The Woodlands, TX: Coal Burger
20 Waterway Avenue Suite 150, The Woodlands TX 77380 (map); 281-292-6385; visit coalburger.com for other locations
Cooking Method: Roasted over coals
Short Order: Robust, tasty, eco-friendly burgers in a high fructose corn syrup-free environment
Want Fries with That? Yes! Skin-on french fries are spot-on, but sweet potato fries are event better
Price:Classic Coal Burger, $3.99 for 1/4-pound, $5.99 1/2-pound; w/cheese, +$1; french fries, $2.50; sweet potato fries, $3; gelato milkshake, $5
Coal Burger is to burgers what the wood-fired pizza joint is to pizza—another step back towards the Genesis of burger beginnings. (And speaking of pizza, Coal Burger is a new burger concept started by Grimaldi's Pizzeria; each Coal Burger location is built near a Grimaldi's—in this case, right around the corner.) The restaurant is exceedingly green-friendly, using all recycled and sustainable packaging, eliminating high fructose corn syrups from its menu, and operating low-emission coal-fired ovens. But how does it taste?
The Classic Coal Burger seems to be the restaurant's take on McDonald's Big Mac, featuring "All-Natural Niman Ranch Beef" with a special mayo-based CB sauce, lettuce, and pickles (it doesn't come with tomato or onion). It's a world of difference, I'm glad to say.
The quarter-pound ovoid patties were lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and had beautiful crusts, the product of a charcoal grill-like oven. I didn't request a specific doneness for my burger, but instead wanted to see what the default would be. For some reason, the top patty was cooked somewhere between medium and medium well, while the bottom was a solid medium rare. Unsurprisingly, the bottom patty was a bit juicier and more pliant than the top patty. Both patties had good flavor though; the Niman beef reminded me of the Creekstone beef popular in my hometown of Little Rock with clean, hearty umami flavor.
Coal Burger's seedless, custom-made white bread bun gets smushed under the weight of two quarter-pound patties, but overall it was substantial enough for the burger.
The pickles were firm and crisp dills that tasted like Vlassic, and the iceberg lettuce was typical. I tried the CB sauce on the side, which was a good call; I didn't care for the sauce, which tasted just a bit too much like a stale, vinegary tartar sauce. I am glad I added cheddar for $1 (other choices being Provolone, Blue, Swiss, or American); the bit of saltiness from the well melted cheese made the burger better.
The lightly salted french fries were great single-fried, skin-on, fresh beauties. They also had a little bit of a nutty flavor, possibly due to being fried in rice bran oil. But the sweet potato fries were even better: strong and crispy—on the verge of being too crispy—and on the savory side with ample salting and a nice soft center. They went perfectly with ketchup.
The Black and White gelato milkshake was unfortunately ice-crystal infested with an unfamiliar cocoa base. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't the comfort food I've become accustomed to when slurping a shake.
Coal Burger doesn't serve Coke or Pepsi products; instead, it offers the excellent option of Boylan sodas in nine different flavors, along with fresh brewed China Myst tea.
So is it worth the price? Certainly. This nearly $6 burger would be nearly twice as much in a bistro or boutique setting. It exuded freshness and it had a lovely aroma that reminded me of a backyard grill. The attention to detail from the selection of beverages to the super crispy pickles would have me stopping in on a weekly basis if I happened to live in The Woodlands. Although they currently only have three locations, Coal Burger hopes to steal hearts and win franchises in the future. For now, it's a post-modern environmentally friendly haven for burger lovers.
About the author: Kat Robinson is a writer and storyteller out of Little Rock, AR who writes the Arkansas Times' Eat Arkansas blog and who explores Arkansas and the American South looking for great stories, interesting people and the next great meal -- especially if it involves pie.