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Just when he thought he was out, the restaurant business pulled Russell House back in.
A decade ago, the Fort Worth native sold the Fairway Grill, but House admits now there was "some unfinished business." So in early 2010, he opened Pop's Burgers & Grill in a former chicken-wing joint off Highway 377 in far west Fort Worth. The restaurant is tucked between a laundromat and a Metro PCS store, far afield from the bustling expansion of West Seventh Street or even the steady rebirth of Magnolia Avenue on Fort Worth's near south side. But to hear House, who lives about two miles away from Pop's, tell it, location isn't always everything.
"I've always been a big fan of the hole-in-the-wall places," he says, during a post-lunch rush interview. "It doesn't matter where you're located -- people will find you by word of mouth."
With just nine tables in the roughly 500-square-foot dining room and an overall footprint of about 1,400 square feet, the 53-year-old House and his head chef, James Leffall, have quickly built up a reputation as a no-nonsense, old-school joint that puts the focus squarely on burgers.
Pop's does offer entrees like chicken-fried steak and salads, but it's the burgers -- and House's attention to detail; "I'm a real stickler when it comes to consistency," he says -- that keep customers coming through the doors.
Take the restaurant's unintentional "gimmick" burger, the Belly Buster: House helped with the concept, a vertical monster featuring everything in the kitchen, as a goof, but it's proven quite popular. (So is the House-created "Pop's sauce," a tangy topping he concocted in 1981.) Nevertheless, House says the restaurant's most frequently ordered burgers are the more manageable bacon cheeseburger and jalapeño cheeseburger. Old-school, all the way.
"Man, that was awesome," offers an air-conditioning repairman on his way out the door after a quick, recent lunch. "I'll be back. See y'all again."
David Caruso, a Fort Worth burger fan, said he was following the DFW.com bracket, and that's how he ended up at Pop's on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.
"I got emotional when Love Shack beat Dutch's [in the bracket]. Dutch's is pretty high up there," he said. "This [Pop's] was perfect; the patty melted in your mouth."
Working in a near-wordless tandem, House and Leffall briskly take orders and in the small, neat kitchen, set about grilling freshly packed patties on the flat-top grill.
A veteran of other area burger joints and a stint cooking on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Leffall has mastered the art of grilling meat. While in conversation, Leffall will occasionally break away and tend to the patties sizzling before him. "I can hear it changing," he says, launching into an explanation about the speed and frequency of sizzle cooking meat makes. As the nearly 10-minute process winds down, Leffall takes a spatula, gently pricks the patty and grins: "The juices don't lie."
House says if he hadn't been able to track down Leffall, who previously worked at the Fairway Grill, Pop's might never have opened its doors.
"The guy can do anything in the kitchen," House says. "He cares about what he does in the kitchen.... He's my right arm; he's a hard worker."
At a time when local chains are expanding as fast as they can find space (see: Fuzzy's Tacos), House has no designs on dominating the burger market. His vision is simple, a subtle step up from the existing Pop's space: the ability to seat between 80 and 100 customers and, maybe, a patio out front.
"I don't want to branch out; I don't want five or six places," House says. "One location is all I want. When you have four or five locations, you can't keep up with them -- your food quality goes down. I'm not in it to get rich. I enjoy doing what I do; I just need a bigger location."
Leffall is sure they'll get there: "When [Russell] puts his mind to something, he's like a missile."
But for now, the duo, often assisted by House's wife and two children, is content to keep growing its ranks of loyal customers. From the outside, Pop's Burgers and Grill can be deceiving, a modest spot located on a sleepy, slightly seamy side of town. But make no mistake: The ambition within, the sense of "unfinished business" that drove House to open Pop's, is unmistakable.
"Our goal is to be the best burger in the DFW area," House says simply.
Mission accomplished, fellas.