Burger Friday: Bernie’s Burger Bus
I bring exceptionally glad tidings, Houston burger connoisseurs. They come to us in a bright orange school bus superintended by Justin Turner, a cheerful young man who was the personal chef for Houston Rocket Shane Battier’s family until he decided it was time to strike out on his own. And boy, am I ever glad he did. Let’s have a look.
*PRICE: $7 for The Principal, a hefty classic burger with lettuce, roasted tomato and all the usual condiment suspects; $3 for hand-cut French fries and house-made ketchup.
*ORDERING: Step up to the bus window and either place your order with the head that pops out, or ring the bell for assistance. (It is helpfully labeled “Ring bell for burger.”) Your order may take about 10 minutes to produce, in which time you can wander about, socialize, or purchase drinks at the venue where the bus is parked. Turner actually came looking for me, sack in hand, when my order came up and I wasn’t waiting out front. Over and above the call of duty.
*ARCHITECTURE: On a toasted bun goes house-made mayonnaise, shredded iceberg, hunks of roasted tomato and some thin-sliced onion, followed by a half-inch-thick patty of grassfed Angus beef, and a scattering of the chef’s bread-and-butter pickle slices. The top bun is swiped with mustard and ketchup, both made from scratch.
*QUALITY: I cannot say enough about the pure joy of eating this burger. All the painstakingly assembled ingredients knitted together so well, and delivered such vibrant flavors, that it wasn’t until I finished that I realized I had forgotten to ask for some Texas cheddar on my burger. It didn’t need it.
The organic Angus beef patty (a blend of 3 different cuts) had a fine charry sear on the outside and a clear, forthright flavor. Every element of the sandwich was balanced; nothing–not the mustard, not the delightfully sweet/tart pickles–was applied with too heavy a hand. The roasted tomato was so much sunnier than the usual pallid tomato slice. The slightly sweet bun stood up to its task without buckling. I tell you, I was in heaven.
I didn’t specify how I wanted my burger done, by the way, and nobody asked, but it turned out a nice medium that was pink at the center. (Another burger I ordered turned out pretty much well-done, so I’d speak up if you want your meat on the rosy side.)
*OOZE RATING: fair; mostly condiment-based. The grassfed beef is relatively lean but moist.
*GRADE: A+. Judged purely as a sandwich, in which the parts should mesh into something greater than the whole, this burger is a stunning success.
*BONUS POINTS: The hand-cut French fries were so good I almost wept. In fact I can’t remember having a batch of fries I liked more in Houston. They were perfect, from the crisp skins-on surface to the slick, soft interior, with just enough coarse salt crystals to set them off. They radiated earthiness, thanks largely to those skins, and they scarcely needed the rather lovely, gingery house-made ketchup that came with them. I’ve had some artisanal ketchups that just made me long for Heinz; this was not one of them.
*SUPER BONUS POINTS: Turner told me a blue cheese burger called The Substitute was his biggest seller, so I ordered one out of curiosity. Wow. Blue cheese can have a domineering effect on a burger, but the Bernie’s version weaves it into the whole very gracefully, so that bacon, mushrooms sauteed in burgundy and so-called “Tipsy onions” each chime in without elbowing each other or the beef patty. Like The Principal, this sandwich is a tour de force. It’s eight bucks and, in my opinion, it’s worth it.
*LOCAL COLOR: The bus, which Turner named for his late grandfather, has its own colorful presence, enhanced by graffiti-style lettering, a retro portrait of a guy I take to be Bernie, and sundry visual quirks scattered over its bright ocher surface. There’s that “Ring bell for burger” sign that cracks me up; and a door full of smart-aleck bumper stickers that’s good for several minutes of lollygagging. Turner, with his open face and his pirate’s bandanna, sets a friendly tone that puts a newcomer at ease.
The setting and seating arrangements vary according to where he sets up shop. I caught him outside the Inversion coffeehouse at the Art League of Houston, 1953 Montrose at Willard St., where he dispenses burgers every Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (“I sold 60 burgers between noon and 12:45,” he told me somewhat wonderingly this past Wednesday, his first day at this new venue. “I’ve never done that before.”) The Art League will be an even better site as the weather warms up, because there’s an attractive dining patio with lots of tables, chairs and informal benches.
In the evenings, Turner parks the bus at Lizzard’s Pub, at 2715 Sackett Street near River Oaks, on Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday.
Of course his schedule could change on a dime–that’s both the beauty and the frustration of a food truck–but the chef is wired into Twitter (@BerniesBurgers), and a website that you can follow via RSS feed, so it’s fairly easy for his fans to keep up with him. When in doubt, you can call or text him at 281-386-2447.
review by ALISON COOK – view original article