Bryan Caswell's Beautiful Beef 'Sliders' at Reef in Houston, TX
2600 Travis St., Houston TX 77006 (map); 713-526-8282; reefhouston.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: One of America's finest seafood restaurants also makes superior sliders
Want Fries with That? Yes; these crispy beauties complement your little burgers
Prices: Three Beef Sliders w/fries, $9 at lunch (available as an app during dinner w/out fries)
Notes: During Happy Hour (4 p.m. - 7 p.m.) sliders are $1 each.
Considering I only met chef Bryan Caswell once for a brief chat, I have to admit that I probably couldn't like the guy more. That's why when I saw that he was eliminated from competition on the most recent episode of The Next Iron Chef, I decided I had to pay homage to this seafood impresario here on AHT. I know what you might be thinking: What does the chef/owner at Bon Appetit's Best Seafood restaurant (2008) have to do with great burgers? Turns out, quite a bit.
Caswell and his partner at Reef, Bill Floyd, also created a fantastic burger spot called Little Big's that I'll be reviewing here in the coming weeks, but before I ever tried those little mouthfuls of deliciousness I got a sample of something similar at his award winning restaurant Reef.
If you've been watching the series this season, you already know that Caswell is deeply talented and not afraid to express his opinion. What's been surprising to me is how often he's portrayed as the "tough" amongst the chefs. Now, 6'4" (plus) Texas boys are rarely anything near shrinking violets, but the guy I met couldn't have been nicer and more charming. More than that, I've rarely met a chef who was more enthusiastic about great food. Within a few minutes I had a Houston eating itinerary mapped out for me: a friend's spot around the corner for brunch; the real deal barbecue for tomorrow's dinner; oh, and some authentic pho for whenever. When I sat down for what would turn out to be a very special lunch, the first thing that arrived were a plate of his beef sliders.
Caswell serves his baby patties with homemade buns that are a welcome departure from the standard slider rolls. To be honest, Caswell's sliders really don't hew to the rigorous definition of slider that has been made here at AHT, but that doesn't mean they aren't delicious.
The beef was heavily seasoned, full of flavor, and, most surprisingly, full of juice. So often I'll eat a mini burger and, even if it's high quality patty, the cooking is so heavy handed that they turn into chew toys. Almost always I find myself longing for a full size burger so that I might get a full helping of flavor.
Caswell's burgers don't suffer this problem. The beef is handled with care and the buns get just enough heat to create an extra layer of texture from their toasting. The caramelized onions are cooked down to a deep, dark hue that equals deep, bright flavor. Caswell adds a side of spicy Sriracha remoulade that is so tasty it's hard not to treat it as a dipping sauce with each bite.
These burgers were the good omen of a great meal still to come. I tried at least a half dozen items on the menu and all were fantastic. Special mention has to go to the crab cake, which was almost certainly the best I've ever had.
It's this understanding of turning something familiar into a more refined and uplifted version of itself that seems to define Caswell's cooking. His final meal on The Next Iron Chef was an interpretation of his Gulf Coast roots through the lens of a Las Vegas buffet. It was big and bold and, of all the contestants offerings, the one I was sure I'd have enjoyed the most. It was a shame that he's not going to be the next Iron Chef, but the bigger shame would be to visit Houston and not try his cooking.