For our first stop, we hit a joint on our side of town, Clay's Restaurant. It's been around as long as I can remember. Clay's is a very rustic, western family-style restaurant that serves up plates of American staples such as chicken fried steaks and the subject of our journey, burgers.
Right off the bat, the layout and atmosphere of the restaurant is incredible. There are multiple patios, a very large area where you can send your kids off to play in the sand or pet several different farm animals and I think I even spotted a private dining hall out back. I seem to recall them having volleyball and horseshoes in the past for the adults, but I didn't see either today. Maybe some kid ran across the horseshoe field at the wrong moment and the ensuing carnage resulted in all the stuff for an older demographic pulled. That said, Clay's is easily one of the coolest looking restaurants in the Bayou City.
Time to order up. We both order the standard cheeseburger. Clay's describes it as beginning with a 7oz all beef patty and the standard load includes tomato, pickles, onions, mustard and mayo. I opt for my usual, which is all of the above minus onions and mayo and Nick order up his usual no tomato and no mayo. They offer american, swiss and cheddar cheeses, we both jump at the cheddar. Both are coming with fries and a Coke. The only real Texan beer they offered was Shiner Bock, but it was a little too early in the afternoon to start throwing back brews. One more member of our party gets a mushroom swiss burger with onion rings, which we will touch on later.
The burgers come out quickly, all cooked all the way through, as we weren't offered any option to have it cooked to order. The burger itself looked absolutely fantastic. Shredded cheddar, shredded lettuce, nice sized cuts of tomato and a generous pile of pickles. Everything looks well. Not many words are exchanged before the burgers start vanishing off of our plates. The silence continues until the burgers have just about vanished completely.
The burger itself has a lot of things going for it. The vegetables were just about perfect. The lettuce was still very crisp, the tomatoes were perfect, not to soft and not too hard, the pickles were layered generously on the burger as opposed to getting two or three like many places. The meat was a little dry, a consequence of the longer cooking time, however, in a surprising twist, it was very nice in that it didn't seem to be seasoned in much more than maybe a little salt and pepper and yet the meat managed to stand on it's own, maintaining a very strong, classic beefy flavor that we know and love.
Also, even though the burgers were cooked all the way through, the patty came apart in my teeth with the best of them, so I can't knock it too hard for the chef ensuring that it was dead. Grease factor was about zero. I am assuming it was cooked over an open fire where all the juices dripped off rather than on a range. Fans of a good greaseburger should look elsewhere but those that choke up a little when a burger starts leaking all over butcher paper will feel right at home. The burger isn't perfect, but it's pretty damn good.
Sad notes. Clay's french fries suck. There isn't one positive word in my vocabulary that I would use to describe them. They aren't crisp, they are hardly seasoned at all, maybe with just the tiniest dash of Tony's. They accomplished nothing but making me want something better. I had to drown mine in ketchup, which made me take note that they did have the awesome, classic, squeezable, farty ketchup bottles. While the two of us put our fries away, our third had onion rings with her mushroom swiss. A sampling of one of the onion rings, which was very obviously hand battered, left the mouth watering for more. Only four onion rings came out with her burger though, so we couldn't get to any more of them without being threatened with a steak knife. Clay's should go out of there way to push their onion rings, as they are much more satisfying than their lackluster fries.
In my past I have always gone to Clay's to devour the hell out of one of their chicken fried steak with a fat scoop of mashed potatoes, which is a fantastic example of how it should be done. Clay's puts out a pretty good burger, but next time I am at Clay's, I'll be getting that instead. This was our first stop, and the quest for the best burger in Houston continues.