Ordinarily I steer clear of "specialty burgers" in my Burger Friday wanderings, the better to keep a reasonably level playing field on which to judge the various burgers. I try to keep my sampling to the usual Texas accoutrements of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mustard and mayo, with cheese and the occasional lashing of jalapeños thrown in.
But. When I saw that the Ole Burger at the delightfully named Peña's Donut Heaven & Grill came with three of my favorite Texas Food Groups on top — namely queso, pico de gallo and pickled jalapeños — along with some chipotle mayo for good measure, I couldn't help but bite.
And boy, am I glad I did. Come with me to the rapidly developing coastal prairies of westernmost Pearland, a few blocks from Highway 288, to check out this destination burger.
*PRICE: Double-patty, 1/2 pound Ole Burger combo with large beverage, half-and-half order of fries and onion rings, $9.45.
*ORDERING: Step up to the donut counter to peruse the menu and the chalkboard list of daily specials (Every weekday, a single-patty, quarter-pound burger combo goes for just over 7 bucks, for example.) The unusually sunny staff will take your order, ushering you through the bun, patty and side choices, then deliver it to your table — either inside or out on the patio with a view of parking lot , Nolan Ryan Junior High School and big prairie skies.
*ARCHITECTURE: On a toasted house-baked "white" bun (which you want to choose instead of the wheat or sourdough options, which are made elsewhere) goes a swipe of chipotle mayo, either one or two quarter-pound patties of ground beef, anointed with a lava flow of chile con queso and strewn with pico de gallo and pickled jalapeños. A frilled toothpick holds it all together.
*QUALITY: Not to put too fine a point on it, the sum of the Ole Burger parts is insanely delicious. There's just no other way to put it. The thin queso lends a satisfying ooziness, the pico de gallo provides crunch and the sweet-savory onion note I crave in a burger, and the pickled jalapeños impart just the right levels of tartness and chile heat. The chipotle mayonnaise amps the tartness and burn up to a finely calibrated pitch.
The glossy-domed buns, slightly sweet and beautifully glazed with an egg wash, stand up to their job and work really well with the jumpy Ole components. The patties themselves? They are hand-formed, with an admirably loose, uncompacted texture, and they are neither overworked nor over-seasoned. I might have liked a bit more sear on the medium-well-done patties, but their clear flavor of beef fat (yes, that's a compliment) rang out even in the extravagant Ole context.
I'm not sure what made me order my burger with two patties, something I rarely do. (I much prefer a larger — and potentially juicier — single patty rather than doubling up.) And while the effect of two patties was fine here, eventually I extracted the bottom one and finished up the burger as a single-patty affair. The swaggery toppings didn't overcome the meat the way I had feared they might, and the poufy bun didn't seem like too much bread for the beef, either.
*OOZE RATING: fair plus. Almost all of the ooze was condiment-based, but I could taste the beef fat and juices even if I couldn't see them.
*GRADE: A minus. The minus is a factor of the relative lack of sear on the patty, and the absence of visible juices, which I believe would stand out more on a standard cheeseburger. The Ole Burger experience as a whole, though, is a definite A plus.
*BONUS POINTS: The onion rings, battered and fried in house, are stupendous specimens, thick-cut and juicy enough to stand up to their crackly golden crusts. They're seasoned judiciously, and you can ask for a cup of chipotle mayonnaise as a dip. The French fries are cut in house, too, but I found them seasoned too much for my tastes and no match for the exceptional onion rings.
*LOCAL COLOR: I loved the cheerful mom-and-pop feel of this year-old place. Ray Peña greets a new face in his trademark hail-fellow-well-met style, with a handshake and an opener of "I haven't seen you in here before!" His wife works the counter in front of the rainbow donut display, and his mom surveys the scene from one of the tables. Peña's enthusiasm for his bright new establishment (he sold his two original Peña's Donut shops to launch this more ambitious grill) is infectious, and his younger employees radiate the same good cheer. He introduced one young man jokingly as "our intern" and informed me that he had "run a food truck" and was "helping us with our menu."
I found myself wondering how the breakfast tacos and the pancakes were, and went home guiltily bearing a sackful of rather nice donuts (cake, raised, and raspberry-filled) that were, I was told, in one of the more over-the-top promotions I've ever encountered, "half price with lunch."
FYI: Peña's has introduced a new boudin kolache, a hat tip to the famous version produced by Shipley's in the Heights. They were out of them when I visited, but I must report that a cheese kolache I tried veered toward the heavy side of the kolache spectrum.
(Peña's Donut Heaven & Grill, 11601 Shadow Creek Parkway, Pearland. Open daily 5:30 a.m. — 3 p.m.; lunch service starts at 10 a.m.)