by Phaedra Cook
Photos by Chuck Cook
Ricky Craig, owner and operator of Hubcap Grill, is a very, very busy guy. Albert Nurick of the H-Town Chow Down blog recently referred to him as “the hardest working man in burgers,” and that is an apt description.
Not only does Ricky run the original Hubcap Grill location downtown, which is open from 11 to 3 pm Monday through Saturday, but recently he also started manning a shiny, red, burger truck that resides at Liberty Station in the evenings. Sometimes, the truck stays there until the wee hours.
Ricky took time out of his busy schedule to actually sit down (a rare occurrence) and talk with me about the burger business, and what life is like after receiving accolades from Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook as making the best burgers in Texas. (Since this interview, Hubcap Grill also received the Houston Press “Best Cheeseburger of 2010” award for its Philly Cheesesteak Burger.)
Since Alison Cook’s review, what have things been like around here?
It’s been pretty crazy! We’ve had lines down the block. People have come here from different states—even other countries—to try my burgers! The truck has broken down twice. First, some employees clogged the truck’s drainage system by throwing paper towels in it, and then the engine blew. I had to have the truck towed to Liberty Station so we could keep serving people.
I’ve had some opportunities placed in front of me as well. People have offered to buy the business and others have talked with me about franchising. Some of it has been tempting, but I’d have to ensure that the quality stays high. I’m still thinking about things.
How did you get started in the restaurant industry?
My folks have been in the industry a long time, so I grew up in it. I started out as a waiter at age 15, and later I went to culinary school at San Jacinto College. I could have gone after a four-year degree, but after two years I was ready to get to start a business. I started Craiganale’s, a downtown deli shortly afterwards and ran it for a few years before I decided to sell it.
Why did you decide to sell a successful business?
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t play games. The landlord saw that we were successful and decided to raise the rent. I wasn’t playing that. It would have seriously reduced our profit margin and I would have had to raise prices, so I decided it was best to sell it rather than go down that path.
Your meat patties have a perfect texture. How long did it take you to achieve that?
We tested that over and over again and it took a few weeks. There are variables that can be adjusted, like how the meat is ground, its composition and how firmly or loosely it is packed.
Hubcap Grill has been open for a few years now. Suddenly, Houston is seeing an upsurge in “gourmet” burgers. How do you feel about the newcomers?
After we opened, it did seem like suddenly several restaurants started having gourmet burgers that they didn’t have before. I’m in favor of places that are boosting the burger game in Houston, though. When we started, there really wasn’t much in the way of burgers out there that was as good as what we’re doing now. I hear The Burger Guys on the West end are doing some good stuff, so more power to them.
What restaurants do you enjoy eating at?
I am really enjoying Stella Sola. That is a classy place that is putting out some amazing food. Catalan always does a great job, too.
What is next for you?
I would LOVE to do a high-end burger restaurant with white linen tablecloths, wine pairings… the works! I think Houston would support the concept. We’re also getting ready to open a new location in the Heights on 19th Street.
One last question: both your mom and your dad have worked with you, first at Deli and now at Hubcap Grill. I know your dad often takes the truck to the commissary for inspection and he’s been working some late nights. What does having your family’s help mean to you?
The bottom line: without my mom and dad, there would be no Hubcap Grill. They mean everything to me.
Yes. Tell all the ladies that I am single and looking. There is no ring on this finger!
OK, Chef. I’ll let them know.