Annie Bulloch is a freelance writer who has lived in Houston most of her life. Her main obsessions are food--both cooking and eating--and pop culture, especially comics, movies and TV.
feed the beast
Houston’s Enduring Eats: Are Prince’s Hamburgers Still King?
In our Enduring Eats series, Annie Bulloch explores Houston-area restaurants that have been in business for 30 years or more.
How many round hamburger buns do you think you’ve eaten in your life? Did you know they were invented by a Houston restaurateur? Hamburger buns —and patties— used to be square. It’s easy to bake a tray of buns that way, after all, and square buns are still served at classic chains such as White Castle. That’s why the burger patties at Wendy’s are square, to keep with their “old-fashioned” gimmick. They are a vestige of the time before Prince’s Hamburgers.
Doug Prince opened Prince’s Hamburgers on Main Street in 1934. It was a drive-in burger stand, capitalizing on the birth of car culture. As he grew his business, “Mr. Prince along with Fairmade Baking Company, (now known as Rainbo Baking Company) developed the round hamburger bun,” Prince’s Hamburgers website says. There’s some trivia knowledge to drop on your friends and family next time you go out for burgers. You’re welcome.
The original location remained in business until the early 1990s, when Main Street was best known as a location you might see on an episode of Cops filmed in Houston. The decision was made to close that location and move to the west side of town along the Katy Freeway.
At one time, there were 18 Prince’s locations in Houston, but now only two remain: one on Katy Freeway and one that made a return to Main Street…sort of. (It’s located on the Tunnel level at McKinney.) A former location on North Post Oak recently was converted to Retro Grill, and another was located on Southwest Freeway near Weslayan until it suddenly closed this summer. (The Prince’s website does not reflect these changes yet.)
So it seems the Prince’s tradition may be dwindling after more than 80 years in business. While these eats are yet enduring, I visited the Katy Freeway location on a recent Friday evening. The décor is a mishmash of nostalgia, heavy on the 1950s icons: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe. There’s a life-size Elvis statue greeting customers on the front sidewalk. The decor is not quite true to Prince’s timeline, mind you — they’d been in business for more than 20 years when these musicians hit the scene — but these items work to tick the “hey, kids, old-timey stuff!” box.
The menu offers a broad selection of burgers, sandwiches and salads, plus an array of sodas and shakes. I wanted to sample the restaurant’s classic fare, so I ordered a Prince’s Original burger with cheese, onion rings, and a cherry Coke. My dining companion ordered the Blues Burger, which comes with bacon and blue cheese, a vanilla Coke, and the Primo Fries topped with queso, sour cream, chives, jalapeños and bacon.
When the drinks arrived, we both perked up, because they each smelled richly of cherry and vanilla, respectively. The flavoring syrup Prince’s uses in their sodas is high-quality stuff, without the medicinal undertones you get from some syrups. I didn’t try the root beer float on this trip, but I will next time. Prince’s makes its own root beer from scratch, as they have since they opened in 1934, and I need to try that.
My Prince’s Original burger was juicy and had good flavor. I ordered mine without the raw onions that come standard on it so I could add a couple of my onion rings instead. The onion rings were good, both on the burger and on their own. I was enjoying the burger as I ate the first half, but at that point, the bottom bun began to get very soggy.
The burgers were built with the lettuce, tomatoes and pickles below the meat and cheese. This meant that all the juice from the veggies started soaking directly into the bun as soon as it was assembled. It didn’t take long before the bun was unappetizing mush.
The Blues Burger was constructed the same way, but we learned that if you wolf it down quickly enough, the bun doesn’t have enough time to get wet. But I don’t eat particularly slowly, and it was still a problem. The issue could be solved by placing the meat or cheese against the bottom bun, or using a thin layer of mayonnaise on the bun, as the fat in the mayo helps repel excess water. (This is a good sandwich-making tip across the board.)
Despite this hiccup, after all the Primo Fries, onion rings, and most of a burger, I was stuffed. Even so, we didn’t want to leave without trying the milkshakes. We got one chocolate and one butterscotch, which is a flavor you don’t find often enough at other places. They were creamy and delicious, with a consistency thick enough to be pleasing, but not too thick to drink through a straw.
Overall, we had a good trip to Prince’s. I hope the remaining locations will stick around. It would be a shame to lose such a longstanding Houston institution, especially when they’re still doing so many things right.
11939 Katy Freeway
Houston, Texas 77079
930 Main Street (at McKinney – Tunnel level)
Houston, Texas 77002
Open 7 days: 10:00 AM-10:00 PM