Novemburger: Bartlett's

Because 50 Burgers, 50 Days wasn’t enough, I’ll write about a new burger every day this month. And next. We’ll call that Decemburger.
Day 14: Bartlett’s
2408 W. Anderson Lane. 451-7333,
Hours: 10:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 10:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.14.11
The sensory flash-bang of the grill will knock you down if you’re not careful at Bartlett’s, its grates full of burgers and chops, a few pieces of fish. The smell will crumble whatever resolve you brought with you to “moderate, at least this time.” It’s a clubby place, with low brick arches and thick wooden beams, lit like an urban steakhouse even for the lunch rush. Each oak-armored survival booth has its own nightlight of sorts, like a medicine cabinet light in an old hotel. They’re upholstered in fat folds of red leather, and bottles of red wine are close enough to grab from some of the interior tables. Bartlett’s has nothing to hide, it seems. Couldn’t if it tried, with the kitchen’s entire hotline on view through glass like an aquarium window.
This used to be Houston’s, of course, for years one of the only nicer places to eat in this part of town, over by Northcross Mall at the nexus of Burnet and Anderson. Tim Bartlett ran this Austin outpost of the Houston’s franchise, then bought and renamed it in the spring of 2010.
The burger: This tastes like a steakhouse cheeseburger. Not because it’s great big, which it is, nor because it’s smothered with a big blanket of cheddar, which it is, nor because it costs $13, which it does. This is a steakhouse cheeseburger because the meat tastes like a steak, like it just came off that hypnotic grill in the front, alive with wood smoke and the decisions made by the grill cook. Like the decision on how long to leave it over the flames. Not long enough for medium-rare, like I ordered. No, this was bloody rare, the way I like my steaks, the way I almost never order hamburger meat for health and flavor reasons. But Bartlett’s was the exact right place to hit the rare mark. The sesame seed roll is as soft as the meat, dressed with crisp chopped onions and piled with the most finely chopped iceberg I’ve ever seen, like watery packing material to keep the fragile interior intact.
Fries or rings? At $13, the cheeseburger comes with fries, the super-thin shoestring kind, expertly fried with the skins on, garnished simply with salt. No herbs, no garlic, no cheese. Just fries done well. You have a choice among fries, couscous, coleslaw or vegetable of the day. Who else outside of a Mediterranean place does couscous? This one is remarkable, an Americanized hybrid of the cold wheat salad finished with the grassy flourish of mint, golden raisins, whole almonds, scallions, radish and quarters of small tomatoes. This or fries? It’s a tossup, and it’s worth the extra $5 to get both.
To show proper respect to the Houston’s lineage that spawned Bartlett’s, you might order spinach-artichoke dip ($11). Its presentation at the table was a headscratcher, a medium-size ramekin of green flanked by small cups of salsa and sour cream and served with tortilla chips, like we’d be unable to process any kind of dip without a Tex-Mex component. This dip commands a more subtle touch than chips and salsa, because it’s an exercise in Junior League canape construction rather than tailgate nacho-building. I’d risk offense by asking for bread to replace the chips, and I’d save the salsa for ... never. You’ll taste the watery twang of spinach in the green chop, but the artichoke barely registers except for three or four big pieces. That’s when this dip feels less like queso verde and more like a signature dish.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)