Besides the iconic food of a country, region, city, or town (think a lobster roll in Maine, barbecue in Texas, or a bagel in New York City) there are several signature foods I’m always on the lookout for no matter where (or when) I’m traveling. I call them the big six: tacos, sandwiches, pizza, doughnuts, hot dogs, and burgers. Whether traveling for work, vacation, or family visits, I’m on the lookout for standouts in these categories. And on a recent trip to Stephenville, Texas to visit my wife's family, I may have discovered the town's best burger: Grumps.
It may not sound like much, considering we’re talking about a small town (population 18,561) an hour and forty-five minutes southwest of Dallas. And I wouldn’t call it a destination meal, but the queso burger at Grumps is one of the best burgers I ate in 2014, and considering that I eat burgers everywhere I go, it’s not something I say lightly. Besides The Daily Meal's own 101 Best Burgers in America list, and the research I do in advance of visiting a place, the burger bible I travel with — I have a Google doc and check places off as I visit — is George Motz’s Hamburger America. Now, this isn’t to disparage George or any of the spots in his book (like I said, I do use it for travel reference), but Grumps' queso burger is better than at least a few of the burgers mentioned therein. It's also better than many burgers I've had in New York City, elsewhere across the country, and several served at two of the country's most high-profile burger events: Burger Bash at South Beach and New York City.
Grumps is about an hour and a quarter west of Fort Worth on the right side of West South Loop (US-377) at a bend in the road right next to Chick Elms Grand Entry Western Store where I’ve gotten cowboy boots each of the past two years (yes, I wear them everyday). It’s a long, red brick building lined with trees on the left side, and a parking lot out front.
This Stephenville spot is the brainchild of Collier Albright, who named it after his grandfather (“Sort of,” he says). It was his dream to leave his corporate gig and to open a burger joint, one modeled after the kinds of places he’d enjoyed patronizing, ones where employees knew his name. (There are also locations in Burleson, Granbury, and Cleburne.)The queso burger takes center stage, so for any pepper-lover does one of the add-ons you may not see on the online menu: green chiles. This is a fairly large burger, not Ted’s steamed cheeseburger big, but a two-hander to be sure. There’s a warm, butter-brushed bun top that’s thin and fresh, and a very juicy patty that while it doesn’t quite seem to be the claimed medium-well, doesn’t seem pink or undercooked but still drips and glistens. The queso doesn’t flow, but it’s certainly adequate, and if you’re smart enough to order them, the chiles add a slight bite and extra flavor.
“My favorite places are fun, clean, have a casual atmosphere that are service oriented and priced reasonably,” Albright notes. “Places where friends and family can gather and enjoy themselves without feeling rushed.” There’s a casual atmosphere at Grumps, for sure; burgers aren’t pre-made or skiddled out in a rush. You may have to wait a solid 10 minutes, but hey, Grumps isn’t fast food, nor does it taste like it. And you do get that personal touch. A counter person will make the trek with your order from the far side of the restaurant to wherever you decide to make yourself comfortable and wait while munching on the roasted peanuts sitting on buckets on each table.
There are eight burgers on the menu, all made with certified ground chuck, hand-pressed, hand-cut, and hand-trimmed: the standard Grumps burger, cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger, Swiss mushroom, barbecue bacon cheeseburger, chili cheeseburger, and a guacamole burger (you can also order a patty melt). They're all cooked medium-well and served with mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion. You can add 10 toppings to any burger: an extra patty, cheese, jalapeños, grilled onions, mushrooms, bacon, queso, chili, guacamole, and chicken strips (yes, chicken strips).
The queso burger takes center stage, and so for any pepper-lover does one of the add-ons you may not see online: green chiles. This is a fairly large burger — not Meriden, Conn. Ted’s steamed cheeseburger big, but a two-hander to be sure. There’s a warm, butter-brushed bun top that’s thin and fresh, and a very juicy patty that, while it doesn’t quite seem to be the claimed medium-well, doesn’t seem pink or undercooked, but still drips and glistens. The queso doesn’t flow, but it coats, and if you’re smart enough to order them, the chiles add a slight bite and extra flavor.
I can’t vouch for the other burgers because this one was big enough, but the fries were quality, too — crispy, and even more fun when ordered with fried jalapeño and onions.
"The 'Ville and surrounding area are pretty limited on upscale burger joints," confided my father-in-law J.R. Moore (a retired fast food industry executive). "Grumps by far offers the only 'custom' burger where you have a variety of toppings. Cotton Patch is a somewhat local Texas chain, maybe one or two in Oklahoma, but they don't count, anyway. Then there's the really upscale Angus 'Ranch Burger' at the Perini Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, which is about an hour and a half away, depending on how heavy a foot you have, but that is still considered local in Texas!"
Indeed. If you find yourself that "local" to Stephenville while moving nearby through the state, Grumps is definitely worth a short detour. I'll be back.