THE THING IS, we don’t really know where the tiki bar is from. We know that Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt opened the first tiki bar in Los Angeles, California in 1934. Gantt opened “Don the Beachcomber” after traveling extensively through the Caribbean and the South Pacific. He decorated “Don” with flotsam from the South Pacific, dressed its bar with rums from the Caribbean, and served a sort of Cantonese-inspired fusion food. While we can’t really pin down where the tiki bar is from, Mr. Gantt (who later changed his legal name to Donn Beach) was from Limestone County, Texas. So in a way, the tiki bar is from Texas.
83 years since the tiki bar made Los Angeles landfall, the team at McGuire Moorman Hospitality has brought it back to Texas with Pool Burger. Depending on which area of town you’re in (or what type of food you’re craving), you have probably come across some version of McGuire Moorman Hospitality. Larry McGuire and Tom Moorman started with Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in 2006 when they were 24-years- old. After Lamberts came Perla’s Oyster Bar, Elizabeth St. Café, Clark’s Oyster Bar, Josephine House, Jeffrey’s, June’s, and most recently…with a Tahitian to’ere-roll building in the background…Pool Burger. Pool Burger opened mid-October in the space behind Deep Eddy Cabaret.
The “pool” of Pool Burger comes from its location, just a block up from Deep Eddy Pool in the neighborhood of the same name. The “burger,” well, that comes from the window of a 1968 Airstream Land Yacht. MMH bought the Land Yacht and converted its interior into a miniature burger joint—two large grills, a deep fryer, a soft-serve ice cream machine, a toppings bar and of course, a ventilation system that makes anyone walking by suddenly crave something to dip in ketchup.
Each of MMH’s seven Austin restaurants has its own burger and each burger has its own look and character, Alex Manley, the director of baking for MMH, explains. While the burger’s bun at Josephine House’s is the fluffy, brioche-y, use-your-silverware type, the burger and bun at Pool Burger was meant to be a little more…manageable. “We wanted it to have that fast food feel,” Manley explains. To achieve a “fast food feel” while upholding the integrity and high-quality of her recipes, Manley and her team developed a special process to flatten the bun in its fermentation stage. As with most breads, burger buns go through two proofing stages when the dough is allowed to ferment and rise. Manley figured out that during the second of these two stages, if you smash the dough back down, you get a flatter bun, which is easier to wrap in paper and serve in a cardboard box—as it’s served at Pool Burger. The buns are stored in plastic bags like those from a grocery store (it keeps them fresher, Manley explains) then sliced in the trailer and grilled with butter.
“You need the bun to be soft enough so that it’s not fighting the burger,” Manley says, “but not too soft. Otherwise, it will come apart as it absorbs everything—the butter, the meat.” To some it’s just a bun, to Manley it’s a mix of artist’s sensitivity and scientific execution, applied over many days of baking and testing and baking again. “We’re always experimenting so I have so much bread lying around,” Manley says. “I take it home, give it to my neighbors, etc. I had one of the Pullman style breads [named after the baking pan used to make it] laying around my house and one day I decided to make a grilled cheese with it.” She realized it was the perfect grilled cheese bread. She relayed the information and now her special Pullman recipe holds together the kid’s grilled cheese sandwich at Pool Burger.
Though it’s presented in a casual—sometimes even incidental—way, every detail of the food, drink and decor at Pool burger has been carefully sorted through. Their side of chips, for instance, is a recipe that Tom Moorman came up with which involves a soy sauce mist and a double frying. “Have you ever had Have’a Chips?” Moorman asks as we eat a fresh batch from the trailer. Enough said.
Like the tiki bars that preceded it, Pool Burger’s drink menu is loaded with signature rum-based cocktails—the Mai Tai, the Zombie, the Tradewinds. But unlike the others, Pool Burger has the talents of Alex Holder, assistant beverage director of MMH, behind their iteration of the classics. When Holder was 17 he was hired as a busboy at Lamberts Downtown. He made his way behind the bar and up the ranks, eventually finding a mentor in Ben Craven, the bartender at Perla’s Oyster Bar. Craven introduced Holder to the art and science of cocktails.
The Hurricane, for example, is a classic two-and- a-half- parts rum and heavy-on- the-citrus tiki drink, served over ice with a wedge of lemon. The Pool Burger Hurricane takes those same basic ingredients and turns it into a frozen blended beverage (which, for an extra $1 can be enjoyed as a dark rum float, with a layer of Hamilton Jamaican Black Rum across the top). For those who aren’t into rum but still want a tiny umbrella, Pool Burger provides a concise menu of tropical gin, whiskey, vodka, and mezcal cocktails, along with a beer and wine selection. Holder’s personal favorite is the Tradewinds, a creamy coconut and rum drink dressed with apricot and lemon, served in their signature Pool Burger printed glass.
Despite the long tradition and wide geography it falls into, Pool Burger is decidedly local. The beef for their burgers comes from Peeler Farms in Floresville, Texas, a merchandise case displays curated pool goods for anyone on their way to a dip in Deep Eddy Pool, and menu items like the “loyalty burger” pay homage to their neighbors at Austin High (whose alumni include McGuire and Will Bridges, owner of Deep Eddy Cabaret and co-operator of Pool Burger).
To say they’re a family is a little too cliché, but it does fit the dynamism of the team behind Pool Burger: they change roles, they borrow from one another, they move locations and start new chapters ( new businesses) with each other in mind. They certainly break a lot of bread together, and swill a lot of rum.
Pool Burger’s official grand opening celebration is on November 25 from 12pm-2am, in conjunction with Deep Eddy Cabaret’s 66th anniversary.
Photos by Annie Whitehead.
Originally published in Tribeza.