The Hubcap Grill at the original location on Prairie St. downtown, as far as burger “joints” go, has to be one of the jointiest joints around. A small shotgun building with a few tables in front, hubcaps adorning the exterior and interior, vintage metal signage, and old-fashioned glass bottle sodas all contribute to the jointitude. The fresh 1/3 lb. patties on fresh-baked and toasted buns are everything a burger should be. But it’s fairly difficult to make it over there for someone who doesn’t work or live in the immediate vicinity. They’re only open for lunch, so a day off or Saturday is your best bet. Or was, that is, until Hubcap expanded to a new location on 19th St. in the Heights. Not only was one of the, and, by most accounts, the best burgers in Houston practically in my neighborhood, but it would be available in the evenings as well.
Not only was it mentioned by Travel + Leisure in its assessment of Houston as the nation’s #1 Burger City, but CNN’s Eatocracy specifically anointed Hubcap Grill one of the Top 5 burger spots in the whole country. Although Hubcap has already been well-covered locally, this well-deserved national exposure has generated a renewed flurry of activity in the blogosphere. But it was actually the recent spate of cooler weather bringing us relief from Houston’s blistering heat that finally prompted me to finish off a post long languishing in “draft” status. While the Prairie St. location only has the real estate for a narrow patio, the 19th St. incarnation features an expansive beer garden that is going to be amazing as we enter into Fall. Although the asphalt underfoot at the front of the property has made it easier for industrious ants to find the mother lode courtesy of careless diners, and can reflect a lot of the summer’s relentless heat, the interminable drought this year has mercifully kept the mosquitoes largely at bay, and the gravelly backyard with scattered picnic tables under yawning umbrellas will be positively electric with the brisk autumn air.
My first time at the Heights location was during the soft-opening period, and while the epic fries weren’t available yet, the signature burgers were right on the mark. Normally, any given burger peddler would have me at “Greek Burger” – I’d stop reading the menu as soon as visions of patties liberally covered in tangy feta cheese danced through my head. Jehovah’s Witnesses would gain entrance to my home if the Watchtower were covered in feta. But to really understand the brilliance of what proprietor Ricky Craig is doing over at Hubcap, one needs to appreciate the canvas on which he’s working. The Gruyère, the aioli, the caramelized onions that so many places use these days are all well and good, and tools that Craig can wield with mastery, but if the underlying burger is a hockey puck (which some dunderheaded customers apparently request with alarming frequency, much to Craig’s chagrin), the accoutrements are only so much smoke and mirrors. What the Hubcap Grill does so well is produce a juicy, flavorful, pink-centered patty which serves as the foundation on which a masterpiece is constructed, resulting in a burger nigh approaching the Platonic ideal. So on this first visit, I skipped the Greek option and other fancier fare, and went with a comparatively simple bacon cheeseburger that was anything but simple in flavor profile. The perfectly cooked, medium to medium-well, hand-formed burger oozed juices into the pillowy yet robust bun as I bit through the layers of slightly melty cheese and savory bacon. You’ll never go back to the frozen patties and chalky bacon of your misspent youth.
Once this burger battle station was fully operational, I made a return trip, primarily at the behest of a fry craving now that they’d be available. I remembered the expertly cooked fries at the downtown location, and was further intrigued by such specialty creations as the “Stinky” fries with malt vinegar or the spicy “Hell” fries with all manner of heat, including Sriracha. But, true to form, I couldn’t pass up the Greek fries with feta cheese. The saltiness of the feta complements the flavor of the fries, while its relative creaminess contrasts the crispy exterior of the hand-cut potatoes. Owner Ricky Craig couldn’t just stop there, however, adding his own secret Hubcap sauce on top – a harmonious blend of spices so ephemeral as to render it virtually ineffable only a few short weeks later. But next time I’ll try to bring my slides and microscope to identify its component parts.
As for the burger this second time around, I stepped it up a bit, but still didn’t want to completely overshadow the burger with toppings like chili, peanut butter, or whatever new delightful aberration comes out of Craig’s diabolical mind. If you’ve never been to the Hubcap Grill, you really must try a basic version first and savor it in all its burger glory, as it reveals itself unto you as Zeus unto Semele, incinerating all your pre-conceived notions. From that fundamental level, again with bacon and cheese, I added grilled onions, and, since I had already included one breakfast element, why not make it part of this complete breakfast, and crown it with a fried egg? Just as good as the first time around, however the soft, slightly sweet caramelized onions contrasted nicely with the crisp, sharp bite of the raw onions that were left on rather than replaced, and in the middle, where all the planetary ingredients align in the burger solar system, the creamy yolk ran down from the top bun perihelion to the bottom bun aphelion, uniting all the elements in a rich, milky way. How’s that for an extended astronomical metaphor?
Picking back up on Zeus revealing himself to Semele, since Dionysus would eventually be the product of their union, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent craft beer selection at the Hubcap Grill. You may have noticed the not-so-subtle Modus Hoperandi from Ska Brewing in the picture above. This is a hoppy IPA that manages a smooth finish, with aromas of citrus and pine, and is an excellent beer to pair with an excellent burger. They have local selections from the likes of Saint Arnold and Southern Star, or from a bit further north like the Freestyle from Independence Brewing in Austin, which may very well be the official beer of leisure diving. This craft beer angle at Hubcap may remind some of Petrol Station, but I don’t think they are direct competition to each other, since Petrol’s tap wall is matched only by Hubcap’s burger menu. I consider Petrol to be a craft beer haven that also serves excellent burgers, whereas the Hubcap Grill is a masterful burger haven that also serves craft beer. Regardless, between these two spots, if you live north of I-10, you’ve got it made.
I’m not sure how long this cool weather is going to stick around in Houston, but a permanent drop in mercury levels is just around the corner, and with more space and longer hours than the downtown location, the Hubcap Grill on 19th is going to be a prime spot this Fall. Craig mentioned just last week that once we’ve put the heat behind us, the spacious beer garden will feature outdoor games. That’s just the icing on the cake though, or, perhaps more apropos, the egg on the burger: at Hubcap, you might as well be eating off a meteor – because, brother, this is what I call being in burger heaven.