By Ron Bechtol
It's ironic that the expectant, and long-vacant, space on Houston Street between the Palm and Bohanan's, two of the city's stellar steakhouses, should finally be occupied by a burger joint. Not that the world doesn't need another burger joint - and not that the downtown workforce is likely to lunch daily on Porterhouse or prime rib. And not that downtowns aren't made more, well, urbane, by a lively mix of uses. Still, the tone of the block had been set, the gauntlet tossed ... and I had higher hopes, even after I saw the sign announcing the imminent arrival of the Austin outfit.
There's a lot that still seems imminent about Burger Tex, for that matter, starting with its design - or lack of it. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with leaving the empty interior of the old retail space largely untouched; that would, in principle, leave room for a few dramatic flourishes and maybe some high-style (or at least highly colored) furnishings. But no, Burger Tex has all the charm of a plain interior tarted up with old license plates, a cow skull or two, and suspiciously, the beginnings of a tableau with a scuffed saddle and other cowboy tchotchkes. When it's empty - say, Saturday afternoon - it is cheerless, and when it's full - say, weekday lunch - it is almost unbearably loud. The counter staff is forced to yell your pick-up number, even with electronic amplification.
The counter staff isn't altogether together, either. When I asked about the advertised milkshakes, I was told I could get one at the streetside bar. Oops - the bar wasn't open for business at any of my four visits (and a beer and wine permit is still pending - making for a potentially interesting mix of shakes and chardonnay), and it didn't look as though it would be any time soon, despite a fully stocked ice cream freezer. If and when it does open, at least there will be some action near the street entry; as it is, you have to hike half a block to order food at the counter.
But why dwell on the dismal decor and dubious layout design when we can instead pick on the food - the signature burger, for example. BT's schtick is apparently two-pronged: freshly baked buns and accessorize-them-yourself burgers. The whole wheat buns are quite good: Sturdy without being stodgy, they hold up nicely to a variety of fillings. The standard bun tends to collapse and could probably be wadded into a nice projectile, but it tastes fresh, with more chutzpah than the usual fast-food model. The default setting on the 6-ounce burger (an 8-ounce version is available), however, tends toward the dry and cardboard-like. Though the beef is not bad, not even all the tasteless tomato, water-logged iceberg, or pickle relish in the world will turn this into a superior sandwich. (Be warned: If you're the designated gofer for your office's take-out order, you will have to open each Styro box and imagine what its eventual recipient will want for garnishes; absolutely nothing comes with the basic order.) For a stab at superiority you're better off ordering something you probably wouldn't expect to find in a burger palace, even one from Austin: bulkogi.
The fries and the onion rings I'd have to rate only average - or maybe a tad above because they weren't greasy. The mashed potatoes I substituted for the fries on a steak platter had all the allure of an instant-whip product. Burger Tex had the decency not to call them by the currently fashionable "mashers" moniker; now they should have the decency to eliminate them.
The steak on the $10.95 platter came as a surprise - not that it would go head-to-head with anything offered by either of BT's neighbors, but at least they managed to cook it medium-rare as requested. The flavor was fine, and the steak had only a minimum of gristle. I can't say as much for the side salad, consisting of more tasteless tomato, iceberg, a little purple cabbage, and some shredded yellow cheese. Ranch is the default dressing.
I also can't be as surprised-sounding about the grilled chicken sandwich; generosity is its major virtue. The pulpy chicken seems more grill-marked than actually grilled, and consequently the sandwich needs everything you can throw at it - at which point it will taste like what you've thrown at it.
Fried chicken, fried catfish, fried shrimp, and chicken fried steak are other standards in the BT stable. At least we know they can fry okra. And until the shake 'n' chard bar is open, chocolate chip cookies are your only sweet option. They're overpriced at $1.50, but they are legitimate. I can't say the same for the burgers. •