Monday, June 30, 2008

Guy's Meat Market

3106 O.S.T.

Guy’s serves one of my favorite burgers in Houston. They’ve been in business since the 1930s and once, several decades ago, somewhat on a dare as I understand it, participated in the BBQ cookoff associated with the Rodeo and won second place. They were already well established as a meat market purveying choice Northern beef (my Mother bought beef from them in the 1950s) but they’ve added to the legerdemain with barbecue and their smoked burgers. They also make some of the city’s finest chili, available only frozen in bricks, not served in the store, and they make some very credible sausages. In fact, their all pork with garlic sausage is one of my favorites. And they also have their own seasoning blend which is used on the burgers and barbecue and is quite good, available in shakers and pint jars.

Guy’s is open only Tuesday thru Saturday and serves the burgers only Tuesday thru Friday, starting at 11am. Only 200 are smoked each day and when they're gone, usually by around 12:30 or so, that’s all she wrote. You’ll likely encounter a line when you go but it moves surprisingly fast; it seems the whole crew of butchers is dedicated to moving the lunch line and there’s an assembly line just behind the barbecue display case. My favorite way to get the burger is with just barbecue sauce, onions and jalapenos but you can get it dressed with lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc., if you like. A drawback is that it's not hot and fresh off a grill which just makes it more important to get there earlier to get one.

The barbecue is just okay; I don’t think they use enough of their own seasoning blend as a rub and it develops only a minimal smoke ring. I get a plate sometimes with chicken and sausage (they serve their all beef sausage with the barbecue) or sandwiches.

The chili - or chilley as they spell it - is all beef chuck, cubed, and with nothing but beef and spices, the way chili should be. It’s one of my favorite chilis in the city, second only to the venison chili at Armadillo Palace. It’s in the freezer cases to your right as you enter, frozen in one pound bricks, hot or mild (neither one of them really hot). I’ve nearly always got some in my freezer for emergencies.

They also carry the Boutte brand of boudin, which is made in Lumberton near Beaumont. It's available in regular or crawfish varieties in the fresh meat cases.

Guy's Meat Market, with more on their barbecue, seasoning and history.

Blake's BBQ and Burgers

2916 Jeanetta

I don’t know how almost 25 years went by before I found this place but it’s not well-known, a hidden gem just a block off Westheimer on the west side, the closest to my home of my favorite burger joints in Houston.

The juicy, hand-formed patties are generously proportioned and come with raw onion (grilled onion available for a few cents extra). The double meat burger was my favorite at first but it’s just too big for my appetite and doesn’t allow room for that quintessential accompaniment to a great Texas burger, a slice of home-made Pineapple-Coconut cake. I always have to get the cake to go as it is.

Onion rings are great, the fries a little less so. Besides six or eight home made desserts they offer a few flavors of Hank’s Ice Cream.

They cut the burgers in half for you I think not because they’re too big to handle but because they’re so juicy. If you tried to eat one of these whole by the time you got barely half-way through the burger would be disintegrating in your hands.

The hickory smoked barbecue is unremarkable, sorry to say, but they do make a fine bowl of chili (no, it’s not out of a can) which makes for a good do-it-yourself chili pie.

There’s lots more on the menu, but I can’t get past the burgers. Don’t be in a hurry - burgers are cooked to order and it takes a little time to make a burger this good.

Blake’s is one of my top five burgers in the city.

Blake's Barbecue and Burgers

Hank's Ice Cream

Gimme them old-time burger stands - Someburger

11th at Studewood in the Heights

One of our newspaper reviewers has observed astutely that one’s taste in hamburgers is very personal. That’s true for me and obvious to anybody who notes the great diversity of burgers that people rave about. In my case it has to do with my earliest experiences of burgers at a burger joint, Harden’s Dairy Bar in Lake Jackson, to be exact. It’s been in business for 55 years, which means I was going there within a couple of years of the opening, tagging along with my older brother, spending time on a Saturday afternoon standing around in the parking lot (walk-up window service only), getting picked on relentlessly by my brother and his friends, listening to the latest hits blaring out of tinny speakers under the eaves, enjoying a burger with a Coke float or frosted root beer. I’ve wondered if I would enjoy one of those burgers if I could have one today; I can’t, because the burgers at Harden’s have changed. In keeping with the times they’re much bigger now, like most Americans and appetites, I guess. Not only that, these days besides the walk up windows you can dine-in or go through a drive-thru.

But I still like the style of burger the Dairy Bar served, a thin patty, well caramelized crust on the exterior, hot and fresh off the grill. And I have a fascination with old timey burger stands like Harden’s Dairy Bar and like Someburger in the Heights, which remains a walk-up window only type place (and probably started around the same time as Harden’s).

It’s one of my favorte burger places in Houston, but it’s not for everybody (what burger is?) If you want red juices running down your chin when you bite into your burger, this is not the place for you. These days I always get a double meat, an extravagance which probably didn’t exist on the original menus at either place. They still come off the grill so hot and fresh even the bun could burn your tongue. I’ve speculated the place is so small they can’t possibly store many supplies in there so the fixings must be fresh.

There’s not only no drive-through or kiddie playground, there’s not even indoor dining, or much to choose from on the menu. A faded printed sign in the window advises that french fries, onion rings, shakes and malts come in one size only - there’s no biggie size or supersize here. Shakes and malts are made with hand-dipped ice cream and an old mixer. Once when I was ordering the owner was standing by the window and when he heard me order a shake he commented ‘You must be on a diet. Around here, a shake is considered diet food.’ My kind of place.

They do a real good business not only from neighborhood folks but from people all across town who drive there for the burgers. I've chatted with several people standing in line or under the trees who tell of growning up eating Someburgers at other locations around town, on Shepherd near Richmond and on Airline Drive for instance.

The iconic stand on 11th is one of only 2 still surviving of a chain that once had locations in many Texas cities. The other is in beautiful downtown Baytown, on Decker Drive, and has a website which gives some of the history of the chain, which was originally called Somewhere and started in Austin. The Baytown location offers the additional amenity of indoor dining in air conditioned comfort and to the basic choices of chocolate, vanilla or strawberry shakes and malts adds pineapple.

Me, I’m happy with the Heights location, eating at the picnic tables under the trees out back or in my car. All that’s missing to complete the experience is some tinny speakers blaring out Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like That maybe and a lot more hair on my head.

Someburger Baytown

Lankford Grocery

DOWNHILL WARNING! Due to my change of eating habits I have not been to Lankford in a long time, a couple of years at least. My experience has been that they kitchen has its ups and downs but the murmurings I've heard from several lately have all been bad. Here, for instance, is Alison Cook's latest review in the Chronicle; I believe it was Alison's report some years ago that was the first I ever heard of the place. Sad news, if true. Well at least it hasn't been taken over by some investors who want to establish multiple locations, all mediocre, all over town. Diner beware.

OR MAYBE NOT! I haven't been back to Lankford since the above was posted but numerous sources indicate it was a false alarm. Enjoy.

88 Dennis St.

A nationally syndicated food writer, having attempted the triple meat burger at Lankford, once observed that Houston is ‘hamburger crazy.’ I feel certain that no greater accolade has ever been paid to our fair city. Lankford serves a great burger though I must admit I was not taken by it at first despite having read and heard glowing reports for months before ever making my way over there.

You see, Lankford serves an over-dressed, over-stuffed burger and I have a philosophical hang-up about burgers that start out looking like a mess rather than get that way as a result of handling, frenzied or not. In my experience many over-dressed burgers are messy to begin with because of too much mayo or mustard or (gack!), ketchup, added to compensate for meat that isn’t juicy enough, a poor way to try to achieve burger greatness. Too much lettuce is another culprit. For some time after my first visit to Lankford some years ago I told myself I wasn’t that impressed and the place was over-rated but taste buds eventually trumped logic and I found myself craving another one of those 'unimpressive' burgers and so I became a believer.

Lankford serves my second favorite burger in Houston, which is saying quite a lot; my favorite is at Christian’s Tailgate Bar and Grill. Compared to Christian’s, Lankford’s burger is larger, messier, and cheaper but it’s hard to compare them otherwise. They’re both awesome burgers, no question about it. The sides at Lankford’s tend not to be as good and the kitchen does have some minor ups and downs from time to time but that doesn’t stop me from going. I can hardly finish the burger by itself, anyway, so I have no problem with leaving some of the sides untouched.

The daily specials at Lankford get a lot of good press too but the only one I’ve been impressed with is the Chicken Fried Steak plate on Thursdays, which is one of the best in Houston, if you’re lucky enough to get there and find a seat before they sell out.

Lankford Grocery

Christian's Tailgate Bar and Grill

Washington Ave., just north of I-10

A lot of things have changed at Christian’s in the years (5?) since it first became well known, almost all of them for the better. The hours have improved, although they seem to still be in flux (and being open on Sunday apparently didn’t last long). Gone is the small lunch buffet and the franchise fried chicken (Chester Fried?). The name has changed from Christian’s Totem, once one of a chain of convenience stores, to Christian’s Tailgate Bar and Grill. Gone is the truck bed by the door (and it’s apparently permanent empties). But what hasn’t changed is the burger.

One of the best things about Christian’s, besides the awesome burger itself, is the amazing consistency of the kitchen. Lankford Grocery has it’s occasional ups and downs, a patty that refuses to hold together or isn’t sufficiently caramelized on the surface, but every time I go to Christian’s (original location on Washington only), I experience exactly the same enjoyment.

The beer battered onion rings are better than the fries but I would never order this much food again. In fact, these days, I’d just have the burger, maybe some chips. There are other things on the menu besides burgers????? I read in a Chronicle poll last year that Christian’s chili is one of the best in the city, so I beat it over there to try it, chili being one of my obsessions. It’s available on a chili burger or chili fries, but you can’t get a bowl, it turns out.

Playboy has named it one of the 10 best burgers in the USA. John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance calls it a quintessential Texas burger. Heck, folks, there are close to 10,000 restaurants in Houston and probably better than 75% of them serve burgers and I haven’t tried more than a few dozen of ‘em, so, cautious gent that I am, I won’t even say that it’s the best in Houston ---- there may be a new one discovered any day now --- but it is my favorite.


Some years ago while enjoying exploring Central Texas's outstanding barbecue places I became particularly fascinated by their sausages and began to explore Texas sausage makers on their own. We are blessed with many of them, small town butcher shops and smokehouses all over the state but particularly in the areas settled by Czech and German immigrants, turning out products that are frequently much better than the famous nationally distributed brands. These products are an often overlooked part of out culinary heritage and I have set out to explore as many of them as I can. There are some that are widely distributed and well known, Chappell Hill in Chappell Hill, Holmes in Pleak, near Rosenberg, Burton, in Burton, but many others whose products may only be available where they are produced. This section will be devoted to reports on many of them. Some of my earliest finds, like V & V in Cistern and Eurestes Grocery in Waelder, I visited before I had a digital camera or had thought to start taking notes, but eventually, I'll get around to visiting them again and reporting on them as well as many others.

I won't be doing any formal ratings just reporting on what I find. To each his own is my philosophy on taste and besides I seldom have the opportunity to do side by side taste tests.

Next time you're traveling Texas get off the interstates and drive thru the small towns looking for these local butchers, deer processors and sausage makers and pick up some of their products for your grill. You won't regret it.

Vincek's - East Bernard

Texas 60, just south of US 90-A

During hunting season there is a sign hanging on the door of Vincek’s Smokehouse in East Bernard which lists names and phone numbers of butchers that hunters can call if they have an animal that needs to be processed and Vincek’s is closed. From my very first visit I was impressed that service is a hallmark of this establishment. (I’m not a hunter and had never seen something like that before - I’ve since learned it’s common practice). It seemed to me when I was there a week before Christmas several years ago that half the town of East Bernard must be working there preparing party trays while the other half was just shopping or visiting with staff and getting big hugs as they shared stories of families and the holidays.. I felt a little lonely until I got some food to chow down on. Vincek’s is a butcher shop, and a very large one for a community the size of East Bernard, a smokehouse, a bbq joint with about 8 tables, and a Czech bakery. There are a few convenience store items and a line up of home canned goods available also.

I went for the bbq and to pick up some sausage, which I had heard raves about. I had brisket and sausage, with sauce on the side. They have the usual assortment of side dishes - the potato salad was homemade and particularly good. The pecan smoked brisket was tender and juicy, with a smoke ring of 1/8" plus, not bad at all. It was underseasoned to my taste and didn’t have much smoke flavor despite the smoke ring but there was some nice charring of the outer edges. However I knew from the first bite the real winner here is the sausage, which they make on premises. I scarfed it down, dipping some of the pieces in the sauce though they really didn’t need it (they leave plenty of fat in the mix to make the sausages juicy), and I was glad I made the trip.

I have gotten so enamored of the Central Texas approach to bbq as meats flavored with smoke and simple seasonings I usually use sauce only if the meat is uninteresting, but this sauce reminded me of what bbq sauce used to be like before it became trendy to make it bolder and spicier and heartier, i.e., chunky. The sauce is rather thin but it complimented the sausage well rather than overwhelming it. I realized I’m a traditionalist when it comes to bbq sauce.

The display case of their home-made sausages and jerky is almost as long as the fresh meat case and they also display some of their sausages and jerky on top of a portion of the fresh meat cases. East Bernardians must be big meat-eaters. I’ve taken along a cooler on all of my subsequent visits and picked up some of several varieties to go including some of their summer sausage and some of their peppered, smoked bacon. They have three varieties of summer sausage, a regular, a black pepper encrusted and one with large chunks of hot cheese, as the butcher described it, included. My favorite has become the hot pepper cheese one but the black pepper encrusted one is also excellent - just a little messy with all the pepper that will flake off as you handle it. Among their sausages there isn’t a bad one but I probably like the hot links least. I’m not a big jerky fan so have only tried it once; I do like their beef sticks a lot, though.

East Bernard is a Czech community which means you have to try the kolaches. These have usually been very hefty kolaches compared to what I’m used to getting in the city with a heavier dough and lots of filling, between 1/4 and 1/3 cup I’d estimate, but on my last visit they were much smaller but I don't know if that was a permanent change. If you get there after noon they may all be gone. East Bernard is not a tourist destination so they just bake enough for the local regulars, I guess. There are also some very good looking strudels and bundt cakes, cookies and brownies in the bakery case, and some loaves of home-made bread. The bundt cakes and cookies I’ve tried have been very good. Among the home canned items are dilled green beans, corn relish and peach and cherry cobbler and some of their bbq sauce.

In the music department at Vincek’s you can pick up the latest releases from the Dujka Brothers, the Shiner Hobos, Sil Krenek or others for your collection.

Vincek’s is in a plain brick block building, devoid of windows and marked only by block-lettered signs, located on TX 60 just south of US 90A, the Houston-San Antonio highway before I-10 was built, in East Bernard, less than 60 miles west of Houston. The starkness of the exterior will completely mislead you about the delights awaiting within.

UPDATE: They've added a website since this report was posted with necessary information about hours, etc.