I was just staring at her – I assume the sign-wielding mannequin stationed outside of J’s Casa Burger (5181 River Oaks Blvd, 817-404-3244) is supposed to look like a woman. My mouth filled with burger, I wanted to know what she had to say. The sign she’s holding, you see, doesn’t have anything written on it, which started my mind reeling on the possibilities.
Why did the owners of the tiny River Oaks burger standout feel the need to position her outside of their building facing the parking lot? Why market only to people who are already coming to dine at the ramshackle joint with patio-only seating when bustling River Oaks Drive is just 50 feet away? Is she just there for added quirk? J’s has that in spades, with its spoon-and-fork crucifix, spray-on insulation foam ceiling, hanging menu with nothing on it, and giant port-a-cooler air-conditioner smack in the middle of the patio, cooling everything within a five-foot radius despite the open garage bay doors.
To that last point, J’s patio was actually pleasant on a recent weekday afternoon scorcher. The port-a-cooler was earning its keep, and the open doors created a nice cross-breeze. It still wasn’t as nice as, say, sitting indoors, but if you’re avoiding J’s because you think the patio is going to be insufferably hot, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. It’s OK. Better yet was the food.
When you’ve visited as many dive-y burger joints as I have, a menu like J’s is especially exciting. The kitchen cooks up standard burgers with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, but it’s the nine specialty burgers on offer that piqued my palate. Each option appeared on paper to be well thought out, balanced, and at a level of subtle sophistication you might not expect from a hole-in-the-wall burgery.
The Cowboy Burger ($6.49 a la carte, $9.59 with fries and a drink), was a master class of yin and yang flavors, with tangy-sweet barbecue sauce, salty bacon, earthy mushrooms, creamy Monterrey cheese, a thick, juicy slab of perfectly cooked ground beef, and the standard pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes, all between a brioche-like bun. My guest thought the sauce was just on the verge of cloying but still agreed that a higher level of burger math was at work in its construction.
The Cowboy represents the highbrow ambition of J’s, and slumped in a dirty tank top in the lowbrow corner is a double-decker called the Casa Burger ($7.49 a la carte; $10.59 with fries and a drink). If the Cowboy tastes like a steakhouse, this one tastes like America. The two patties – tender, juicy, and just off the grill – sprawled beyond the borders of the bun, running with Thousand Island dressing and yellow cheese that worked as a second sauce. Bacon, lettuce, and onions were hiding inside, but everything on this burger came together in a single impression that harks back to our lizard brains. The beast needs meat.
The accompanying seasoned fries were of the pillowy soft dumpling-sized variety that released steam upon opening. They weren’t anything special but were certainly a nice complement to the paper-wrapped flavor bombs the woman behind the walk-up counter delivered to our table.
Maybe that’s why the mannequin’s sign is empty: Once you’ve already pulled into the parking lot of J’s Casa Burger, what’s left to say? You don’t need a dolled-up plastic figure to tell you you’re in for a treat.