Zen and the Burger Venn (Diagram) at The Burger Guys Downtown
At this point, it's fair to say that The Burger Guys is an established part of Houston's healthy handful of bright-burning burger stars, though their original outpost clings to the far west side of that constellation. Open since last fall, the downtown location, the subject of this week's Café Review, brings the Burger Guys' singular vision for over-the-top, yet surprisingly thoughtful burgers, dogs, and shakes to a whole new section of Houston. Not only is it smack in the heart of downtown, with its captive audience of business-lunchers, but the light-rail-friendly location makes it an easy choice for those farther afield. With the slate of new and promising bars and eateries filing onto Main Street, maybe they'll even transition into dinner and weekend service.
Photo by Leonel Nerio The Sonoma: this burger contains multifudes
No matter what time of day you may eventually step underneath The Burger Guys' boldly-lettered awning, the high-ceilinged space feels generous and cheerful, splashes of purple offsetting the canary-colored walls in slightly madcap fashion. It's an appropriate color scheme for a place that spins Girl Scout Cookies into shakes, and tops its burgers with everything from lengua and pickled onions to the entire contents of a bánh mì. Fear not, though; despite the riotous colors and fantastical toppings, these burgers are serious business.
Cleverly managing to inhabit the center of the Burger/Hamburger Sandwich Venn Diagram, The Burger Guys serve up thoughtful, exacting sandwiches that have all the beefy punch and drippy excess of a proper burger. Take, for example, the Houston.
Richly flavored beef, buoyed by a mantle of sharp cheddar, is undergirded by a swipe of pungent and pointed house-made St. Arnold Ale mustard, and punctuated by zippy bites of bread and butter jalapeño. In the original version, and the one I've loved best, those peppers came coarsely chopped and spread liberally across the craggy terrain of the burger, and they made every bite sing. Most recently, that jalapeño came as half a chile, split lengthwise and straddling the burger's equator. I missed the tangy, spicy snap in every bite, though I must admit it made for a striking presentation, even though the attached stem made for slightly non-functional garnish. Return the chiles to their original form, and this is a masterful specimen of burger and of sandwich.
Likewise the New York, a somewhat austere combination of meat, mustard, and sauerkraut. It's far better than you might be thinking; I know I was dubious. The kraut has a bright tartness and a juicy crunch, a pretty perfect offset to the full, meaty gush of the burger, and adds just a bit of fermented funk. It's finely tuned, and one of the rare cheese-less burgers that doesn't make me long for a bit of dairy.
The Sonoma, a purist's burger, is the type of classic, straightforward offering that could be easily overlooked on a menu such as this; miss it at your peril. For all the exotic allure of the other offerings, it's very tough to trump the impeccable put-together-ness of this burger. Everything works exactly as it should, like some sort of golden ratio of burger perfection, hinting at greater truths about the nature of the universe. Or something.
Pair your burger with some near perfect fries, but skip the basket of fried green tomatoes, whose too-thick crust traipses dangerously between tempura and funnel cake, lending an unflattering toughness to the proceedings. The onion strings are fair game if you're with a group. Their thin, shattery coating allows the taste of the slightly-crunchy onions to come through, along with a bit of a tangy, spicy bite. They're tasty, but not enough to want to eat even half an order.
You'll want to save room for a shake, a goal made possible despite the admirable girth of your burger. Though there is plenty of satisfying drippage, and plenty of richness to complement it, these burgers won't make you feel leaden. Perhaps it's the HeartBrand beef on offer, its lower dose of saturated fat lending a clean-flavored appeal to the proceedings.
Assuming you do feel up to it, there's something you should know. All of the shakes have soft, butter-fatty chunks in them. Depending on size and distribution, they can make the shake feel grainy, almost like a slightly curdled custard. That's only been a problem once, and more often, they're like little flecks of decadent, creamy velvet. I'd miss them if a shake turned up without them. As flavors go, I'm partial to the Ten Cup Chocolate, its flavor deep and true. Be sure to ask about the seasonal flavor, though. A Thin Mint shake, its dairy-base steeped with crushed up Girl Scout cookies, was a light and lovely rendition of what can so often be a cloying flavor combination, never steering toward gimmickry, as could so easily have been the case.
That ability to avoid gimmickry, while standing in what looks like the thick middle of it, is part and parcel of what The Burger Guys does so well, and it echoes through the Venn elegance of their improbably impeccable burgers. Come on out of the tunnels. Hop on a train. Enjoy a bit of burger zen under the light of downtown's newest burger star.