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Hubcap Grill's Ricky Craig on Burger Philosophy

Hubcap Grill downtown.
Hubcap Grill downtown.
Gary R Wise

Five years ago, a conversation about Houston's best burgers inevitably turned to restaurants like Christian's Totem, Lankford Grocery or Bubba's Texas Burger Shack, but that all changed when Ricky Craig opened Hubcap Grill in an obscure, shotgun location on Prairie Street in downtown Houston. Craig's devotion to getting the details right, such as cooking to order, twice-fried potatoes, fresh buns, has been one of the keys to Hubcap's success. The other is the restaurant's creative toppings: for example, the Philly Cheesteak burger topped with ribeye, Swiss, peppers and a "special mayo sauce." In exchange for that devotion to serving a high quality product, Craig has been rewarded by Chronicle critic Alison Cook, who named Hubcap the eighth best restaurant in Houston.

Below, Craig discusses the various components that have made Hubcap what it is today.

How long has Hubcap been open? A little over six years. We started with the original, my little baby, the downtown locaiton. It's been very good to me. I'm very thankful. I never thought a little hole-in-the-wall like that would get so much publicity from all over.

How many people do you serve downtown every day? Downtown, Monday through Thursday, I consider those our slowest days. We do 200 people, easy. You've gotta consider that's your lunch rush. It starts at 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. In two hours, we can do 200 people. I think that's a lot. Then from 1:00 until 3:00 p.m., it's just lingering people coming in. On Burger Friday, that's our busiest day. Our downtown location can get up to 250 to 300 people ? It's a lot of stuff pumping out fast.

Do you grind your own beef? We don't grind our own beef. It's a mixed blend we use. I think in meat the more fat you have, the juicier and more flavorful it will be. People always tell me 'I use a 90-10 that's more expensive, and I thought it'd be better quailty. Wrong, you want more fat in your burger to give it juiciness and texture.

Where do you get the buns? We have a local baker that does our buns for us. They're delivered every single morning. Everyday you're getting a fresh bun that was baked at probably two or three that morning. The bakers get there at 1:00 a.m.. I call in my order every night and let them know how many buns and bags we're going to need for the day.

Is it baked to your spec? It holds up really well to the meat. Before I opened the downtown location, I was doing test runs with my parents at Craiganale's Italian Deli Cafe. I wanted a bun that could hold a burger together and not break apart. I wanted a (bun that combined) French (and) Cuban styles: crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. I thought that crunchiness on the outside will hold the bun together and it won't rip apart.

Did you always know you were going to do these creative toppings? I thought I was going to do regular cheeseburgers at first. You know, your basics: jalapeno cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger, double, you know? Then, when I started getting into it, I feel like my mind's always racing. Everyone's doing cheeseburgers in Houston, how can I be different? What is going to set my place apart from other people that are doing burgers? I thought, I like bacon, but I like a lot of other things, too. I like hot dogs. Why not get a weiner, slice it and grill it like the bacon and put it on a patty? It's little stuff like that.

Sitting at home watching TV, drinking a Dr. Pepper, eating Cheetos, licking your fingers. I love Cheetos, why not put it on a burger? It's going to give it a cheese flavor; not only that, it's going to give it a crunch and texture. Nachos: I love this gooey, canned cheese. Why not drizzle it on a burger? It could be a cold night; I'm eating Frito Pie. Why not put it on a burger, the chili, the crunchiness?

Basically, these are all my favorite foods that I enjoy. I'm just putting them on a burger. I'm having fun with it. I used to think are these going to be novelties? I don't think they're novelties. Why? Because they work. Just like the bananas.

How did that come about? Like I said, as simple as me making a peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Old-school style. The only thing I changed was that I don't like crunchy peanut butter on my sandwiches. I like the smooth. I thought, I'll add crunchy to give it that texture. We don't put a lot on the burger. It's just a smear. Basically, if you stop and think about it, I was like, close your eyes and think about what you taste when you eat peanut butter. There's creaminess and saltiness. I thought with the juiciness of the patty it will melt down and drip. I added bacon for the salty and creamy cheese. It's gotta work.

I tested it out one day at first bite I was like I'm on to something here. I'm going to put it on. I think most people appreciate it. People that have tried it, 9 out of 10 people, have liked it. It's become one of their favorite burgers.

Have you ever done anything that didn't work? Yes, when I experiment, like, going to Gatlin's to get brisket, I always try it. Get some friends involved, get my family involved and my workers. Try it. Tell me the truth. If you're really my friend, you're going to tell me if you don't like it. The one that I didn't care for is the surf and turf burger. You've got your meat patty, grilled shrimp or frying them and putting them on. I don't know if it was my technique or the sauce. It was just ok. It was just an average burger. If I'm going to put it on my menu or off-menu as a specialty, it has to really wow me. It has to really be above average. It has to be 'wow, this is a damn good burger, and people are going to enjoy it.'

Fries. What's the secret? You have to use fresh potatoes. I believe you have to do a double-fry to get that crispiness. I know places that just drop them in and keep cooking them and cooking them until they're brown. After five minutes, they're going to become soggy and limp. You have to do a double-fry. We don't cut corners over here. You're going to wait a little extra time, but you're getting everything cooked to order, and it's done right.

It ain't like we grill the patties and push them off to the side. It's literally going from spatula, meat to the bun that's already prepared.

Is that why there's a wait? There's a wait. People are, like, 30 or 40 minutes? You don't understand. The line is 40 people deep. If you wait in line, you're going to wait. Look at all the people. Then you've got the phone ringing for to-go orders. People tell me, get more employees, get another register. I say no, inconsistency is not going to come into play. I'll even admit when we get really really slammed on Fridays and Saturdays, we're not perfect. I'll catch inconsistencies. There have been times I've totally stopped. Been like, we're going to do it over. I'll call out the numbers. Ma'am, I'm sorry, but they did your order wrong, we're going to remake it. Let me get you another Coke, another beer. I just want to make sure it's right.

On a Friday, on 19th, we can easily do 400 people. On a Saturday, we're anywhere from 500 to 800 people. It's a constant line from open until close. They're a couple of times where I've just sold out. People say "that's unprofessional. You're an incompetent owner. Why don't you order more meat?" I can't put any more meat in the cooler.

How much meat do you sell? On a Saturday, we can do about 400 to 450 pounds of meat. This past Saturday, we ran out of potatoes. We did 450 lbs of potatoes. That's pretty standard for a Saturday, we do 400 lbs. When you're out of that first fry, you can't do another first fry because they have to cool down completely. Otherwise they'll be soggy and limp. I'm not going to serve the product.

Keep in mind, when we do a first fry, we only have one fryer. We do not have enough room in the kitchen to put a second fryer. Plus, we have sweet potato fries, too. We have two baskets in one fryer. It's really a lot.

On Saturdays, we're here early. I'm up at, like, 6:00 a.m. Prepping meat patties and fries. Just so we can get by to last us until 8:00 p.m.

Why do you think the lines are so long on the weekend? I think people diet all week, and they work out and go to the gym. The weekends are their cheat days. I think we get a lot of people coming in to pick us for a cheat day. I'll go by my mentions on Twitter. You see people 'At the gym. Thinking about a Hubcap burger. Can't wait for my cheat day on Saturday.'

Do you ever get vegetarians coming in to try a burger? Yeah, we've had a lot of vegetarians. They say I had to do it. I had to break just to try your burger and meat. Well worth it. It's kind of the ultimate compliment. It is the ultimate compliment. When you get a vegetarian to come in and eat a burger and say 'I don't even feel sick.' They come back the next day they say, 'you converted me.' Mission accomplished.

· Hubcap Grill [Official Site]
· Alison Cook's Top 100: No. 8 Hubcap Grill [29-95]

Hubcap Grill Downtown

1111 Prairie Street, Houston, TX 77002 Visit Website