Ah Houston, it’s been too long. I left this mecca of madness over two years ago. Life got a little too real for me and I had to go. It was hard to leave, I had established myself here. Houston treated me well. Art, entertainment, friends- this city had so much to offer. But, the best offering that Houston brought to the table (pun intended) was the food. Before I left I took a legal pad from my desk and, with bright red ink, scrawled a list of all of the burgers I wanted to eat and write about. When I finished compiling my list I was staring at a sea of red. I ate and wrote my ass off trying over the next few months to bust through that list before I left. I wish I could say I made a dent in that list, but there were too many burgers left uneaten.
After moving back to Minnesota, my need to write about burgers diminished. I tried several times to write about the many burger joints in the Twin Cities, but for some reason the spark was gone. I didn’t feel that unyielding desire to go out and explore. Don’t get me wrong- the burger scene in the Twin Cities is phenomenal. There are a multitude of restaurants stepping up the burger game featuring chefs that aren’t afraid to step back and just make a damn good burger. But it just didn’t feel the same. I would eat, write, and throw it away. Eat, write a bad review, post, delete. Then I would just eat. The fire wasn’t there.
Coming back to Houston, to visit my mom, lit a match in the back of my brain. I was showing Kelsey around the city and drove by several of the places I had written about and found myself saying, “I’ve been there. I wrote about it,” or, “Tyler and I went there for one of our burger reviews.”
That red list that I had written years ago suddenly popped back into my mind. “You should write a new burger review,” Kelsey suggested and I agreed with a slight hesitation. Being out of the burger review game for so long I wasn’t quite sure how to bust back in. I tried desperately to remember all of the places on that list. What was one burger that I should pick from that list?
One burger in particular always struck me as peculiar is called the Cease & Desist burger, offered at the Hay Merchant as well as Underbelly. The burger was originally called the “IN-n-OUT” burger, named appropriately after the wildly popular IN-n-OUT burger chain and was a total copy of the double-double burger. Double patty, double cheese, lettuce and tomato, served with fries. The name of the burger eventually got around to IN-n-OUT and a cease and desist letter was served to the restaurants. So, why bother looking for a new name? It was right there in front of them.
The Hay Merchant is located on Westheimer Avenue attached directly to the backside of Underbelly. Westheimer has a reputation of being the trendy, hip neighborhood. Every city has them-In Minneapolis it could be compared to the Lyn-Lake area of Uptown. The Hay Merchant prides itself on serving a bevy of craft brews and unique snacks such as half a pig’s head served with tortillas. (Yum, pork eyes).
Walking in I could see that this place was fun not only for the patrons but the staff as well. It was TV dinner night: a gourmet 3 course “TV Dinner” style meal served while your favorite TV shows are shown. Not really my cup of tea, I was here for the beef. Kelsey and I took respite from the glow of the TV’s out on the side patio.
The patio proved to be an excellent place for this outing. The weather was actually cooperating and provided a cool(er) night than we had expected. String lights were hanging above us on this wooded patio. It almost felt as if we were on a patio at a friends house until you heard the buzz of traffic 20 feet away on the ever busy Westheimer.
Our waiter came and strangely said very little. He poured us each a glass of water from a glass liter bottle and asked if we wanted beers. We skipped the beers and went straight for the burgers. I would describe or service as “no shit customer service”. The waiter didn’t waste our time with mindless chit-chat or tell us anything we didn’t need to know. He took our order, served us, rang up the bill. He wasn’t an asshole, but he just gave us good service with “no shit.”
Now these burgers are supposedly parroting fast food burgers. But holy smokes, they came out of the kitchen about two minutes after we ordered. I’ve seen slower service at actual fast food restaurants. The burgers were served in a small basket buried in a sea of piping hot fresh cut fries. The only part of the burger that was visible was the top bun which looked buttery and smelled delicious. The veggies on the burger were extremely fresh. The tomato was thick and beefy. It had an actual bite to it that most tomatoes lack. The crisp iceberg lettuce was stacked proudly on top of the steaming beef and cheese. Not one for many veggies on my burger, I tossed both aside to get to the real prize.
The beef and cheese were intertwined perfectly into a melty savory mess. The beef was seasoned simply with ground pepper and salt, seared to a perfect medium well, and layered with cheese (Either American or a mild cheddar, it was hard to tell).
The real superstar of this burger, surprisingly, was the bun. Without this bun this burger would be nothing special whatsoever. The bun was buttered and then toasted to a dark brown, almost on the verge of being burnt, color. This did two things: it protected the bun from becoming soggy, and gave the burger this amazing taste. It had a flavor almost like a homemade grilled cheese sandwich. I pulled the bun up close and it smelled like toast from Denny’s. May not sound appetizing to some, but damn it was good.
The fries were good but nothing too special. Almost everyone serves freshly cut fries, but almost no one does them in a unique way. They all start to taste the same after a while. Hot, salty, good.
Go to the Hay Merchant. End of story.
Houston, I have to say this is a good welcome back. And I can’t wait to come back and knock more of these burgers down.
The Hay Merchant