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Texas Burger Tour: Hill-Bert’s Burgers

Sunday, 26 June, 2011

The sign states “Hill-Bert’s Burgers and fine fast food”, but just “Hill-Bert’s” will let them know where you’re talking about.

First I must apologize. Before attending Hill-Bert’s, I made an assumption. The original Hill-Bert’s was opened within the building of a retired Burger Chef location in 1973. Exactly what happened to that particular Burger Chef is unclear as BC itself didn’t cease operations until 1982.¹ This first location was purchased by the parent of P.Terry’s Burger Stand, torn down, then replaced with an allegedly modern building with great resemblance to the classic BC-08 building it replaced. Soon after two former Taco Bell locations became available in Austin and were purchased and remodeled to Hill-Bert’s. Of these, I picked the one closest to the mother site but the other one is regarded as its descendant. I intended to visit the new mother store.

Oddly, all three Hill-Bert’s Burgers are in former Taco Bell stores. 

From their site:

Hill-Bert’s Burgers has been proudly owned and operated by the Maldonado family since 1973.

Honestly, that is a better and more accurate description of what you’re getting into than anything I could provide. In this day and age of big obnoxious everything, Austin, Texas (of all places) still has a hometown, family-owned-and-operated Burger chain (multiple restaurants in different neighborhoods) competing with all the big boys. Well, not Big Boy specifically.

Menus are humble letter boards. The dining area is spotlessly clean, and reupholstered in different, and frankly garish, colors than the very early Taco Bell originally in this building. The equipment you see behind the counter is, shall we say, vintage and does the job you wish the new machines could. A typical selection of Coca-Cola products, plus Coke Zero and specifically branded Country Time Lemonade and “Kool-Aid, Cherry”. I have never seen these last two products available in any kind of food-service anywhere. Both were products of General Foods, eventually absorbed in Kraft Foods, owners of Burger Chef at the time of the original store’s creation. I immediately wondered what legacies remain elsewhere in the shop? Although the soft-serve ice-cream machine is a 70s-vintage Taylor, not a Sani-Serve.² Shakes are soft-serve vanilla mixed with milk and syrup on a vintage shake mixer.

Combos are available. You can’t stop progress. I order the No. 1 (Super-Bert) with cheese. Sadly, neither a picture of the company’s founder or Ernie’s room mate dressed as a superhero is available. My companion orders the double with cheese and bacon. On the whole my beloved eats quite reasonably. When we go for Burgers, however, she does not hold back.

The menu: 4-to-1 Burgers and Doubles, “Steak-Burgers” (as far as I know Steak’N’Shake has yet to sue), ham & cheese³, minced fish, chicken filet, turkey breast filet, Gardenburger™, with cheese, chili, and-or bacon, onion rings, fries, “frings”, and “Dallas Wings”. Buffalo and Dallas were football rivals at one point, and Buffalo Wings were renamed. The name proved popular and has stuck ever since. This is one of those charmingly silly things only a small company would do. Sorry, Jack, it’s true.

I am greeted and served like a neighbor, gracious and to the point. We are served in six minutes. No complaints.

It has been so very long since I’ve had these fries, I don’t even know how to designate them. In essence they are big, thick, frozen shoestrings. Like the other Austin-founded Burger joint this far in the TBT, Hill-Bert’s does not salt their fries. Is this a Central Texas thing? Not salting your fries? I am saddened to report they are unremarkable in every aspect. They aren’t bad, just fulfilling the obligation to have fries on the menu. They could have been warmer.

The onion rings are a very different story. These are fresh cut, thin and right out of the fat. The outside has a good, solid crunch with rich goodness inside. Without reservation I tell you these are the best onion rings I’ve had since leaving the industrial Mid-west. Rings shall always be on my tray at Hill-Bert’s.

I am too young to remember Burger Chef. The last stores in “Kentuckiana” closed when I was thirteen, and I think I had not visited in some time even then. Part of my fondness for this particular endeavor is what research I have done on my own time and without hope of publication on the quick-service systems of old. Those with ties to Burger Chef remain especially fond of their memories, and have described their favorite sandwiches with more than a little detail.

I was not in fact served the Super-Bert. I was served a Super Shef, in the year 2011, over by St. David’s Hospital. I shall never know for sertain, but I am telling you it hit all the right notes. Lightly (15%) toasted bun, just enough condiments, all fresh and cool veg, frozen but grilled beef, and it wasn’t sloppy at all. Among the aspects of the General Foods era Burger Chef which proves they simply over thought the whole thing, was the idea that moms would take their kids to a place where the Burgers were neater.

This was a very unsloppy Burger. I thought I was crazy for thinking such a thing, but my companion commented upon this very idea. It isn’t dry or unpleasant at all. Indeed, every element of our sandwiches were of excellent texture. Somehow it was quite tidy. Bacon neither crumbly or chewy. Grilling which produced the best of a humble frozen patty without being greasy.

Is this what the Whopper is supposed to be?

Of course the question comes: Of the two, which shall I visit? P.Terry’s Burger Stand, on Hill-Bert’s mother soil, or HIll-Bert’s. Damnable objectivity comes into play here, but P.Terry’s has the better fries. If you are a soccer mom, hipster or have difficulty differentiating between social value, rent seeking and inheritance, you had better go to P.Terry’s. After all, the entire enterprise exists to pander to you.

For all the people out there, order frings or rings when you visit your friendly neighborhood Hill-Bert’s. It’s a really good burger, served in a really good place to be. It may be a coelacanth of our Hamburger Heritage.  Two may be satisfied for $12.56.

The lavatories are accessed from outside the building. On a 95-degree day these are at least 130 inside and you don’t want to know the rest. There was not a blatantly conspicuous problem, so to speak.

I have never felt obliged to address this specific aspect of any business thus far. I could not even tell you how many of my visits have included this aspect. I am entirely sympathetic with not wanting to cleanse a 130-degree room. This room fulfilled several unfortunate stereotypes Americans have about India. In this day and age having to exit the restaurant to go to the 60s-style exterior facilities is unsettling enough.

Just go before you visit, or stop by Whitey Burger a couple of blocks away.

  1. Strictly speaking, Burger Chef was purchased from General Foods by Imasco parent of Hardees during 1982. Most, but not all, Burger Chef franchisees were required to switch to Hardees. The last Burger Chef was a rogue former franchiser operating in Cookeville, TN until 1996.
  2. General Restaurant Equipment of Indianapolis opened a single stand-alone quick-service restaurant as a showroom for their many products. Entrepreneurs visiting this restaurant wanted not only the equipment, but the entire concept. The renamed Burger Chef Systems sold their restaurant division to General Foods during 1968 and adopted the name Saniserv.
  3. Inside-out bun and the whole sandwich is griddled, just like Burger Chef. Someone ordered while I was visiting.
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