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By Charlotte Aguilar
The Bellaire-West U area is attracting a growing number of upscale restaurants and cutting-edge concepts, but traditional food groups still thrive — barbecue, donuts, deli, comfort food versions of Italian and Tex-Mex. And burgers.
Both the venerable Bellaire Broiler Burger and Bernie’s Burger Bus were lost during the pandemic, leaving two fast food joints as the city’s only dedicated burger-and-fries outposts. But with the revival of the Broiler Burger and the impending arrival of Lankford’s revered patties, burgers are officially making a comeback.
Lankford plans to open in the fall in the space occupied for 39 years by Brisket Bar-B-Q at 5208 Bissonnet St. (which closed in June). And already an entrepreneur with local roots is remodeling the old BBB, nearby at 5216 Bellaire Blvd., and serving several different “concepts” from a virtual or “ghost” kitchen from food truck at that location (see accompanying article).
Lankford: A well-done burger institution
Long known as “Lankford Grocery & Market,” the restaurant is a three-generation, 85-year-old burger icon in the Montrose-Hyde Park area of Houston and drew national attention when it landed on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” a decade ago. The broadcast showcased the Firehouse Burger, loaded with several mouth-searing ingredients, as well as classic burger and down-home specialties and sides.
In the news release announcing the Bellaire location, Lankford owner Paul Prior said Bellaire is the first stop in expansion plans: “Being part of a family and community are important to us as we look to grow Lankford’s throughout Houston and its suburbs. We have our eyes on The Heights, East End, and Fulshear already.”
Broiler Burger: A rare opportunity
For a brief time, Bellaire had a burger battle going on, with the iconic Broiler Burger serving up the same classic flame-seared patties, fries, onion rings, shakes and sodas it had since the 1950s and Bernie’s Burger Bus — a successful Houston-area food truck — opening its first brick-and-mortar location to great fanfare in the Bellaire Triangle in 2014.
But the death of a key employee hit the Broiler Burger hard, and the pandemic closed both restaurants in 2020.
Bernie’s is being re-worked into Aya, an indoor/outdoor sushi restaurant, part of the revitalization of the Triangle that includes a combination of longtime Bellaire restaurants and new, high-profile eateries.
Perhaps the most excitement, though, is over what is happening in the parking lot outside the iconic Broiler Burger — a food truck preview of what’s to come sometime this fall, according to owner Jason Scheinthal, a 34-year-old restaurateur who grew up in and around Bellaire. He’s a graduate of Emery HS and the University of Houston.
The look, feel and recipes (yes, including the chili) of the Broiler Burger will be back eventually, Scheinthal says, along with Greek specialties of another Bellaire institution, the late, lamented Roadster Grill.
Scheinthal was behind Bar 1836 on Alabama Street in the Upper Kirby District, and Roadster owner Nick Semoudiaris created the food. The place never had a chance, both explain, opening shortly before the COVID pandemic struck.
Scheinthal finds reopening the Broiler Burger both familiar and challenging. “We understand that we are bringing back something and not making something entirely new,” he explains. “We’re doing the best we can to get the menu and the recipes the way they were.”
For now, customers can phone in and pick up orders for a limited menu of burgers, sides, canned drinks and desserts or sit at tables with their food under the breezeway next to the restaurant, while it’s brought up to code and has its kitchen updated.
The “spirit” of the Formica, vinyl and wood panel décor of the interior will be kept, he promises.
Elements of the menu, posted on the truck, are recognizable to Broiler Burger aficionados. The prices aren’t and have been cause for sticker shock, with one customer, posting on NextDoor, lamenting a $67 tab for burgers for a family of four. In fact, a cheeseburger with bacon, fries and a canned soda costs about two bucks more than a prime beef steakhouse cheeseburger and handcut fries at a fine River Oaks restaurant.
Of course, that’s not what those looking for the Broiler Burger experience are expecting. But so far the reviews on the food and drink are mixed. Scheinthal is bubbling with explanations and promises about the future and has been slowly tracking down vendors and precise products used by previous owner Tom Daneman.
Both the burger patties, which are still flame-seared, and the American cheese that melts just-so are now part of the product, he says — the chili is a work-in-progress. “We think we can do everything, except give customers the old pricing,” Scheinthal says ruefully. “Costs have gone up on everything from ingredients to labor.”
There are $9.99 burger-fries-canned drink combos offered to first responders and students. Starting in July, Scheinthal says the restaurant will offer a 40 percent check discount on the first Friday of each month to those “who always put someone else first” — a broad category that will include medical personnel, teachers and first responders.
He sees re-creating the restaurant as an interactive process. “If someone has a bad experience or if something doesn’t taste or feel right and they think we can do it better, tell us, and we’ll do it right.”
Scheinthal says he is still in touch with previous owner Daneman, whose family owned the Broiler Burger from the 1960s and who started working their as a teen. “I hope I can invite him over soon because I’d love to get his feedback on what we’re doing.”
The younger restaurateur was a fan of both BBB and the Roadster Grill as a youngster, and he says he feels fortunate to know both Daneman and Semoudiaris. “If there were two people I would like to emulate, it would be Tom and Nick. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be the flame bearer for the places I loved while I was growing up.”
Since Semoudiaris has moved on to a new career as an investment adviser, he’s not certain how much of a role he’ll play, but confirms that some of the Roadster’s Greek recipes may be a part of the Broiler Burger’s future.
The food is critical, Scheinthal knows, but it’s the emotional connection that is the Bellaire Broiler Burger’s great asset. “How many restaurants can say, ‘we have a booth that has sat three generations of customers from the same family?’” he asks. “We know that is a huge responsibility, to live up to that, as well as creating something that can go on for another 60 years.”
This article first appeared as the cover story of the May 2022 issue of Bellaire-West University Essentials Magazine