It never fails: the pure joy of the moment I untie the white-tissue kerchief and the french fries from Bernie’s Burger Bus spill forth, stubby and deep-bronzed and crackly and hot. They may not be long and photogenic, but these handcut Burbank potatoes from the jaunty orange school bus, scattered with exactly the right amount of crunchy sea salt, have become my favorite fries in the city.
Even the triple digit heat we’ve been experiencing lately doesn’t diminish the pleasure I take in Bernie’s fries, which get acquire their magnificent texture from overtime-blanching on their first run through the fryer. I’ll happily wolf them at a shady iron table outside Inversion Coffee House on Montrose Boulevard, where Bernie’s often is parked for lunch. I’ll share them with friends I run into sitting and sweating on the porch at Lizzard’s Pub on an early evening, swigging cold beers from the bar inside and dipping the fries into Bernie’s made-from-scratch ketchup.
House-made ketchups can be a dicey business, but chef Justin Turner’s is a triumph: a sweet-tart potion with the tang of good chili sauce and a current of warm spices I can never quite pin down. That ketchup is symptomatic of everything Turner does in his brilliant little operation. Even his pickles have their own personality. They’re not quite dills, not quite bread-and-butter: piercing and tart with some sweetness underneath to soften the edge.
None of Turner’s obsessive need to concoct everything from scratch would matter if his burgers were not so fine. But they rock and they roll with an understated authority that is rare in the world of Houston burgers. The trend in recent years has been towards ever more flamboyant toppings, but no matter what the more classically-minded Turner layers onto his hand-formed patties, I’m always aware of the lush flavor of meticulously ground beef.
You know how bacon burgers are often all about the bacon? Well, even Bernie’s thick applewood-smoked bacon takes a backseat to his inch-tall patties, which he grinds every morning from a mix of 70 percent chuck and 30 percent brisket. There’s an easy 30 percent or more of fat in this mix, which accounts for the juiciness of these burgers even when they’re cooked (as they usually are) to a nice medium doneness, with just the faintest flush of pink at the very center.
Turner handles his patty mix gently, being careful not to compress the patties and drive out the air. So a 6-ounce Bernie’s burger ends up seeming larger, with a surprisingly light texture that seems to deliver more flavor per bite. They’re tucked into eggy challah buns from local Slow Dough bakery, and while the buns squish down a bit, their surfaces crinkling as they meet the heat, they are sturdy and delicious to the last bite, yielding a tactful ratio of bread to meat.
From there, the burger unfolds in carefully considered layers. Coarse-shredded lettuce and garlicky slow-roasted tomatoes (so much richer and more compelling than the pallid pink slices that are so common) make up the salad component, along with very thin rings of raw onion. Cheese keeps its place: whether it’s discreet crumbles of blue cheese or a slice of Texas Paragon cheddar that seems to melt away in the heat, leaving behind only a faint stickiness and a salty-milky punch of flavor.
If you prize a gooey ooze of cheese on your cheeseburgers, the Texas Paragon may disconcert you. But I find Bernie’s burger combos so satisfying that I never fail to buy into them. My experience tells me not to worry about what I choose among the nine or 10 variations. I love the Substitute (put together with blue cheese, bacon, burgundy-sauteed mushrooms and wonderful flaps of caramelized “tipsy” onions) every bit as much as I love the more baroque Homeroom, which involves bacon, cheddar, tipsy onions, chipotle aioli and a capper of a fried egg frizzled to a lacy bronze moonscape on the griddle.
Indeed, so fond am I of these burgers that I do not even flinch at ordering them using their cutesy theme names. (That’s a first for me; ordinarily I will go to any lengths to avoid having to articulate such phrases as, oh, “I’ll take the Johnny Depp Special” or “Give me the One if by Land, Two if by Sea.”)
I am perfectly content to ask the friendly faces at the window of Bernie’s Burger Bus for the Principal, which to my mind may be the best “basic” burger in town: garnished with judicious amounts of house-made mustard, mayo and ketchup; laced with a couple thick slices of pickle and skinny crisp rings of onion; and mounted on a modest bed of shredded lettuce and oven-roasted tomato. It’s a marvel of balance and discretion.
Turner, the man behind these qualities, spent the last six years as Rockets player Shane Battier’s personal chef. When Battier sensed he might be traded soon (as came to pass), he asked Turner if he wished to come along or stay in Houston. Turner had acquired a Houston fiancee and enough ties to the area to want to stay. Yet when he applied to some high-profile local restaurants, he was told a private chef’s skills weren’t suited to the rigors of a restaurant kitchen.
So Bernie’s Burger Bus was born out of necessity, as are many food trucks whose proprietors don’t have the capital or the resumes to either launch a restaurant or run one.
I wondered when the first ambitious new-era food trucks began appearing on the scene last year whether some of them would pan out to be serious contenders — operations that would be able to thrive and turn out great food, all while navigating the briar patch of Houston regulations, the vicissitudes of our subtropical climate and the uncertainties of simply staying mobile and powered up.
I’m starting to feel sure that the answer is yes.
In 2010, it was an easy call for me to put Sean Carroll’s tiny Melange Creperie stand on my list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants. If I had eaten Turner’s food last fall (he opened Bernie’s Burger Bus in October), he’d have made the list, too. To me, both mobile vendors rate two stars on the basis of their food and willing service alone, regardless of the fact that there’s no seating other than what diners can scrounge up at participating locations. Both Melange and Bernie’s are that special, that essential to the local food picture.
Turner has had to adapt to changing circumstances. When I first tried his burgers in January, he was using all-natural grass-fed beef. But with success came supply problems; eventually he couldn’t always purchase enough grass-fed product to grind the 250 patties he plans for each morning. He has had to refine the methods, such as Twitter and Facebook, he uses to let his fans know where he’ll be parked from day to day, whether it be Inversion or Lizzard’s or Sugarbaby’s Cupcakes, each of which has its own particular symbiotic relationship with the bus. Inversion furnishes beverages and killer mocha freezes; Lizzards cold Abita Ambers; Sugarbaby’s a dessert fix.
He still finds himself wondering in the morning if the short orange school bus he rehabilitated will actually start. (Ricky Craig, proprietor of Hubcap Grill and author of my other favorite Houston burgers, recently gave up his burger truck in disgust, defeated by mechanical and staffing difficulties.)
But Turner is thinking about adding a second bus to his stable. And he’s keeping an eye out for brick-and-mortar sites inside the Loop, maybe in Montrose. When and if that happens, he’ll have reason to be thankful that those top-notch restaurant kitchens turned down his services last year.
Sweetest of all, he’ll be the Horatio Alger of our city’s fledgling food truck scene.