Houstonians may love burgers, but finding the exact right formula can be tricky. Just ask Ronnie Killen, who talked about the difficulty of dialing in Killen’s Burgers on a recent episode of CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, or Jerry Built, the local mini-chain that shuttered its two locations despite its family-friendly atmosphere and high quality ingredients.
Balls Out Burger, which opened last weekend in The Heights, has decided that simplicity is the key to success. Before getting into the details, let’s deal with the name, which has caused some agita on Twitter due to its connotation with indecent exposure. Just as it’s hard to imagine a fried chicken restaurant called “rock out with your cock out,” Balls Out Burger is getting some criticism from Twitter activists and other high-minded types for its suggestive name.
Owner Ian Tucker, a native Irishman who recently moved to Houston, explains that the phrase has a less menacing meaning in his home country. Here’s his response to the question, how did you pick the name?
"It’s a name that, where I come from, it’s just synonymous with, you’re going to do something, you’re out to succeed at something, personally or a business, put 150 percent into it and just go at it. Throw caution to the wind. Take a risk. Just put everything you’ve got into it and just go balls out to achieve it. That’s where it comes from. There is another connotation to it. To alleviate that somewhat, the logo is great. It’s not in any way offensive or rude or weird. It’s quite almost sporty almost, and comic book-esque.
Some people are going to be offended by it. Some people won’t like it, and that’s just the way it is. Some people aren’t going to like my burgers. You can’t please everybody, you know?"
Not that either Tucker or the fancy public relations firm that represents Balls Out Burger asked for help with marketing the restaurant, but if the social media fury over the name becomes too intense, he could change the name to “No Bullshit Burgers.”
Really, that’s what the restaurant serves: classic, New York diner-style cheeseburgers with minimal toppings: lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles. Fresh-cut jalapenos are the only nod to the Texas palate. Bottles containing ketchup, mustard, and mayo sit on every table, but people might be surprised by all the things Balls Out doesn’t offer.
No bacon. No Thousand Island-style “special sauce.” No chili. No eggs. No veggie burgers or chicken sandwiches. No fancy toppings like kimchi or blue cheese. None of that bullshit.
“If somebody wants a fully-loaded burger, there’s a lot of other places to go. I recommend them. Happily,” Tucker says. “The day they want a proper cheeseburger they’re going to come to me.”
That simplicity extends to the sides and beverage options, too, which consist of three kinds of french fries (shoe string, hand cut, and sweet potato) as well as canned Coke products, eight different canned beers from Saint Arnold, two wines, and two milkshakes (chocolate and vanilla) made with Amy’s Ice Cream. Milkshake flavors like strawberry and salted caramel are also bullshit, obviously.
Diners can eat their burgers inside the small-ish dining room or on an expansive patio that includes games like darts, corn hole, and giant Jenga. Bike racks and recycling bins encourage environmental consciousness.
Tucker is betting that using top-notch ingredients is the key to success. His beef comes from acclaimed Texas ranch 44 Farms, and his buns are an Amish potato roll by local baker Slow Dough Bread Co specifically for Balls Out. Those patties get seasoned with pink Himalayan salt before hitting the griddle, and the buns get toasted in beef fat.
All of that quality comes at a cost. A regular five-ounce burger starts at $8.50. Cheese and jalapenos are 50 cents each, and an extra patty costs $3, which means a single cheeseburger is $9 and a double cheeseburger is $12. (Update 6/9: Balls Out Burger has dropped its prices by a dollar. A single patty hamburger is now $7.50 and a double cheeseburger is now $11.)
That may not be a lot of money in absolute terms, but it’s a critical couple of dollars more expensive than most other cheeseburgers around town. For example, a similar burger at nearby Hubcap Grill is $6.49 for a single and $8.75 for a double, $7 and $10.50 at The Burger Joint (coming to The Heights later this year), and $5.50 and $8.50 at burger-chan (formerly Kuma Burger). Even Austin import Hopdoddy only charges $7.75 for a basic cheeseburger.
The prices compare more favorably to gourmet spots like Bernie’s Burger Bus ($9.65 for a Principal) or Becks Prime ($10.25 for a basic cheeseburger) — both of which also have or will soon have locations in The Heights — but those restaurants serve heftier patties and offer many more topping options.
Price quibbles aside, Balls Out is definitely onto something with its focused menu. The standard cheeseburger’s simplicity recalls what someone might cook at home if he or she had access to great ingredients and a cast iron skillet. The beefy flavor of the 44 Farms patty matches well with the slightly salty cheese and the crunch of the griddled bun. A copious amount of fatty liquid oozes onto the plate. Toppings seem almost superfluous. Blending fresh banana into the chocolate milkshake helps set it apart from its peers, too.
If all goes well, Tucker says he’d like to open another location next year. Between now and then, he’ll open a massive, 400-plus seat, full-service restaurant called PoitÍn in Sawyer Yards. Now it’s up to customers to decide how they feel about Balls Out’s no bullshit burgers.