you could make it a date-night dinner.

Price: $35 
Patty: Six-ounce 
Meat: Akaushi 
Bun: Toasted challah 
Cheese: None 
Spreads: Toasted garlic aioli 
With: Torchon of foie gras, onion-bacon jam, gastrique 
Recommended Additions: 
Get the gastrique on the side and a BYOB of red wine
12225 Westheimer Rd, 281-497-4897, 706 Main Street, 713-223-4897; theburgerguys.com

¢¢¢

Sparkle Hamburger Spot’s Cheeseburger 

The ground meat in the city’s best burger bargain starts off looking like a big pink baseball. When you order one, the grill cook takes a ball off the overhead shelf and throws it onto the griddle, where it gets somewhat flattened and cooked to medium-well. A Sparkle burger retains a little of its roundness even after it’s been dressed with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles. The well-seasoned burger balls develop fissures and cracks that provide a wonderfully crusty texture to the meat. The chili cheeseburger, also notable, is made with a light slathering of chili that allows you to pick up the burger without a complete collapse of the sandwich. Most folks get their burgers to go, but the picnic tables at Sparkle Hamburger Spot on Dowling in the Third Ward are a great place to watch the world go by.

Price: $4 
Patty: Half-pound mound 
Meat: Fresh-ground beef seasoned with salt and pepper 
Bun: Standard 
Cheese: American 
Spreads: Mayo, mustard 
With: Lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles 
Recommended Additions: None
1515 Dowling St, 713-225-8044, hamburgerspot.com
Filed under
Show Comments