Burger Friday: Twisted Turban
Fariha Dhanani and her cousin Amir weren’t kidding when they called their little semi-serve spot on Highway 6 the Twisted Turban. Twisted it is: in a quintessentially Houston fashion that braids together Indo-Pakistani and Tex-Mex ideas into a frisky and slightly improbable whole. Which is us, when you think about it.
Dhanani says that as students a decade ago, she and her friends who ate halal —which calls for meat butchered according to Muslim law — pined for some of the Texas staples they couldn’t eat in restaurants, snack bars or the food trucks that were then becoming popular. She remembers, with wry nostalgia, one particular “greasy chimichanga with queso on it” that she and her cohort pined for, and figured they might be able to create at home.
Lo, a decade later, she presides over a menu full of such previously unobtainable restaurant treats, all of them meticulously halal. (Yes, there’s a chicken chimichanga on the roster.) The grass-fed beef burgers, sandwiches and paratha-wrapped tacos cater to those who eat vegetarian, too: her meat dishes can be prepared with lively aloo tikki patties of spiced potato.
Dhanani’s signature Turban Burger will give you an idea of what the Culinary Institute LeNôtre grad (and former Kiran’s intern) is trying to do here in a far-west suburban strip mall, sandwiched between a payday cambio and a beauty salon that will give you a henna tattoo. It’s a wild ride, so hop on board.
PRICE: Turban Burger with slow-roasted braised brisket, Muenster cheese, mango slaw and house-made Turban hot sauce, $9.99. You can add an order of tots or seasoned fries for $2.99; and a mango ice-cream shake for $4.99, which will bring your total to just under 20 bucks.
ORDERING: Step up to the counter to order from a wall menu, then find a seat in the bright, tidy dining room anchored by a street-art-style murals that place-checks both Houston and the subcontinent. Enjoy the Bollywood soundtrack while you wait for your food to be brought to you.
ARCHITECTURE: Salad stuff (i.e. the mango slaw) on top. On a shiny toasted bun goes a swipe of tart yogurt, a half-pound patty of grass-fed ground beef, and a mantle of melted Muenster cheese. Then comes a heap of shredded, braised brisket, a crown of mango-and-red-cabbage slaw, and swizzles of bright, hot Turban sauce that’s made in-house. A toothpick holds the tall, tilty creation together. Or tries to, anyway.
The look is slightly outrageous and infinitely Instagrammable, like many of the millennial-friendly dishes here.
QUALITY: I loved the tart heat and bounce that the mango slaw, Turban sauce and yogurt combo gave this complex burger. It was like a burger given a contrapuntal chaat treatment, and it rocked accordingly.
The tall-straight-sided beef patty had good, direct beef flavor, and it stayed moist despite its medium-well doneness. Yeah, the juicy braised brisket complicated things, but the traces of fennel, fenugreek, mace and nutmeg I detected added another facet of Subcontinental personality to the sandwich.
Personally, I don’t think adding brisket or other meats on top of a burger patty generally improves matters — some of the focus of a really superior burger inevitably is lost — but I had to admit this particular combo was tons of fun.
OOZE RATING: Fair, and condiment-based.
LETTER GRADE: B-plus. A slight overworking of the house-made beef patty gave it a denser texture than seemed optimal, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means. The bumptious flavors trumped all.
BONUS POINTS: The gentle, tropical quality of the mango ice-cream shake was a perfect complement to the riotous flavors of the Turban burger. And while the tots were … well, tots, they can be had with that spirited Turban sauce, a raita dip or a sweet-and-sour mint and cilantro chutney. That’s my idea of fun. So was the aloo tikki burger, Chickni style, that I took home. With its chutney and red onion and cheese, it reminded me of a riff on vada pav, the potato-patty sandwich that’s an Indian street-food staple.
MINUS POINTS: Curiously, the tamarind chutney was pulpy and bland, altogether unworthy of its superior sidekicks.
LOCAL COLOR: I came in mid-afternoon, when I was the sole customer, so I have no evidence of who hangs out here. But Twisted Turban’s Facebook and Instagram accounts are full of photos of young people enthusiastically tackling sky-scraping towers of food, loaded-to-the max fries and tots — even that contemporary must-have, a lobster mac-and-cheese.
The colorful wall mural adds even more of a street-food vibe. It’s full of local references to such totems as the Texans, the Rockets and the University of Houston, from which Dhanani graduated with a business degree. She was supposed to go into her family’s auto audio business. (She still works there part-time, as does her cousin and business partner. Her husband, an engineer by day, helps out, too.)
But Dhanani’s face lights up when she talks about her food, and it’s impossible not to conclude that when she found a space that had been vacated by a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant, she ended up here on Highway 6 in exactly the right place.
Alison Cook is the Chronicle’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter, and keep up with Houston’s latest dining and drinking news and reviews by subscribing to our free Flavor newsletter.