I had so much fun at Jerry Built Homegrown Burgers, the glossy new burger spot on West Holcombe, that it seems almost churlish to parse the fast-food style burgers in critical fashion. But a mission is a mission, and at the heart of every pretty burger package is that all-important patty of ground beef, so on we go. Bring the kids, and be prepared to shell out.
*PRICE: $6.15 for a quarter-pound burger with American cheese option; $1.99 for French fries; $3.99 for a Blue Bell chocolate shake. Total with tax: $13.13
*ORDERING: Wend your way among the symbolic produce boxes spilling over with tomatoes, potatoes and onions, pausing to cast your eyes heavenward, whence riseth a blackboard menu outlining your choices. There are printed menus once you reach the counter, too, where efficient young people will inscribe your burger particulars onto paper bags, write your name on the bags, and even ask you thoughtfully whether you want whipped cream and a cherry on your Blue Bell shake. (No, thank you.) Then find a table inside or out on the terrace overlooking West Holcombe, keeping an ear out for the sound of your name over the loudspeaker. You pick up your burger-and-fries bag and your shakes at the counter. They're well-staffed and organized here, so your order is likely to come up surprisingly quickly.
*ARCHITECTURE: Salad stuff on the bottom, although it took me several minutes to determine which end was up once I had prized my burger from its cunning white box emblazoned with a quote from Einstein. (No kidding.) On a toasted bun goes shredded iceberg, rings of red onion, a tomato slice and a quarter-inch-thick patty of ground beef, followed by a square of American cheese and a swoosh of the pink "Ernie's sauce" (an amalgam of mayonnaise, ketchup and Wickles relish) I requested in place of the usual Texas mustard-and-mayo routine.
*QUALITY:This is a tough one. On an overall sandwich level, I thought this burger did pretty well, although the Ernie's sauce could have been a little more emphatic, and there seemed to be insufficient commitment to the sweet-and-sour Wickles relish component, to be perfectly grinchy about it. (I was left wishing I had stuck to my usual mayo and mustard regime, with a couple of jalapeños thrown in for good measure.)
What I liked a lot was the freshness of the produce, which is exactly what all of Jerry Built's artisanal-happy trade dress (i.e. produce boxes, signage, packaging etcetera) promises. And I approved of the springy bun with its slightly crisped top and bottom surfaces. Yet it seemed to be a little too much bun (both in size and gravitas) compared to the skinny ground-beef patty, which had been char-grilled (with the stripes to prove it) into very well-doneness.
Despite the fact that Jerry Built makes much of its beef quality, sticking a huge outline of a bull on its roof and boasting of the "natural" chuck and brisket it grinds daily in-house, I found the patty dispiriting. It was overly seasoned with salt, had a compacted texture that made it almost bouncy, and just didn't keep me longing for the next bite. I kept wishing the Jerry Built brain trust had opted for a 1/3 pound burger that might have been a little thicker, a little looser, a little juicier. But, of course, then the price would have gone even higher, taking the burgers even further out of arguable fast-food range.
*GRADE: B minus. Which pains me, because this burger has the potential to be far better than it is. And the overall experience is in A territory.
*OOZE RATING: fair plus. There were identifiable meat juices and beef fat mixed in with the condiment slurry at the bottom of the white paper wrapper, always a good sign.
*BONUS POINTS: The Blue Bell ice cream shakes are excellent: just the right balance of milk and ice cream, easily sippable without being too thick or too thin. The practice of setting out waxed paper tumblers full of ice cream ready to whirl means that some shakes will be meltier than others (not a plus), but mine was perfect, and another one I tasted later was pretty good even in a meltier condition. At $3.99, these shakes aren't cheap, but they are well made with good ingredients, and that counts for a lot these days.
*SUPER BONUS POINTS: Crinkle-cut fries usually betoken potatoes right out of a freezer bag, flannel-like things that aren't worth the calories. Not at Jerry Built: here they are cut fresh in house through the miracle of modern on-site machinery (with the process and the Russet potatoes visible in a spanking-clean, glassed-in prep room at certain times of the day). I loved the well-bronzed conviction with which my potatoes were fried, and the lovely slick-soft potato texture of their interiors, not to mention the way they shaded from crisp through a bit of appealing floppiness here and there. I ate every last one in my box, wishing only that Jerry Built's fine arsenal of condiments parked on every table included a squirt bottle of vinegar. These fries just seem to demand it.
*LOCAL COLOR: Jerry Built is already a full-bore West U family scene that attracts an older clientele as well. Half the fun is hearing the kids chatter excitedly about the futuristic touch-pad soda machine, a sleek candy-apple specimen designed by Ferrari, which dispenses 129 possible flavor combinations by adding flavored syrups to the soda of your choice.
The rest of the fun involves taking in the amusing design touches (the many spatulas that serve as sculpture or door handles; the zoomy light fixtures; the xeriscaped urban "arroyo" out front). Oh, and watching the big staff go about their jobs with great cheer and efficiency. And — how could I forget?— enjoying the comic spectacle of diners interfacing with the automatic hand-washing machine, a fearsome contraption that looks as if it will grab you and grind you up if you plunge your forearms into its gaping maw.
I didn't have the courage to stick my arms inside it, but plenty of little kids and a few grown men did. Maybe next time.
P.S. Jerry Built has a new location in The Woodlands, which makes sense, because the West Holcombe location has "prototype" written all over it.
Jerry Built Homegrown Burgers: 3501 W. Holcombe Blvd., 713-664-2874. Open daily: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday — Thursday and 11 a.m.—11 p.m. Friday & Saturday.