All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
The griddle knob is turned up high. American cheese is cooling it above the counter in a neat little stack. Bubbling oil accepts a basket of french fries with a flurry of viscous plunks and pops, and thin chuck patties hit the blistering flat-top. The tiny kitchen of Burger House on Hillcrest Road hums.
José Castaneda, who’s been working the kitchen for almost 16 years, moves in precise darts: to the phone to take orders; to the microphone to announce in-house orders; to customers with quick-wrapped cheeseburgers. He seems to know everyone who calls in or sits on a stool. At one point, he takes a call, then relays a message to a guy at the counter. “No problem, I’ll let him know,” Castaneda says to the person on the phone.
“Wish I could have a cold beer,” another patron says, lamenting the milkshake- and soda-only menu. A man in jeans, pliers in the back pocket, asks for extra onions on his burger. Extra onions are delivered in seconds.
I’m at the counter — this is the best spot at Burger House — which faces the kitchen. The burgers are thin as cardstock, quick-slapped onto the hot griddle, seared for a minute or so, flipped and weighted down with a grill press. The sesame seed buns sit on the opposite side of the flat-top getting a toast. The buns get lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle, and then they’re hit with a cloud of the Burger House salt from a shaker.
My first cheeseburger in years from Burger House is more like a below-average flat beef sandwich. I taste, overwhelmingly, pickle, lettuce, yellow mustard and the salty-cumin of their special salt (at least, that’s what I think I’m tasting. Owner Angelo Chantilis won’t tell what goes into the mix).
The 80/20 chuck patty is so thin that I’m wondering two things: Is this the way I should be eating a cheeseburger at Burger House, and how is this sheer patty keeping the joint in business for over 50 years?
“Burger House has a special taste,” Chantilis tells me over the phone, referring to their salt. I bug him again about the ingredients, trying to ascertain if I’m warm with the cumin and black pepper picks. “I won’t tell you if you're warm.” Damn. He doesn’t budge.
In 1982, Chantilis and business partner Chris Canellos bought the burger joint from founder Jack Koustabardis. Koustabardis had owned the joint since 1951. “We improved wherever we could,” says Chantilis, about as humble as it gets. Before the Burger House, Chantilis and Canellos had a diner-style spot called Goobies off Royal Lane and Harry Hines Boulevard.
For Chantilis, Burger House stands out for its boldly flavored food for a quality price. Some of his staff have been there for a decade and change, like José. He tells me “everybody knows how to do everything.” You can see it at the lunch rush; it is a well-oiled machine. The top seller, by far, is the simple cheeseburger.
The best way to order a cheeseburger at Burger House, in my opinion, is like this: Double-double (two patties and two slices of American cheese), "grilled" onions, mustard and pickle. Lose the lettuce and tomato. Who needs vegetables? One bite in, with American cheese melted into beef, salty dill pickle and buttery onions, you’ll crave a chocolate shake. It’s the double cheeseburger that satisfies the kid in you who wants a fast food cheeseburger and a Coke.
On my recent visit, I overhear a customer pick up an incorrect order of cheese fries. Burger House swaps them out almost instantaneously, and when she asks for a second order, on the spot, they hand over (literally) a piping hot wrap of fries faster than I could even process it in my mind.
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So, I think what keeps patrons dedicated to Burger House is what you see in this comforting little counter spot: Fast, cheap, relaxed, but precise for the ingredients. You will be rewarded as a patron at Burger House. I mean, when was the last time you went to a spot that takes messages for customers over the phone?
"We probably do as much business as anyone, per square foot," Chantilis says, somehow with zero pretension.
Your order moves as quick as you’d like it. Your fries get dusted with salt and cumin and black pepper or whatever that damn salt is. That’s the most complex it gets. And that’s working just fine for Burger House.
The original Burger House is at 6913 Hillcrest Road, and there are locations in Lakewood, Addison, and UT Southwestern.