The Refinery: Burgers & Whiskey is a spanking-new instant joint with an oil-patch theme that's a natural for Houston, right down to the amusing patio trash can: a repurposed Mobil Synthetic Lubricant barrel. (Style points for that, fellas.)
It's a guy-guy kind of place on a West Dallas corner within quick reach of downtown's western skyscrapers, thanks to the freeway overpass that leads right to it. So men in shirtsleeves or neckties throng in, scarfing big burgers and downing local craft beers on tap or regulation bar drinks rather than the fancy cocktails now in fashion.
Here's my take on the house burgers, based on a recent visit just as work was getting out and the happy hour crowd was filtering in, starting to fill up the covered porch with its picnic tables in full dramatic view of the Houston skyline.
*PRICE: chili cheeseburger $8.95; onion rings $2.95; pint of Karbach Hopadillo IPA $5.00, for a total of $17.88 including tax. Tip brought it past the $20 mark.
*ORDERING: Table service only. Find a seat indoors at the long bar or in one of two dining rooms; or grab a spot at the long picnic tables on the covered porches that line the front of the open-fronted restaurant facade, icehouse-style.
*ARCHITECTURE: On a butter-grilled sweet sourdough bun (which seems to be the default choice here unless you specify a pretzel roll) goes a thick Angus beef patty, a square of melted cheddar, a trio of raw onion rings, and a crown of house-made chili with kidney beans. Want mustard? You add it yourself from a squeeze bottle housed in an empty cardboard six-pack holder on the table.
*QUALITY: Low-octane chili, fleshed out with so many kidney beans they got in the way of the burger, lessened the impact of the sandwich. I had no quarrels with the thick, uneven ground-Angus patty, with its aggressive sear, good beef flavor and an interior that was perfectly medium (the house style unless you ask for something else), just a little pink in the middle, and still moist if not particularly juicy.
But the blandness of the chili, the fierce burn of the raw onion rings (a quick dunk in salted water would have settled them down), and the proliferation of kidney beans all took a toll on the effect. A well-made chili cheeseburger should be both harmonious and exhilarating. The not-so-High Octane was neither.
A word about the Sheila Partin sweet sourdough buns used here and elsewhere in town: it takes a whole lot of savory to balance out their added sugar. They can work with a burger, but it's a delicate dance, and here the chili would have had to be spicier for the results to click, with perhaps a sharp twinge of salty/tart mustard to even out the equation. I think I might have enjoyed my burger more had I ordered a regulation Texas-style number with mustard and house-made pickles, but I live in hope of finding another great chili cheeseburger in this town, and that sealed my unhappy fate.
*OOZE RATING: zilch. While the patty was moist, drippage was nil.
*BONUS POINTS: Excellent local and national craft beers on tap, including the aromatic Hopadillo IPA made by Houston's Karbach Brewery. Drinking it with my burger made me think about how much the city's beer landscape has changed for the better over the last five years. The great view of downtown's western skyscrapers made the Hopadillo taste even better.
*MINUS POINTS: Sides here could be way better. My onion rings had a shiny, thick, uniform coating that made me suspect they were commercially made. The poor onion inside all that crunch batter never had a chance to really make itself known or felt. And the minute my eye fell on the French fry roster, with its "batter-coated waffle fries" all my out-of-a-package alarm bells started going off. I passed.
*LOCAL COLOR: The clever theme and the dramatic setting are strong points at The Refinery, which seems like a comfortable place to get together with friends. I was amused that the only females besides myself in that post-5 p.m. interval were a couple of svelte young waitresses, one of whom called me "ma'am" so often I began to feel like a museum exhibit. It was curiously charming. I also enjoyed dining in the shadow of a larger-than-life-size statue, of a mustachioed Southern gentleman out of another century. It was labeled "Jack Daniels." I thought he looked more like Colonel Sanders, but hey.
The Refinery Burgers & Whiskey: 702 West Dallas, 713-487-0029.
11 a.m.—midnight Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.—2 a.m. Friday & Saturday;y 11 a.m.—10 p.m. Sunday