Abbas Dhanani has spent much of his life becoming a jack of many trades. He’s helped run restaurant franchises and launched his own successful Instagram food blog (@houstoneatz). Now, he’s focusing on his obsessions: New York City and meat.
So when he had the idea to launch a hamburger-focused pop-up paying homage to the indispensable, iconic small grocers of New York City, after almost a decade of chronicling his dining exploits and research into noteworthy hamburgers, he jumped at the chance. Nearly a year later, Dhanani officially opened his first permanent location of Burger Bodega on Thursday, November 3, at 4520 Washington Avenue.
Once a fire station built in the ’30s, Burger Bodega now features windows adorned with posters promoting recognizable bodega-type products and offers customers space to chill upstairs on the outdoor rooftop with fans, chairs, and a retractable canopy.
But the fruit of his efforts come straight from the griddle in the form of a signature double smash burger — a gooey combination of two smashed patties, American cheese, grilled onions, house-made pickles, and its mayo-ketchup-based Bodega sauce on a potato bun. The menu has gotten more stacked since its pop-up days, with the option to purchase single-, double-, or triple-patty smash burgers; classic-style cheeseburgers on sesame buns; and in true New York style, Dhanani’s rendition of chopped cheese sandwiches, made up of two chopped up burger patties, with diced peppers, onions, and other fix-ins on a hero roll from Royal Bakery.
Odes to Clutch City include the chopped fries, loaded with diced beef, onions, bell peppers, and sauces, and the saucy screwed fries, topped with cheese and onions — both are calls to Houston’s signature chopped and screwed music — plus a tantalizing spicy mayo aioli that comes with bits of habanero puree.
“For the last 10 or so years, I’ve been researching burgers,” Dhanani says. Sometimes, his research would last as long as nine hours a day, he says. It wasn’t until seeing how smash burgers took off in Los Angeles that he decided to fully pursue his passion for burgers in Houston with an emphasis on using top ingredients, he says. And in September 2021, he decided to launch his burger pursuits as a sole venture, operating a pop-up out of a white truck.
And the beverages go beyond fountain drinks. Dhanani tapped Craft Creamery to concoct rich milkshakes in standard flavors like vanilla and chocolate, but also rich and velvety spins like Vietnamese coffee and mango lassi, swirled with sweet mango fruit puree — Craft’s homage to Dhanani’s Pakistani heritage.
Under fluorescent blue lighting and bordered by metal grates mimicking plexiglass frames, shelves showcasing prop groceries with Burger Bodega branding line the walls and a glass case mimicking a deli counter awaits forthcoming merch, including an H-Town laundry detergent (with real liquid detergent inside), and retro cereal boxes emblazoned with the Burger Bodega branding. Elsewhere, shelves center purchasable, Houston-made products like Feges BBQ spice rubs, cookies from Pudgy’s Fine Cookies, and condiments from Top Chef: Houston alumna and chef Evelyn Garcia’s pop-up Kin.
“My biggest concern is the people from New York,” says Dhanani, who admits he’s never lived in the city. Not wanting to disappoint, Dhanani has been adamant about traveling to New York, visiting at least five times while planning the restaurant. “I really want to be knowledgeable and pay respect to them in the proper way.”
Thus, Dhanani has been very intentional with the decor, nearing overprotection. It’s why the restaurant slowly opened last week, he says, first taking pick-up orders through its side window while the rest of the restaurant’s windows remained shielded from the public. (The restaurant quietly began service on Tuesday, November 1, ahead of its official opening.)
Riddled with street art and streetwear branding stickers, the interior feels like a sincere reimagining of a New York experience, not just a whirlwind tour of its most obvious spots. Dhanani hired local Houston artist Donkeeboy and the Young Art Pros, a group of student artists between the ages of 10 and 15, to paint murals of bodega cats — inspired by the restaurant’s mascot and the pets typically kept to stave away pests. After, artist Noke 713 etched different words and sayings into the walls to add a local touch. A nearby hallway leading to the restrooms will soon emit sounds of the subway and New York streets to further place diners into this Houston-New York fantasy, along with the ’90s New York hip-hop playing throughout the restaurant.
Still, this is a thoroughly Houston spot. Born and raised in the city, Dhanani is no stranger to the local food scene. His family has operated Burger King, Wendys, Popeyes, la Madeleine, and all locations of Cyclone Anaya’s in Houston, with Dhanani personally overseeing different locations of Dairy Queen — a responsibility that helped him learn how to operate a business, hire staff, and act efficiently in the kitchen, he says. Dhanani launched his Instagram @HoustonEatz in 2011 to showcase the city’s food scene, the burgers he loved, and what else he was eating in a mini-blog format.
Dhanani says the restaurant’s touches of New York have been well-received so far, particularly the chopped cheese. Dhanani has no plans to expand Burger Bodega just yet. But, he aims to promote Houston’s food scene by featuring a range of collaborations, specials, and invitations for chefs to put their spins on burgers or featured items. Additionally, there will be a barbecue-specific shelf highlighting products from local institutions like Blood Bros. BBQ, another coffee-focused shelf with products from Greenway Coffee and more, plus space for James Beard Award-winning chef Aaron Bludorn’s hot sauce and other items from Craft Pita.
“I wanted to make you feel like you’re in a bodega,” he says, but “I also want to pay respect and love to the city that raised me.”
Burger Bodega is open daily starting at 11 a.m. through 9 p.m. The restaurant will eventually extend its hours to late night on weekends through a pick-up window.