This has always been a cheeseburger to crave. It gets into the folds of your brain, sits dormant like a volcano and rumbles when you imagine ordering it again. It tastes, somehow, exactly like Independence Day fireworks, and is served with the exactitude of a NASA mission: A crimson dash through the the center of the freshly ground chuck patty means it’s precisely medium-rare. Copper-to-clear juices, from the hickory wood fire, burble silently throughout the chuck patty. There’s the soft, seeded bun — baked in-house — and the crown of finely shredded lettuce. Pickles are crinkle-cut. White onion, diced into neat boxes, are tossed into bright tomatoes. One swipe of mayo and one swipe of mustard round it out.
Hillstone (formerly known Houston’s, though several locations are still referred to as Houston's on Hillstone's website) is the best chain burger in America, and it’s as good as it’s always been. It’s the burger from a chain restaurant that actually makes you feel something.
Decades before you could grab the farm-to-table burger at Knife or the fresh-ground Neighborhood Services burger or Wheelhouse’s seeded-bun burger or really any chef-driven backyard burger homage, this classic, all-American sandwich tasted exactly like a summer barbecue despite being served on a white table cloth.
On my recent visit to the Northwest Highway’s Hillstone, chickens spin on a spit in the open kitchen, sending orange embers into the air along with the hunger-rumbling aroma of blistering chicken skin. The bartender unfolds a white cloth napkin, setting a clean space for the grilled chuck patty juices to run down my arm. It's served open-face, crowned on the top bun with finely shredded lettuce. A wild tangle of fries sits with the burger. I like to use the fries as a broom to sweep up any meat juices that mix with fallen lettuce and onion.
I asked for medium rare, and that’s exactly what I got: A grill-marked patty of charred chuck on the outside fading to a near tartare middle. Mustard and pickle sharpen the rounder, richer elements. The blanket of cheddar and the shredded lettuce pressing into tomato and mayo invokes whatever best backyard barbecue memory is in your head. It’s stupendous, messy and juicy. It's been consistently good for years.
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When I was younger, the decision of which burger to eat (outside of the backyard grill burger) was pretty much a critical decision between the Chili’s Oldtimer and a No. 4 at Whataburger. When we were lucky enough to go to Houston’s, I would visualize the burger in my head long before we ever sat in the car. I was always going to order it — no matter what vast oceans of spinach and artichoke dip I’d be downing like a pelican. This burger was a treat.
Some 20 years later (Houston’s has been in Dallas for over 35 years), Hillstone's burger is a $17 sandwich served on a white tablecloth but still somehow tastes miraculously of a Rangers game on Fourth of July.
It’s still got fireworks after all these years.
Hillstone, 5318 Belt Line Road, 26A Highland Park Village, 8300 Preston Center Plaza Dr. and 8300 A Preston Road