Houston: Hubcap Grill Can't Quite Match the Hype

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[Photographs: Ewan Macdonald]

Hubcap Grill

1111 Prairie St, Houston TX 77002 (map); 713-223-5885; hubcapgrill.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Fresh chuck burgers on custom buns can't overcome their blandness to be anything other than ordinary
Want Fries with That? Definitely worth trying, but skip the special sauce
Price: Burger, $4.49; double cheeseburger, $6.99; fries, $2
Notes: Mon. - Sat. lunch only; second location offers dinner and bar

One of Houston's most popular burger places, Hubcap Grill is only slightly larger than the car accessory for which it is named. You and other burger enthusiasts will bump elbows, shimmy past each other en route to the bench seating, and pick up snippets of conversation whether you want to or not. On warm, rain-free days, you can even battle your way to a tiny outdoor terrace and sit on each other's laps there. Spare a thought too for the staff: the kitchen is a Liliputian affair that would challenge the dexterity and sanity of even the most jaded short-order cook.

Yet what the Hubcap Grill lacks in size it makes up for in popularity. That tiny kitchen turns out hundreds of burgers each weekday at lunchtime, with pickup orders being phoned in from far and wide. The brave—or uninitiated—gather around the counter in the hope of making their order heard above the din. Seats on these days are scouted with the intensity of New York City parking spots. It's exactly what you'd expect from a place that's won numerous awards both local and national.

Ricky Craig's burger shack, indeed, has a loyal and vocal clientele. The third-pound patties with a range of custom toppings have spawned both a second location out in the suburbs and also a truck to cater to the late-night bar crowd. This, the original location, is very much a lunch counter: It closes early afternoon, it's cash only, and it's casual. To call it unpretentious would be an understatement. In short, it's everything I love about burger culture.

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So, naturally I wanted to love the burger itself. Instead I left merely liking it. My double cheeseburger certainly looked the part, with the well-done (by default) patties just thick enough to be substantial without being unwieldy. There was a modest amount of crust, too, and although none of the vegetables would take top prize at the county fair they didn't look actively terrible either, which is nice in February.

The bun, meanwhile, reminded me of the slightly crusty, flour-topped rolls I'd grown up with in Scotland, with the added advantage that these weren't too doughy. They're made in-house by hand, which gives Hubcap Grill extra points for effort. They were also pretty damn good: They held up to even a double patty without collapsing but also without getting in the way.

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We were off to a fine start. Sadly, it was only to get worse. That's because the patties were simply bland, made of barely seasoned ground chuck. The crust was the burger equivalent of fools' gold—sure, it offered a bit of bite, but the substance, the flavor, just wasn't there. The lettuce and tomato were fighting a losing battle, the grilled onions would have worked far better on a single than a double, and in the end it was mouthful after mouthful of insipid beef and yellow mustard. It was the kind of mealy, rapidly-cooling sandwich you'd absent-mindedly chew on at a back yard cook-out in between swigs of Bud Light—no more, no less.

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Things were slightly better when we got to the side order of fries. Perhaps as the place was about to close for the week the oil needed a clean; the fries were covered in little black marks that were not pepper but rather burnt particles from the fryer. Still, in a dive-y place like this it seemed to fit, and in any case the taste wasn't affected at all. The fries were hot, crisp, and tasty—just as they should be. The 75ยข cup of "special sauce" was a Thousand Island variant rendered edible only via a generous splash of Crystal hot sauce—stick with the ketchup.

Thus I left distinctly underwhelmed—not exactly cheated, but certainly with a feeling of, "Is that it?" People queue out the door in the height of summer for this? It didn't make any sense.

Still, the thousands of happy customers and the legion positive reviews from publications large and small can't all be wrong. There must be something more to the Hubcap Grill. For this reason I plan on trying it again at some point in the future, but only to sample one of their more creative offerings. A burger made with Cheetos topped that list; others include a Muffaletta burger and a Philly cheesesteak burger. My sincere hope is that it's these custom sandwiches that have Houstonians singing the praises of this joint, because a cheeseburger from here is just so average.

About the author: Ewan Macdonald is a soccer writer who will probably die with a hamburger in his mouth. Born in Scotland, he was lured to the Dallas area by cheap beef and a love of 100 degree evenings with 60% relative humidity.

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