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 17: EZ’s Brick Oven & Grill
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Friday. 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Breakfast (weekends only) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A stack of hamburgers as tall as our collective memories could fill the spot on North Lamar where EZ’s stands. Before the San Antonio chain built its Austin store there in the mid-90s, the site was home to 2-J’s. Never heard of 2-J’s? You know its contemporaries: Hut’s, Top Notch, Dirty’s, the Hoffbrau. But 2-J’s didn’t make the millennial jump, and so all we have are “remember-whens.” Like mine: In 1981, I worked fast food with a girl whose other job was cooking at 2-J’s. Her assessment was that none of us “candy-asses” would last a shift at 2-J’s. She cussed like an Atlanta housewife and wouldn’t let the other women on the crew talk to me. I wondered if they worked for cigarettes at 2-J’s.
Fact is, EZ’s is nothing like 2-J’s. In a more contemporary sense, it could have been a model for the newer, smoother operation called Cafe Express a little farther south on Lamar. It’s a retro-styled diner environment with a neon-lighted marquee sign in front, the insides set with checkerboard tile, a long row of booths along the front window and a counter at the back with chrome barstools. The menu is a sturdy mix of pizzas, burgers, salads, shakes, roasted chicken and pasta. Orders are taken at the register like a fast-food place, and numbers are called almost continuously, because the formula appears to be working. At lunch, every table was filled by 12:30, with people still filing through the door.
The burger: The World-Famous Beanburger ($6.55, plus 75 cents for guacamole) is not a veggie burger, if you were wondering. In fact, the guy at the counter told me the same thing, almost like a disclaimer. No, the Beanburger is a beef patty with cheddar cheese and miserly schmears of mashed beans and salsa and a layer of Fritos. It’s a novelty built from the most banal elements. The guacamole you pay extra for is spread on less than a third of the top bun, a teaspoon for 75 cents, bringing the price to $7.30. I can get some of the best, freshest, most interesting burgers in Austin for that price, from places where they grind meat in the store and bake their own buns and make their own pickles. EZ’s is not in that league, and neither is their attempt at a high-concept burger.
Fries or rings? The era of the curly fry peaked for me when the first wave of “Beavis and Butt-Head” crested in the mid-90s, just after the EZ’s on North Lamar opened. Watching those guys eat curly fries, even just hearing them say “curly fries,” put me back on the straight-and-narrow path of the potato stick. Curly fries look like ‘90s hair, studies in adding height and volume and twirl as we rode the rollercoaster toward the sure armageddon of Y2K, party over oops out of time. But we endured, and so did the curly fry. At EZ’s, you can ride the spiral lightning again for $2.15 a basket. Not that you’ll want to, because salty, soft and greasy taste the same no matter what shape they take. EZ’s also celebrates the more traditional circle shape of the onion ring for $2.45 a basket. The breading was a smooth tan shale with the look of handmade on thin onions cut in wide circles. Like the fries, they were hot on the pickup but soft instead of crunchy. A disappointing mix of rings and curly fries was $2.30 a basket.
Update, with a lesson in San Antonio history: Reader Kevin Jolly of Austin wrote to tell me some of the San Antonio story behind the bean burger:
"I agree with your judgment of EZs - but a bean burger is not high concept. Bean burgers are San Antonio natives - like the crispy taco. It's really a reflection of EZs San Antonio roots. They started at Sill's Snack Shack (long gone) in the late 40's - a bun, patty, refritos, fritos, chopped onions and Cheese Whiz - and they served a ton of them to GIs at Fort Sam. When I was a teenager I used to get them at a dark little bar called Creighton's on Evergreen - they wrapped the burger and fries in paper and stuck them in a brown paper bag and by the time you made it out the door you could read a newspaper through the bag.
"I think the best bean burger in San Antonio now is at Chris Madrid's - the Tostada Burger (I like it with jalapeños) - it has corn chips rather than fritos - and cheddar melted under a broiler rather than cheese whiz - but it's a dang good burger. The flavor is beef and onion and beans - really earthy - with rich gooey cheese and then the crunch from the chips.
"There used to be a good bean burger here in Austin at Cooter Browns on Burnet. When they sold out to Waterloo they changed the staff but not the menu. I went in for lunch and ordered a bean burger - the cook had no idea - so I got a burger with tomato, lettuce, mustard, onions, and a spoonful of refried beans. I think that's when I realized how very local the notion of a bean burger is. Sorry to ramble on - this may be going a little far afield for your burger reviews - but Andice General Store in Andice - make a good burger. Nice fresh beef, well seasoned, well cooked. Tastes like a cow."
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)