At Its Simplest, Houston's Burger Fails to Excel

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Houston's

378 Park Ave South, New York NY 10010 (at 27th Street; map); 212-689-1090; hillstone.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order:Hamburger achieves synergy through sheer volume of ingredients, but what lurks beneath falls behind the competition, especially for the price
Want Fries with That? In theory, but often disappointing. Try the coleslaw instead
Price: $14 comes with one side item
Notes: Locations in 12 states

Rumors of Houston's name change have been greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps not. There seems to be a bit of an identity crisis going on at the restaurant that is either called Houston's or that was formerly called Houston's, and now may or may not be called Hillstone. The website for Houston's, the upscale national chain with locations in 12 states, links to a restaurant called Hillstone Manhattan, which has two outposts at the same locations—on Park Avenue South and on 51st and 3rd Avenue—that Houston's occupied. The funny thing is that when I recently showed up at the Park Avenue location the signage still indicated that the restaurant was called Houston's; indeed, the friendly hostess confirmed the name when she welcomed me.

I called the restaurant the next day to seek some answers. After greeting me with a cheerful "Houston's," the affable chap on the other end of the line proceeded to explain that the Hillstone concept was created because they were going to switch to a "seasonal" menu. He could not explain why this required a name change, but I suspect that the name of a Southern metropolis is not quite the image one wants when trying to sell brussels sprouts in the northeast. Despite what the website might indicate, he informed me that the restaurant's name will remain unchanged for the time being.

The name Hillstone sounds like a haute barnyard restaurant, which is quite at odds with what Houston's has traditionally done best: elevated bar food—artichoke and spinach dip, French dip sandwiches, ribs, and hamburgers. Sure, there are steaks and fish on the menu, and even sushi at some of its outposts, but the restaurant is hardly fine dining. Of course, it isn't Applebee's either, and the Park Avenue location is pleasantly austere—dim lighting, dark wood paneling, and a low ceiling conspire to create a "clubby," intimate atmosphere. The staff are obsequiously friendly—you almost feel bad telling them that the fillet of sole sandwich tastes like blue fish or that the fries like corn chips.

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Speaking of chips, Houston's is perhaps best know for their cheese-infused artichoke and spinach dip that comes with sour cream, some delightfully generic tasting salsa, and corn chips which, judging from the fries, are home made. It is well worth getting as it combines the finer elements of nachos and creamed spinach. I don't like it so much that I would blog.

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The hamburger at Houston's has been widely heralded. Alan Richman included a variation of the standard burger served in the Houston's in Santa Monica, California, in his list of The 20 Hamburgers You Must Try Before You Die (with all due respect to my former teacher, whose writing I adore, I could happily die without eating avocados and burgers in the same day, let alone in the same dish). Way back in 2006, Matty Jacobs and Adam both gave it the AHT seal of approval. It was subsequently given a favorable rating by Frank Bruni, and Ed Levine named it as one of the top ten fancy pants burgers in the city. Despite the great amount of coverage, I planned on reviewing the burger under the impression that Houston's had become Hillstone and due to the change, the burger would be different. As it turns out, the burger has not changed at all.

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Houston's gets full credit for grinding their burgers in-house daily. The beef is a fairly coarsely ground straight chuck blended at what I would guess is around an 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio. It is grilled with a decent external char and is nice and juicy inside. It has a clean beef flavor, is pleasingly salty, and the kitchen does a good job of cooking to order. Despite being rather svelte, asking for a rare burger is really rare here, and not at the expense of a crunchy crust. The burger comes served on a voluminous bun from Tom Cat Bakery that is densely dotted with sesame seeds on the outside and burnished to a golden hue within. It does its best to pretend to be a regular bun, but it is actually a cleverly disguised brioche with that eggy, sugary sweetness that I find completely at odds with the savory nature of a hamburger. Bruni ordered his burger sans mustard on his visit, although the restaurant added it anyway. They did him a favor. The yellow mustard is about the only thing that can tame the sweet bun.

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As Tam Ngo revealed a few weeks back, I am a burger de-nuder, stripping my burgers to the beef-bun-cheese trinity. That doesn't work at Houston's; if you tried you would be left with an overly sweet bun, a patty that is a little too insubstantial size-wise in relation to the bread, and a slab of sweaty, but un-melted cheese. Piling on the toppings—lettuce, pickles, diced onions, tomatoes (all commendably fresh), and condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayo) is necessary. But I advise you skip the two other spurious, and frankly curious, ingredients that also come as standard on the burger: hickory barbecue sauce and shredded cabbage. When I noticed the sauce I thought to myself, "Someone has been to the Apple Pan"—the Los Angeles burger institution that famously serves a hickory burger. It doesn't really work at Houston's as there are so many other flavors going on with their burger, as opposed to the Apple Pan's whose flavors are more tightly focused.

The cabbage, which is placed underneath the patty, is there ostensibly to stop the bun getting soggy. Personally I would rather have a moist bun than greasy, limp cabbage lurking underneath my burger. The cabbage is far better used in the coleslaw which is delicious—tangy, crisp, and coarsely chopped with a faint hint of basil it makes a great side item. Better than the fries in fact that, despite occasional brilliance—they can be crispy, golden and flavorful—are often limp and greasy, and on a recent visit tasted like corn chips.

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Once dressed with almost all of the available wardrobe the burger attains a synergy and balance that is quite pleasing. The bun, despite my reservations about its flavor, does a good job of containing the patty and its supporting ingredients. The distinct textural contrast between the components is good—squishy bun, crunchy onions, snappy pickles, and succulent beef—and the flavors combine to produce a decent hamburger experience. But in my mind, knowing that the burger would be disappointing if less than fully adorned lessens its appeal. If you don't want rabbit food or condiments you will be in for an imbalanced burger, weighted heavily in favor of the bun.

The burger achieves its equilibrium through sheer volume of ingredients, but a hamburger—especially a $14 hamburger—should be able to stand on its own. There are many very good burgers around 27th and Park, such Primehouse NY, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack, that offer more for less money, making Houston's difficult to recommend.