I think it all started at the end of 2007, when a local critic named Hubcap Grill as one of the 10 best new restaurants of the year.
It caught many by surprise, not because Hubcap's burgers aren't good — they are — but because in a busy (pre-recession) year, it was almost unheard of for a delicious dive in a glorified crawl space downtown to steal a prestigious spot from a traditional white tablecloth contender.
But no more. Upscale dining and lowbrow tastes have become so intertwined that it's impossible to sort one from the other. At the center of it all is the once-humble burger, whether enjoyed as a trio of sliders, with a patty of Wagyu beef next to truffle fries or on a picnic table from a wax paper wrapper. Whether it's a function of economic hardship or an indulgent rejection of a dining scene that's becoming more health conscious, in 2010 burgers simply ruled.
First came the fast food invasion, led by Smashburger from Denver starting in 2009 and followed even more feverishly by D.C.'s Five Guys Burgers & Fries. By the end of the year the Houston burger establishment were expanding their operations, too, with both Christian's Tailgate and Hubcap announcing new locations to come in the Heights.
Of course the mobile food trend had its own share of burgers, too, with both the Hubcap Burger Truck (the best way to discover Hubcap's strangely good Cheeto burger, since it's the kind of thing most sane people would only order after midnight when a couple sheets to the wind) and the tasty and nostalgic Bernie's Burger Bus tooling around town.
In-and-Out might have snubbed Houston for the Dallas 'burbs, but we did get a California import when The Counter launched on Washington Avenue this fall. With steep prices and high-end ingredients (Danish blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon), The Counter was the ultimate symbol that the burger was no longer just street food, even if in execution the results were less gourmet and more meh.
RDG, Tony's, Tiny Boxwood's — these days there's nary a high-end resto that can avoid including a burger on the menu (or at least the lunch menu), infusing upscale taste by fashioning the patty from organic Kobe or Wagyu beef, or substituting buffalo or lamb instead of the pedestrian bovine.
Among my favorites? The Back to Cali burger, with smashed avocado, sprouts, bacon, pico de gallo, cheddar cheese and a brisket patty at Byrd's Market & Cafe, Queen Vic's Indian Kabob burger of spiced ground lamb on naan and the BWT burger (Kobe beef, white cheddar and bacon) at Branch Water Tavern.
Burgers aren't going away anytime soon — I'd mention the daily sliders at BRC Gastropub, but they are always sold out when I order them — but they've got some new competition from another backyard barbecue favorite.
The new standard in burgers might be The Burger Guys, taking the gourmet burger concept and adding a local element — the much-heralded Houston burger is topped with onion bacon jam, Saint Arnold's Fancy Lawnmower Ale mustard, bread and butter jalapenos, and Maple-smoked cheddar. But despite the name, The Burger Guys also showcase a quartet of gourmet hot dogs that seem to be just as popular.
And new hipster haven Moon Tower Inn skips the burgers altogether and focuses on hot dogs made of locally sourced buffalo, venison, rabbit, duck and more.
Is the hot dog the it dish of 2011? We'll see. But until then, all hail the burger.
Editor's note: This is the 13th in a series of articles CultureMap will be running this last week of 2010 on The Year in Culture. The stories in this series will focus on a key point or two, something that struck our reporting team about the year rather than rote Top 10 lists or bests of.
Other The Year In Culture stories: