Five New Burger Spots for a New Austin
Brave businesses offer unique takes on the ubiquitous comfort food
In this year of calamity and chaos, burgers remain constant. Regardless of style or toppings, beef or veggie, there is a hamburger to suit just about everyone. And while here in Austin we're lucky to have more than our fair share of options, five brave businesses poked their heads out into the storm to offer unique versions of the ubiquitous comfort food.
JewBoy Burgers brings big personality and big flavor to the table. Owner Mo Pittle closed his popular food truck to open his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in September. Raised in El Paso, with "traditional Jewish family" roots and ties to Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Pittle transformed his storied advertising career into an Austin burger mainstay, all since the fated election of 2016.
After feeling burned out by an industry full of complaints, Pittle said he wanted to get creative with his next entrepreneurial step. "It was just going to be a T-shirt company first – just shirts that said JewBoy Burgers. I did the logo and photoshopped it onto myself. I have a longstanding tradition in every photo shoot that they get a shot of me delivering the single finger salute. When I die I'll have all these pictures of me flipping off the camera and at the wake we'll have a gallery. I kid. But I made the shirt, and then you know how insomnia goes, next thing I know I'm Googling how to start a food truck. You have to be doing something [for work] that you feel comfortable talking about all the time. I can sit and talk about food with anybody all the time. So four years later, that's still what happens. If you wanna talk about food, we will."
In fact, if you ask, he'll tell you just about anything – from his favorite kind of cheese (Muenster) to how to make his menu staple latkes (assuredly not his mother's recipe) to why he insists on wearing a bandanna. "I have no secrets – only one secret sauce. It's called schmootz and it's like a smoky aïoli. If it's possible to use real food, I try. I'm clearly not a health nut, so if it makes sense and tastes good, we'll do it."
When asked about the process of developing his burgers he said, "Oh, it was 100 percent narcissism. I know what I like." For example, you won't find tomatoes anywhere on the menu because he can't stand them. Taking inspiration from beloved spots like long-standing Rosco's Burger Inn in El Paso, Pittle carefully chose each ingredient and step for his social media-famous burgers – from Longhorn Meat Market ground beef to Martin's potato rolls. It's grilled onions first, then smash the meat down on top, flip once, add two slices of cheese. "That second cheese gives you the Instagram blanket. And then it goes onto soft rolls because to properly toast bread, you have to put butter on it, and beef and butter make grease. That's where people get that greasy burger stomachache afterward. Our burgers are hearty, but you're not gonna go away with a stomachache. You want people to eat there regularly and if it wrecks them, they won't."
He's a friendly, open book and it's clear Pittle loves to chat as much as he loves to eat good food. With the added space, his new menu has long-awaited items like picadillo barbacoa burritos and chili cheese dogs, and when it gets cold, he'll roll out specials like chile mac. "I'm not looking for a Michelin star. [My food] reflects the two cultures I like to combine – Jewish and Mexican border cultures are very similar. There's a lot of emotional family interaction and food is just central. It's comforting."
As for selecting his new "cursed location" on Airport Boulevard, Pittle makes no bones about his belief that the spot's checkered history is merely an example of how the restaurant scene works. "You tell me, but one guy had bad luck, one guy saw economic issues, one guy moved. Down the street you've got Tyson's, Sala and Betty, Vamonos, Komé. The neighborhood is strong. I'm not much of a romantic when it comes to places, but this area feels like Austin. I just want to make a living, and I believe in liveable wages – if I don't make an extra 17 cents for a burger I'm gonna live."
He added, "I'm proud of our product and I love cheeseburgers, but also it is just a cheeseburger. If it could cure cancer that'd make me the happiest guy in the world, but I just want people to be happy and have a nice place to eat. My wife rolls her eyes every time I say this, but there's so much happiness in cheeseburgers."
Vernetta Weston wanted to own a food truck since high school, but she had to make a few stops on her journey first. Originally from Chicago, she said, "Back in the day growing up, we had the Mexican food trucks, and they really did not have a good reputation, but I always loved them. So when food trucks really came on the scene, I thought, 'I've gotta have me one someday.'"
Weston owned and operated a bakery/cafe in Racine, Wis., for several years, but when the menu needed a new spark to keep the doors open, she gave burgers a whirl – regular cheeseburgers, plus specials like meatloaf and Greek burgers. "They were a hit! People would come get a burger and a cupcake and things started going really well." Soon after, life happened, and Weston got divorced, closed the restaurant, and started over in retail management while keeping a catering business on the side until her youngest child graduated high school. She wanted a big change and the dream of owning a food truck resurfaced. She said, "I just picked up and moved to Texas – I wanted a warm climate. I started researching and ended up moving to Houston by myself with two suitcases in 2017."
Soon after, she met her new husband, found a good job, and built her new catering website, only to find change around the corner yet again. After her first visit to Austin, she was hooked, and within a month she and her husband both landed job transfers and got settled in their new city. "When I came here, I fell in love. It was so beautiful and the food truck scene was crazy – one on every corner!" By then, her wedding catering business had once again taken off and she was able to save up money to rent and then buy her first food truck. She opened her first truck at the UT campus food truck park behind the bookstore and gained a fanbase.
"Wedding food doesn't translate to a truck, so I called up my sister, my niece, my two daughters, and my mom – they're my business advisors and whenever I'm trying to make a big decision we get on a conference call or family text and go back and forth with ideas. So, I'm like what food should I do? And we all said, 'You know down here in Texas, it's beef country.' So I took a lot [of recipes] I had at the restaurant and just did them at the truck. And then we said, 'Well, what are we gonna call it?' And somehow I just knew we had to call it Burgerlicious!
"My food – it's just burgerlicious, you know?" she laughed.
Before the pandemic, Weston also featured specials like fried chicken nights and she'll return to that soon enough. For now, it's a shortened menu, with some new lunch options like sandwiches and wraps at the second truck that she was able to purchase and open in September due to the support received from this summer's Black Lives Matter movement. "We were closed for two and a half months, out of business, and when we came back, it was slow. But once the Movement started and people started rallying behind it, it really catapulted us and allowed us the second location. It was an outpouring of support and we still need that support. So I want to say thank you to those that bought food and shared about us. It mattered to us. They tried our food because we're Black-owned, but the repeat business is because we have a good product, and now we have loyal customers."
With two successful trucks only 12 blocks apart (one on Cesar Chavez, one on 12th Street), Weston is hopeful for the future – from spreading the trucks north and south, to parking at a brewery, and even opening a brick-and-mortar. Like she said, "When you bring it out, you wanna bring it out full speed ahead."
Bad Larry Burger Club
There's a new cult-status burger pop-up in the Austin food scene, in part thanks to social media antics, and appropriately, Bad Larry Burger Club launched during the weirdest year on record. Chute Master Matthew Bolick, co-owner of Better Half, said, "The pop-up had been just me and whatever friend I could sucker into helping. Sometimes my wife. She's the shit. The Chute was made out of a chunk of gutter that David Stevens [groundskeeper for Pegalo Properties at The Brew and Brew] found somewhere. The homies at Brew taped 'We give a chute' down the side and now it's viral or whatever. Maybe not the best term to use these days."
As the appropriately hilarious origin story goes, Bolick explained: "My buddy Nick used to say 'gimme one of them Bad Larrys' when I had a beer and he wanted one. Always made me laugh. At the time I lived on Larry Lane with my now-wife Katie, and we started hosting burger and beer parties once a month in our backyard. I started calling it Bad Larry Burger Club. This was way back in 2016. Back then I was using a shitty free Weber grill that Matt Wright gave me. At the time we were kinda using this as a way to make a bunch of different burgers in hopes of landing on a style that we could roll with at Better Half. We were way off. We needed chef Rich. Many hammered nights and lots of burgers were had over the years. Fast forward to 2018, me gettin' hitched and Mom and Dad buying us a Blackstone flat top as a wedding gift. Smash burgers were now doable and my game changed. It's all I wanted to do. More Larry parties were had. Burgers got better and better and buds were like, 'You gotta sell these things.' The first pop-up was at Little Brother in August of '19. It was not well-attended. So naturally I kept doin 'em. Burgers at bike races, Better Half, Brew and Brew, and when COVID hit I started doing em outta my driveway. All dollars would go to the Little Brother tip pool. I would deliver the burgers to your car with a remote control dump truck for safety. Things got busier so I switched to a burger chute made out of gutter. Now I've got real live burger dudes cooking with me. Travis Burson (dude IS Bummer Burrito) and James Durham (most recently from Carpenter Hall and his own trailer Republic Donuts and Republic Diner) are running the plancha while I talk shit and send burgs down the chute."
Bad Larry specializes in "smooshed burgers" on a flat top. Why? "I called 'em smooshed cuz that's hilarious to me. The smash burger is a true classic. I have been a big George Motz fan for some time and I grew up on McDonald's doubles so that's the burger I was destined to make. You're not supposed to put ketchup on a burger so I put ketchup on my burger as well as mustard, two pickles, diced onion and fromage American."
When asked if the chute was just practical or a ploy to stand out of the crowd, Bolick said, "The chute was just a way to keep folks six feet back and have a little fun. Motz in NYC made a fancy wooden slide so naturally mine had to be trash."
They're taking a vacation so stayed tuned for the next chute date sometime in November.
Tacos and burgers totally sans all animal products in the same food truck park? Thanks to the same crafty culinary mind that brought you Vegan Nom (specializing in delicious vegan tacos), Nom Burgers is one of several vegan food trucks with the chutzpah to open a new business during these unprecedented times.
And while a burger truck has been one of several ideas floating around in owner Chris Rios' head almost since he opened his first Vegan Nom taco trailer back in 2012 (Pioneer BBQ is another that Austin vegans are anxiously awaiting), it wasn't until June – when many other local businesses were focused strictly on survival – that he formulated a solid plan for the new trailer. Rios was ready for a fun new distraction and wasted no time getting started. He said, "I had a lot of fun with it. It took my mind off the doom and gloom in the restaurant industry."
Nom Burgers was open just a month and a half after the concept's inception. Rios repurposed one of Vegan Nom's catering trucks, redesigned and outfitted it for daily use, and started slinging classic junk food like Impossible cheeseburgers with all your favorite toppings, buffalo wings, fried pickles, and a breakfast sandwich (available all day long, as it should be).
The new trailer is located at 2324 E. Cesar Chavez at the all-vegan food truck park lovingly referred to as the Vegan Nom Food Park (home to three Nom businesses – Vegan Nom, Nom Burgers, and East Austin Coffee – plus Curcuma and Milky Way Shakes). – Alisha McDarris
In an older part of town with a recent influx of new businesses lives the recently opened Buddy's Burger on Cameron Road, launched by three college students.
"Originally Buddy's was planned to open in March 2020, however, due to the pandemic we opened up in late June," said Isha Fidai, 21, a current UT student studying mathematics, along with Zain Fidai, 21, a current UT student studying finance; and Saad Fidai, 22, a University of Houston graduate in finance and MIS. "We were thinking about possibly delaying it another additional six months but decided to take a leap of faith because of the uncertainty of COVID-19 resolving by fall. We are glad we took this risk of opening up and gaining the support from the locals around Austin!"
The menu, reminiscent of a P. Terry's and In-N-Out love child, is tasty and efficient. "We had always decided that keeping a short and simple menu was the way to go to ensure quality food. We were having trouble finding a fast food restaurant that served quality and fresh ingredients through a drive-through so we decided to open a new place. All of our burger ingredients are all-natural and freshly made every day. Buddy's offers the best quality ingredients you can find served out of a drive-through window. Our burgers are never frozen and made with 100% Angus chuck beef and hand-formed daily," said Fidai.
They recommend the double patty flat top burger, complete with the Smack Sauce, and a handspun milkshake for dessert.
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