Small-Town Celebrity

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On Main Street in Rowlett sits a florist and other storefronts, a few park benches, a grassy median and Big Star Burgers. The town square vibe is lost out on the pavement—it's forced and a bit awkward. Only once the Big Star's large glass and wooden doors are breached does the classic, small-town feel shine through. The restaurant is the town's leading light.

The old-time, counter-service burger joint is the brainchild of brothers (and original owners of the late Crescent City Café) Scott and Brian Shiell and their wives, Amy and Sharon. Brian is a friendly gent and self-proclaimed "opportunistic collector." His passion for estate sale hunts is evident in Big Star's décor. Vintage movie posters and theater cards hang on the expansive exposed brick walls flanking the dining area. Zsa Zsa Gabor's signature is scrawled across a subway-sized The Queen of Outer Space movie poster. Ann-Margret, Katharine Hepburn, "Baby Jane" and even Truman Capote—big stars, naturally—peer down from the walls and give the restaurant a warm and interesting feel. Big Star's food has the same effect.

Over the course of three visits and substantial, nay, very high caloric intake, it became clear that down to the chalkboard menu, Big Star makes every attempt to provide a quality experience in atmosphere. What's better, they provide food that is crafted from the freshest ingredients.

The first bite of bacon cheeseburger was an experience in "house burger" perfection. The fat, round patty was tender, juicy and seasoned simply with just a hint of black pepper and, perhaps, Worcestershire, though it is possible for a well-seasoned griddle to provide just as robust a flavor. The apple-smoked bacon countered the tender ground beef with a sweet and crispy snap—an ideal support player.

The blue cheeseburger enjoyed the same hearty beef in the leading role but reveled in its costume of blue cheese crumbles. More cheesy than blue, the crumbles were a very mild addition that added more of a textural element than a pungent one. It had less tang than even the common Gorgonzola blue cheese.

As if beef and cheese weren't enough to clog the arteries, Big Star has the big line on guilty sides. Fresh-cut fries are a french fry lover's delight—only slightly greasy, lightly salted, fresh, skin-on treasures fried to a golden brown.

Shoestring onion rings are light, crispy and downright magical. The thinnest of onion slices are hand-battered in a black pepper-happy batter that ends up salty, flaky and almost reminiscent of the crunchy french-fried onions that adorn a homemade green bean casserole...and I mean that in the best possible way. The level of comfort food at Big Star increased tenfold with the first bite of onion ring. Dip them in ketchup and bask in pleasure, or dip them in homemade ranch and plan ahead for that angioplasty. They're that good.

And here's something my indecisive personality really appreciates when it comes to side item crunch time: The co-star basket is piled high on one side with fries and the other with onion rings. I am required to make no decision. Now if only they offered a half-sandwich/half-salad option.

I tried a Cobb salad with grilled portobello mushroom replacing the chicken breast (apologies to Hollywood's inventor Robert Cobb for messing with the original). It held its own with fresh avocado, blue cheese, tomato, egg and bacon, but was quickly overshadowed by the performance of my dining companion's spicy Buffalo chicken sandwich. That piece of heaven ought to be bronzed. The fried chicken breast is exceptionally tender with no evidence of grease. The Buffalo baste is brilliant. Most Buffalo sauces fall in the too tart, too vinegary, too spicy categories; rarely do restaurants get it right. Big Star's Buffalo is neither too tangy nor too spicy. And here, there's no need for a dairy dipper such as blue cheese dressing to break the heat or acid, just a desire for one because it tastes so damn good in combination with the sauced sandwich. Polishing off his entrée, my mate commented, "I wish I had room in my stomach and the nerve to order a second one."

Big Star may be named for burgers, but chicken sandwiches received top billing from my co-diners. The second blockbuster was the grilled chicken and avocado club. A perfectly cooked chicken breast sat atop buttered toast (a touch heavy on the butter the first time, but that was remedied on a later visit) with a just-melted coating of Swiss cheese, bacon (oh yes, friends, more bacon), tomato and, as the title suggests, avocado. It's a simple sandwich, no doubt, but it's made well, and "made well" trumps "high-brow and poorly executed" any day.

We found but one poor choice in the Big Star culinary constellation: the patty melt. In theory, the sandwich was just fine. The one-third-pound beef patty, Swiss cheese and sautéed onions on rye toast were all present. The problem lies in the patty. The fat, roundish patty was far too thick a choice for the toasty sandwich. Patty melts should ideally be horizontally in proportion to the bread slices between which they lie. Instead, this model had a meaty boulder in the middle and toast planks that jutted out on either side by almost two inches. The interior areas of the bread quickly grew soggy and the beef overwhelmed the other elements.

Sullied patty melts aside, Big Star hits prime time at a different sort of melty dish (of which Snuffer's might be a little jealous). The "fries fully loaded" are fresh cuts laden with cheddar, bacon, chives and, if you ask nicely, jalapeños baked in. They somehow escape becoming the usual grease trap in spite of all of those ingredients practically begging for a puddle. Buttermilk ranch, as required by Texas state code and all sorority by-laws, comes on the side.

Desserts are as essential to the Big Star experience as popcorn is to a matinee. The milkshakes and malts are delicately sweet treats. The banana shake was fantastically simple—real bananas blended in and no unnecessary additives provided a dessert that was not too rich but definitely satisfying. The chocolate malt was the ideal liquid Whopper. Big Star doesn't know a bad blend.

The Big Star brownie is the ultimate sugar high in the form of a brownie sundae, only this time it's topped with caramel as well as hot fudge and whipped cream (real whipped cream, I should note). It's absurdly addictive and filling and fattening. Risking backlash from women, I'll even venture that it's PMS relief in a bowl. Or, disregarding gender, it's cake and ice cream for adults.

It's odd that in "historic, downtown" Rowlett you'd find a modern gem with vintage film décor, family appeal and a kitchen full of high-school kids turning out fantastic food. But I appreciate a good anomaly. Even more, I appreciate a satisfying meal served by someone who cared about creating it, crafting it. Filled with post-game little leaguers or peppered with couples on a Saturday night, this little burger joint has fashioned great success in patties and buns, chicken breasts and onion rings.

There's the simple food and thoughtful service. The feeling that the Big Star family wants you to pull up a chair and share their meal. And as Fay Bainter said in 1942's Woman of the Year, "Success is no fun unless you share it with someone."

Big Star Burgers is doing something right. In a big way.

3813 Main St., Rowlett, 214-703-0093. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. $-$$

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