Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
3539 Northside Parkway NW, Atlanta, GA 30327 (Map); 404-262-7130; hillstone.com, 19 locations in 10 states
The Schtick: Upscale chain does a little bit of everything... most of it well
The Burger: Their House-Made Veggie Burger has the most loyal fanbase
Want Fries With That? Yes, if you like shoestrings similar to Steak n' Shake
Setting: Brickwork and black aprons, dark wood and dim lighting
Price: Cheeseburger, $15; House-Made Veggie Burger, $15; Hickory Burger, $15
Even if you've never been to a Houston's, you know the kind of place it is. Lots of brickwork, lots of dark wood. Gaslight fixtures here and there. A waitstaff decked out in crisp white shirts and long black aprons. Always a decent crowd at the bar. Always more people than you expect in the dining room. A menu that wants to be all things to all diners, but never veers into crazy-foodie-land. It's a little upscale, but not so you have to think too hard once you sit down. Salmon? Of course. Double-cut pork chop? You bet. A $36 filet? Sure, but also soup and salad...and sushi. And, of course, a couple of burger options. Is Houston's where you go when you have a burger craving? Of course not. But if you're there with out-of-town visitors or lunching with co-workers, you could do a lot worse.
The Houston's menu changes seasonally and can vary among the chain's 19 locations (spread out from LA to Texas to Florida to Kansas City to Long Island), but perhaps the best-loved of Houston's burgers is the House-Made Veggie Burger ($15). Sacrilege for a place that strives to feel more steakhouse than salad bar? Perhaps, but some quick Googling will lead you to countless clone recipes and passionate professions of love for this meatless burger.
Counting black beans, brown rice, and jalapeños among its ingredients, it gets its noticeably red tint from a heavy dose of beets. Topped with a sweet soy glaze, jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, it's a more substantial burger—in appearance, anyway—than many a veggie version. Texturally, it's prone to falling apart, unsurprisingly. But taste-wise, it's got a lot going on. I would never go so far as to say that a hardcore hamburger lover could just blindly swap out for this and come away perfectly satisfied, but Houston's House-Made Veggie Burger is perhaps the first I've found that works as a legitimate sandwich, not some lame imitation of what everyone else at the table is eating.
There is, of course, a regular cheeseburger ($15) on the menu, too. It's touted as "fresh-ground chuck with cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and onion," but if you're nine years old and order it, you're apparently automatically downgraded to the kids' version. There was no kids' menu anywhere at my table (or even offered), and even after my daughter pointed out that her lunch had come sans the advertised LTO, it wasn't until I settled the bill that I noticed the "Child Burger" notation and the lower $10 price.
The kitchen did hit the requested medium quite nicely, and the burger was a hit with my kids, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way that both my girls—who can hold their own at eating burgers, thankyouverymuch—had ordered off the adult menu and was brought something off the (perhaps-secret?) kids' menu instead.
The Hickory Burger ($15) is as wacky as the Houston's burger menu gets. Crowned with three slices of Canadian bacon and chopped cheddar and onion, the focal point is the chain's hickory sauce. I love it on their fall-off-the-bone ribs, but it doesn't take much barbecue sauce to completely drown out a burger. Thankfully, Houston's gets that and adds a dollop no bigger than a half-dollar in an admirable show of restraint.
All of our table's burgers displayed gorgeous grill marks, but my Hickory had some interior color issues. That's supposed to be medium rare. Umm...yeah. Thankfully, the beef grind had a loose texture and the meat itself was seasoned tastefully. And for a burger at a chain restaurant, that's more than half the battle.
But of course, you may be distracted by that gigantic mound of shredded cheese on top of it. It was a bit overboard even by my you-can-have-my-Gouda-when-you-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands standards. The cheese never got any melt going whatsoever, and in fact, was distractingly cold in the center of that supersized cheddar stratum. The good news, though, is that there was so much cheese that it helped keep the hickory sauce in check.
The fries at Houston's are of the shoestring variety, immediately reminiscent of what you get at Steak n' Shake. Mine were crisp and pleasantly salted, a good example of how the chain pays attention to the details and mostly gets them right.
Houston's seeded burger buns, for instance, are baked in-house and have a great pillowy quality that, frankly, many fancy-pants designer bakery buns don't have. They stood up well to the beef patties, which I'd place at somewhere just shy of a half-pound. Also of note, the beef itself is ground in-house each morning and is never saved overnight to be served the next day.
I'm not sure any of the burgers will supplant the rack of ribs as my menu selection of choice at Houston's, but by and large, I'd have no problem ordering any of them again.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.