Burger Wars Sizzle

Burger Wars Sizzle

A grease fire at the FM 365 location of Novrozsky’s Hamburgers, Etc. shut the Nederland eatery down for more than a month, but it might have proved a fortuitous development for the restaurant. As they scramble to reopen in early March, the Beaumont-based chain finds itself in the middle of an incipient burger war.

Hamburger Depot is the upstart outfit that bought a simple lunch place in Jasper in 2007 that served a good hamburger. Nathan Teague had worked in the restaurant business since he began with Burger King as a teenager. Tressy Morgan was in insurance and worked part-time as an assistant manager at the Elijah’s Café in Jasper. They formed a partnership and bought Hamburger Depot and have since extended the brand to a location in Kirbyville and two Beaumont stores – the first on Cardinal Drive near Lamar University, and the second opening in December 2009 on Neches Street downtown a block from St. Anthony’s Basilica.

“Since we came to Beaumont, we’ve really salivated over the prospect of coming to Mid-County,” said Morgan – and it appears they are on the verge making that happen.

This week, Morgan confirmed Hamburger Depot has leased the former Cowboy Red’s barbecue restaurant on Nederland Avenue for their Mid-County debut. That place seats 99 for dinner and also has a drive-through window for takeout. Expect the new restaurant to open by the end of April.

As with their other locations, the Hamburger Depot formula for success is simple. Fresh, 100 percent beef burgers – never frozen – with the freshest produce and buns delivered daily. All food is made-to-order, which means your burger is never waiting in a warming tray. This defies the fast food concept where your meal is delivered in under two minutes, but the taste and texture of the burger is worth a brief wait. Their menu also features chicken, fish, salad and steak fingers with the same commitment to freshness and quality.

The competition – and Hamburger Depot is not the only Southeast Texas purveyor of quality burgers – made the downtime since the Jan. 25 fire a time of crisis and opportunity for Novrozsky’s.

“We had a fryer that got too hot before opening one day,” explained Dave Jones, Novrozsky’s CEO. “We took the opportunity while we were down to bring in new equipment and did some stuff we never get a bathrooms, changing a few things up and fixing it up like it’s a new store.”

Jones said they have also changed the meat from which they craft their burgers.

“We use Nolan Ryan beef,” he said. “Our meat comes in fresh to us; it’s never frozen and it’s all natural – there’s no hormones, no antibiotics in it.”While Jones rejected suggestions the chain switched to never-frozen meat because of competitive pressure, there is a growing movement among high-end burger aficionados toward fresher ingredients overall, particularly ground beef. That’s not the only thing new in the Novrozsky’s bag of tricks, however.

“We’ve added some burgers to our menu,” noted Jones. “We have a fried-egg burger where we put an actual fried egg on the burger – that’s been a good seller – and a peanut butter burger. It’s like a bacon-cheese burger with peanut butter – it’s a big item in New Orleans.”

He also touted another menu item – hand-breaded chicken fried steak.

“We have the best chicken fried steak in the market by far,” he said. 

 

Increasing competition

Novrozsky’s, with nine locations, and Hamburger Depot, soon to open location number five, are both facing increasing competition in the gourmet burger field in Beaumont. There are a number of outlets producing hamburgers that are a cut above what was considered acceptable burger fare only a few of years ago.During the admittedly enjoyable research for this story, the name Madison’s kept coming up when the conversation turned to hamburgers.

It seems they were correct. Madison’s on Dowlen – a restaurant/bar that is more bar at night – serves up a formidable menu of burgers. These beauties feature half-pound patties of fresh beef custom-ground for Madison’s and cooked to your specifications. They are served on their famous sweet sourdough buns, delivered fresh from Sheila Partin’s Sweet Sourdough Bakery in Houston.

“We have a variety of unique burgers,” said operations manager Mike Bluett. “The BrewPub has beer-battered onion rings atop a fire-seared patty with pepperjack cheese, bacon and smoky barbecue sauce.”

He also recommended a local favorite, their Southwest Chipotle.

“A delicious half-pound burger topped with smoked bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, sautéed onions and our special chipotle-infused barbeque sauce,” enthused Bluett, secure in the knowledge that Madison’s indeed produces a burger of distinction.

Over on 11th Street, the long-departed Hofbrau was reborn as Starvin’ Marvin’s in 2010 and has thrived, serving up a full menu of steaks, seafood, chicken, pasta ... you get the idea. Owner Marvin Atwood is currently locked in a struggle with a nearby apartment complex and the Beaumont City Council over the sound from the bands that play on the patio. Despite the noise ordinance passed in early March, it appears the final chapter in this story is yet to be written.

But the branded Half Pound Angus Burgers at Starvin’ Marvin’s are the real deal. You can dress them up with hardwood smoked bacon and a variety of cheeses plus the usual fixings.

“Our beef is fresh-ground sirloin served on a jalapeno sourdough bun,” said head chef Steve Eyles, who also mentioned the fresh produce chopped daily.The result is a standout burger that holds its own on the extensive menu – and assures Atwood a place on the front lines.

“Those buns and all our rolls and French bread come from Gambino’s bakery in New Orleans delivered fresh to the restaurant,” Atwood said.

While Starvin’ Marvin’s also offers a venison burger, a veggie burger and a Southwest Turkey burger, this story is about a burger war. With all due respect to the vegetarian community, nobody ever went to war over a veggie burger.

There are five restaurants in Beaumont certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture for their “Go Texas” program, certifying businesses that use agricultural products produced in the state.

One is the Doug Nelson Café on Highway 124, which features fresh Texas seafood in a scenic location. A second is the late, lamented Spindletop Steakhouse on Crockett Street operated by Chef Chuck Harris, who had an interesting twist or two in the burger department. Another is the aforementioned Novrozsky’s, offering fresh Nolan Ryan beef at all nine locations.

Perhaps a surprise entry on this list is Black-eyed Pea, a chain restaurant founded in Dallas that features Southern cooking. Sandy Neale, manager of their Beaumont location on Phelan Boulevard, said Black-eyed Pea uses Nolan Ryan beef exclusively, “and the customers love it.”

The hamburger buns are baked on the premises using the same dough as the popular whole-wheat dinner rolls. This delicious burger option gives dad an alternative when picking up meatloaf for mom and the kids.

You can’t forget Fuddrucker’s, an early entry into the gourmet burger field founded in San Antonio in 1980. Lubbock-based Mickey Rogers says his nine Fuddrucker’s restaurants in Texas – including the Dowlen Road location by Parkdale Mall – have received their Go Texan certification and are very proud of it. According to Rogers, the produce used in the restaurants comes from Texas farms.

Don’t forget the beef. Fuddrucker’s describes it as “fresh, never frozen, 100 percent All-American premium-cut beef. Bred for taste and raised humanely on select ranches, our cattle are free to roam, eating nothing but a strict vegetarian diet with no additives or animal by-products.”

The smell of beef on the grill competes with the delicious aroma from the bakery in each store where their sesame-topped buns are baked from scratch all day long. Although the chain has closed some stores due to fallout from a previous bankruptcy, they appear to have righted the ship since being acquired by Luby’s in 2010.

In search of burger perfection

It’s not all big time operators. The search for a good burger can lead a determined foodie down some interesting paths, but we’ll take quality where we find it.Twin City Donuts & Burgers at 4849 Highway 73 at the corner of 347 in Port Arthur is a good example. Khan Tokla and wife Chhary opened their place last year, and in addition to the expected array of pastries and other breakfast staples, they serve hamburgers seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Again, the concept is simple; this is not rocket science. Chhary told the Business Journal she takes fresh, never-frozen ground beef and hand-forms patties every morning for a “family-style burger, not too big and not too small.” They cut up fresh produce daily, as well, and the result transcends the simple ingredients for a slab of hamburger delight.

Keep rolling deeper into Port Arthur to Judice’s French Market & Deli, an old neighborhood grocery at 3005 Seventh St. The original flagship location of the late A.J. Judice, Cajun ambassador extraordinaire, is best known for gumbo, crawfish etouffee, jambayla, hogshead cheese, fresh hog cracklins and the family’s revered boudain recipe. But there is something special cooking in the kitchen for burger lovers.

“We grind our beef fresh every day,” said Al Judice, grandson of A.J. and another keeper of the family flame. “You can choose from quarter, half or full pound burger – that’s the weight after cooking.”

Judice calls it “more of a home-style burger” and warns if you don’t call ahead it may take a few minutes, but it will be fresh.

“We do everything by hand,” he said. “The same lady, Miss Mary, has been here 25 years; she’ll fix your burger the way you like it.”

If you’re detecting a common theme here, you’re right. Fresh ground beef and produce, carefully prepared with attention to detail and served fresh and hot. These burger outlets get it – and not a moment too soon.

Invaders at the gate

In Houston, that modest little city of 6 million residents or so to our immediate west, the fresh burger mantra is spreading thanks to burgeoning national chains that harnessed that burger power. It is only a matter of time before they head our way.

Five Guys, who opened their first store in Arlington, Va., in 1986, has expanded from the metro-D.C. area to more than 750 locations in more than 40 states and four Canadian provinces. At present, 14 of those stores are in the greater Houston area. Their formula of offering only hamburgers and fresh-cut fries works because the burgers are great, portions are generous and service is fast – if not prepackaged fast-food fast.

Smashburger, a Denver-based chain founded in 2007, has its concept expressed in its name. A ball of fresh-ground beef is tossed on the grill and smashed into burger perfection. At present, they have eight Houston stores and have expanded into East Texas with two Tyler locations and one in Longview. How long before they come to Southeast Texas? Stay tuned.

Novrozsky’s CEO Dave Jones told the Business Journal he believes there is enough business to go around.

“That’s the thing about burgers – everybody eats a good burger,” he said. “You’d be surprised at the stats of how many people eat a burger a day. I’m not worried about it.”

 

This story originally appeared in the March edition of the Beaumont Business Journal.

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