When Derek Sheppard started working on plans to open a new sushi restaurant, a couple of people got in his way: his two kids.
"Another sushi restaurant?" they said with a sigh to their father, who helped conceive and design the first three Piranha Killer Sushi restaurants in North Texas. Dad made a deal: Sheppard told them if they could come up with a better idea for a new restaurant, he'd open it.
The next day, Sheppard says, 9-year-old Kendall and 10-year-old Creed handed over their plans for a burger-and-shake saloon. Sheppard ran with it, turning an auto-upholstery shop into a rustic burger joint warmly decorated with yesteryear soda-pop signs, an old Coke cooler, charmingly mismatched chairs and a shotgun bar.
Opened a year ago in a strip mall near River Oaks, Horns Burger Saloon isn't a bar-bar; only beer and wine are served. When you ask about drink specials, you're more likely to hear about the root beer floats ($3.99) made with Blue Bell vanilla ice ream and Barq's root beer. This is a family-friendly place, with kids' meals and fun desserts like funnel cake fries, chocolate shakes and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There are live bands on the weekends, but nothing too rowdy.
While conceptualizing the restaurant, Sheppard flew across the country in search of burger-joint ideas. He came home, however, just wanting to do classic 80/20 USDA burgers, the half-pound patties formed by hand and cooked on a flat-top grill, with a few up-a-notch touches, specifically house-made sauces.
That's what made our first Horns burger, the Wrangler ($7.75), so good: a thin, sweet barbecue sauce made with Rahr & Sons Ugly Pug. The meat was a little overcooked beyond the requested medium-rare, but there was still enough pink inside and juice outside to get a good beefy flavor. The patty had a great char on it, too.
Two strips of bacon were perfect -- not so crisp that they crumbled and not too gummy that you had to tear at them. The burger was also topped with melted cheddar and sliced jalapeños, but what sealed the deal were the onion strings, thin and crisp. This was a great burger.
Another hit was the mushroom-Swiss burger ($6.99), loaded with crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, thick slices of Swiss cheese and sauteed mushrooms (veggies are available on all burgers, if you ask for them). The patty was cooked medium, as we requested. (A not-on-the-menu tip: Ask about the Bonnie & Clyde burger, $7.95. It comes topped with a fried egg and served on Texas toast.)
Both burgers we had came on white, lightly buttered and grilled Mrs Baird's buns. Wheat buns are also available.
Other slightly more health-conscious choices include the terrific "Dirty Sanchez" ($7.49), a grilled chicken sandwich that spotlighted the restaurant's house-made chipotle, a pinkish sauce that was pleasingly spicy and tangy. The tender grilled chicken breast was also topped with pico de gallo and pepper jack cheese -- this isn't a sandwich for the squeamish.
Sides include pickle chips, sweet potato fries served with marshmallow dip and excellent long-cut fries, skins still on and nicely salted. A warning about the sides: They're not served with burgers and cost extra, $2-$6. But the serving size is big enough to share.
For dessert, we tried the funnel cake fries ($4.99), strips of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. Served in a basket with red and white checkered paper, they were silly and fun and bloatingly filling.
Service was friendly, if not confusing at first. It's a table-service restaurant but you seat yourself in one of the two small dining rooms and wait for a server to bring menus. A big pool table sits in the smaller of the rooms, but Sheppard says he's in the process of having it removed to make more space for diners. He's gonna need it.