James Hopkins, of Tyler, sat patiently in his booth facing Fifth Street at lunchtime. A small cup of half-eaten beans kept him company as he waited for his order - a Jucys cheeseburger with fries.
Cars maneuvered in and out of the parking lot, and the glass door swung a steady in-and-out from customers coming and going.
Hopkins has been coming to the same location for 20 years. He retired from Oncor recently and said his work took him to many small homegrown cafes throughout East Texas, but Jucys has always been his go-to burger stop.
Texas Highways magazine readers across the state agree. The Texas Parks and Wildlife travel magazine recently polled readers about a variety of comfort foods, including hamburgers.
Two of Tyler restaurants’ hamburgers ranked in the top five statewide.
Jucys Hamburgers, a staple for East Texas burger fans since 1980, was the top-rated burger in Texas, according to thousands of emailed, mailed and social media responses to the magazine, said Texas Highways Editor Jill Lawless.
The magazine said Jucys was a power to be reckoned with and outpaced the competition with a devoted population of followers.
"When you bite into a burger hot off the griddle, the taste and texture attest to handcrafting that you don’t find in a uniform patty from a box," the magazine reads. "You’ll need two hands to eat this bad boy, and a generous appetite to match."
The top ranking didn’t surprise Hopkins. He’s been to the original location in Longview and the newest franchise on Old Bullard Road as well. The quality of the food, down to the lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, the service and the diner atmosphere, brings him back, he said.
“Where else can you get fries like that?” he asked as he put down his tray holding a cheeseburger and an overflowing boat of golden, hand-cut fries on the table. “It’s the closest I’ve found to that homestyle burger and fries.”
Established 35 years ago in Longview, Jucys followed a simple formula to create a burger that continues to resonate with faithful customers - try to make each burger better than the last.
Staff still arrives early - 5 a.m. said operations manager Molly Anthony - to grind beef, hand cut fries and vegetables and start cooking beans each day like her father, Ronny Maxey, did when he started the restaurant. There is still an emphasis on quality for each handmade, half-pound burger patty that sizzles on the griddle, she said.
Jucys doesn’t pre-cook anything, but customers like Hopkins don’t mind waiting a bit longer for a better burger, she said.
“The world has changed, and people want things faster and faster, but we want to make it the right way,” she said. “I think that’s why people keep coming back.”
Jucys operates five restaurants, with locations in Longview, Tyler and Marshall.
Ms. Anthony said Jucys brand is growing, and the company continues to look at expansion in the East Texas market. But in doing so, the family wants to ensure the standard for quality remains consistent.
“We’re still evolving, but some things haven’t changed, like grinding our own meat and cutting fries each day,” she said. “Those things won’t change, because it’s what our customers want.”
Jucys wasn’t the only Tyler burger joint named to the top of the Texas burger pantheon. A relatively new kid on the burger block, Burger Grind - opened in 2014 with locations in Tyler and Sulfur Springs - was named the fourth best burger in the state by Texas Highways.
Owner Dennis Moreau said the magazine’s rankings shocked him, but he is grateful his restaurant is part of the conversation.
“It’s surprising, because we haven’t been around that long, but I think it shows the impression we’ve made in such a short time,” he said.
Moreau chose Sulphur Springs, a town of about 15,000 residents more than an hour northwest of Tyler, as the launching point for Burger Grind. He’d worked in the burger business for 22 years and saw an opportunity to make his mark. Moreau had even spent time managing the Jucy’s locations before he started his restaurant.
He sticks with a 65 percent chuck/35 percent brisket mix he and his staff grind each morning for lunch and after the lunch rush for dinner customers. Side dishes are cut fresh, including jalapenos and onions grilled upon request.
Burger Grind offers 10 specialty beef and bison burgers, as well as turkey and veggie burgers. There are buns, patties and toppings for customers to build custom creations.
"Customer lines stream out the door during lunch and dinner hours, as word-of-mouth buzz for the Bacon Cheddar, Mushroom Melt, Bleu Bomber, A-1, and other specialty burgers keeps spreading," according to Texas Highways, which gave the restaurant bonus points for the kaiser wheat, toasted onion, sesame twist, and gluten-free bun options.
Moreau said he focused on creating high-quality food for good value and surrounding it with a unique, family friendly atmosphere where customers receive personal attention and care.
He said Burger Grind has seen a 25 percent increase in traffic since Texas Highways announced its top-ranked burgers. He said a second Tyler location on Fifth Street east of Loop 323 is expected to open soon.
“We put a lot of heart into our burgers,” he said. “It’s gratifying to be in the conversation so quickly.”
Texas Highways Top 5 Comfort Food Burgers
1. Jucys Hamburgers, Longview, Tyler and Marshall
2. Alamo Springs Cafe, Fredericksburg
3. Chris Madrid's, San Antonio
4. Burger Grind, Sulphur Springs and Tyler
5. Storm's in Burnet, Marble Falls, Lampasas and Hamilton