The moment you step through the door of The Burger Guys, you sense that the three young men in charge of this very modern burger joint are having the time of their lives.
Fun glows from the walls drenched in pumpkin, purple and sunny gold; it fizzes from the customized soda fountain jury-rigged to dispense natural-sugar sodas trucked in all the way from Dublin, Texas. It sizzles on the broad grill where thick hand-formed patties of Texas Akaushi beef (a breed of prized Japanese Wagyu cattle) sputter and pop.
Good cheer radiates from the friendly greetings at the register and practically skips off the colorfully lettered blackboard menus, which promise such playful inventions as duck-fat fries, a bananas foster shake or a Seoul burger with house-made kim chi. Most of all, though, fun dances in the eyes of co-owner chefs Steve Marques and Jake Mazzu, along with their sous chef Brandon Fisch, as they rush to tell newcomers their latest invention.
“There’s 10 cups of tempered dark chocolate in this batch of ice cream,” Mazzu (the resident ice-cream nut) may inform you proudly. One sip of the satin-thick Ten-Cup Chocolate shake tells you it’s true, and that all the Hershey’s syrup pseudo-chocolate milkshakes in town are a bad dream from which you just awoke.
Another day, Fisch might recommend the Loaded Baked Potato dipping sauce he’s just dreamed up to go with those fresh-cut potatoes fried in duck fat, a give-me-more marvel of sour cream finely blended with just the right proportions of chives, bacon and cheese. It’s a baked potato garnish gone suavely uptown, and the effect with those matte-finish French fries, tucked into a wire basket lined with faux newsprint, is amusingly meta.
The imposing Marques, perhaps the most earnest of the bunch, is apt to wax happily philosophical as he minds the grill and watches you bite into the thick burger that has been set before you, triggering a sudden gush of beef juice. He’ll tell you about the custom-baked egg rolls or observe that “We’ve all worked in places where we had to cut corners, and it’s such a relief not to have to cut corners anymore.”
I’ll say. It’s relief to me just to be able to taste a genuine chocolate shake. It’s fun and a half to order a fried-over-easy duck egg on top of my burger, if I want one, and to know that it came from the celebrated Mr. Hatterman, eggman at the Urban Harvest Saturday farmers market. It’s a blast to encounter such ingenious items as the Phuket Burger, sprouting bristles of crunchy green papaya from its crown, a glossy layer of lime-tamarind dressing and an earthy swipe of tobanjan, a red-chile-spiked bean paste.
Such artisanal embellishments would be beside the point if the beef involved in these plump hand-made patties did not announce itself with a clear, pure flavor that rings through the entire sandwich. But it does, and then some. I have come to cherish the sudden sploosh of savory juices that flies out at first bite — to the point that when one of the six burgers I’ve sampled here failed to sploosh, I was crushed.
That was the only day my burgers here failed to wow me. A friend whose palate I trust had a similar experience, which he ascribed to Akaushi beef being too lean, with not enough buttery quality to suit him. I thought he was nuts until that one day’s beef batch (it comes to the shop ground from Heartbrand Beef out of Yoakum, Texas) struck me the same way. That just may be the way of things when you’re dealing with specialized ingredients that haven’t been standardized to death. And even the more austere burger that day was good. But I had grown accustomed to great.
Burger hounds who scoff at “fancy” burgers may find ammunition in The Burger Guys $8-across-the-board price, but I think it’s fair for what you get — especially since plenty of burger joints charge $5 or more these days. I certainly got $8 worth of pleasure from my Houston Burger, an inspired new basic that involves a low-key onion bacon jam, cheddar cheese and a racy dice of bread-and-butter pickled jalapenos, all lit up by a sharp mustard house-made with St. Arnold Lawnmower Ale.
The Buffalo Burger won me over the second the lush, expansive quality of its blue cheese (sourced from the Houston Dairymaids) kicked in. I had been afraid that the combo of skinny onions strings, celery and two-count-em-two aiolis (both a blue cheese and a Tabasco mash version) might vanquish the beef, but the blue cheese performed the magic trick of bringing the meat to the fore again. Still, I think a simple Tabasco-mash hot sauce might have been in order instead of the aioli whammy.
That tendency to get carried away with the latest enthusiasm is really my only criticism of the place. It’s a youthful failing, easily amended with time and experience. The Burger Guys is so promising even at this early stage of its life that I predict they will only get better at what they do. Who cares if occasionally they go overboard with the Kaffir lime leaves in a sorbet or red-curry dipping sauce, if they also use this locally beloved subtropical citrus leaf to subtly perfume a lemon icebox pie gelato — so that it ends up perfectly expressive of the Southern international city that Houston has grown to be.
Basically it’s hard to go wrong here. I’d skip the onion strings, which sound so enticing with their long soak in Tabasco mash and buttermilk, but end up curiously flat-tasting and difficult to eat, the pieces so small that you can’t really dip them into the Guys’ trippy side sauces, like that surprisingly delicate cilantro-blue-cheese number I like so much. I think bigger onion rings would be better onion rings in this case.
And I continue to think the french fries here are a little too perfect, if you can imagine such a thing. Like the immaculate fries at Vic & Anthony’s, these are so free of the delicious duck fat in which they are fried that I longed for a little sleaze, a little glaze, a suspicion of sheen, a little divine nastiness.
I would never, ever skip one of the ever-evolving milkshakes as dessert. Yes, dessert. They are thick enough that they don’t really qualify as a beverage, and besides, you will want to sample one of those Dublin fountain sodas with your burger — perhaps the lovely root beer, or the mysteriously wonderful Dublin Dr Pepper, which puts regular Dr Pepper to shame.
I tend to prefer the flavors of hand-spun ice cream that do not involve the crumbly add-ins the kids all love nowadays: the cereals, the cakes, the thises and thatses. So it might be a Ca phe sua da shake of half-shake that sends me out the door, not so cut with sweetened condensed milk that the coffee note is weakened; or the festive bananas foster flavor with its boozy notes of bourbon. Big fun indeed.
Almost as much fun as I had watching my friend Penny de los Santos, the noted food photographer, getting her first glimpse of a Burger Guys hot dog. The foot-long monster swaddled in a baguette-sized roll landed on the counter on its way to another diner, tightly wrapped in the bacon strips with which it had been deep-fried.
Penny gasped and grabbed my crummy aioli-smeared digital camera, and asked the slightly started guy who had ordered the dog if she could take its picture. But he nodded his head at the inevitability of it all — he could see that this was magnificence worth recording — as she asked permission to move his plate into a better light.
A hot dog has never looked so good. Everyone in the place was smiling. It was the perfect Burger Guys moment.
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The Burger Guys