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Burger Heaven, Burger Hell

A quest for all that's good and greasy in an American icon

When is a burger not a burger? This is a riddle to which there is no longer an easy answer. Not since cholesterol consciousness and animal-fat paranoia came between Americans and their national dish, loosing a virtuous tide of ground turkey and tempeh and esoteric vegetable substances. Not since chefs emerged as pop culture demigods, and then felt obliged as a matter of chefly pride to trick up, modernize and otherwise mess with their fellow citizens' preferred comfort food. Not since a new Culinary Institute of America book called The Burger Meisters, culled from the fevered brains of the nation's most famous burger tamperers, published recipes for everything from a New York caterer's Virgin Island codfish burger with okra fungee to Brennan's chef Carl Walker's buffalo patty sandwiched between sage tortillas. These may taste just dandy, but are they burgers? It's debatable.

Such matters have preyed on me ever since I set out to investigate the summer bulletin that Rio Ranch's Ranch-Hand Burger had been named by Food & Wine magazine as one of America's top five examples of the genre. Way, way out Westheimer at celebrity chef Robert del Grande's cosmopolitan-cowboy joint, the arrival of an open-faced beef patty swamped with bland pinto beans proved a minor disenchantment -- and major food for thought.

It was hard to argue with the quality of Rio Ranch's ground beef: gratifyingly smoky from the grill, shaped by man rather than machine, cooked to a nicely rosy turn, it spoke to the outdoor carnivore that prowls within our civilized shells and gives a juicy, carbonaceous burger such powerful, primitive appeal. It was hard to fault the trimmings of roasted green-chile slabs, crisp bacon and a sparing confetti of sharp Cheddar cheese that functioned as an accent rather than a mask.

Location Info

Map

Rio Ranch

9999 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77042

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Memorial

Bellaire Broiler Burger

5216 Bellaire Blvd.
Bellaire, TX 77401

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Inner Loop - SW

Barnaby's

1701 Shepherd
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: River Oaks

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So why did the man sitting opposite me look so dissatisfied? Maybe it was the negative charisma exerted by those beans, which begged for a wake-up call from the restaurant's wonderful bottled hot sauces. (Rio Ranch Red helped a lot.) Maybe it was the way the elements never quite clicked as a whole, or the way the meat lost its rightful primacy. But I suspect his attitude had more to do with the fact that he had to eat this creation with a knife and fork -- thereby flouting his notions of true burgerhood.

I saw his point. Utensils violate the integrity of the burger as self-contained unit and portable American food icon. There is an elemental satisfaction to be had in holding all your vital food groups -- beef, bread, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and mayo -- right there in your hands. It can drip, it can slide, it can rain shards of iceberg (what else are tissue wrappers for?): that's all part of the fun. But once a knife and fork come into play, it just ain't a burger anymore. And a Top Five contender? Highly unlikely.

Actually, it takes a pretty compelling specimen to lure most of us from our well-worn burger paths. Burgers inspire fierce and unreasonable loyalties, probably because our collective fondness for them is so rooted in childhood, so firmly linked with treats, cookouts, happy times. As adults, we find the burgers that strike a chord in us, then we stick with them. Oh, our standards may modify over time. (I long ago forswore my New England taste for ketchup in favor of the edgier Southern constellation of mustard and mayonnaise, with maybe a little Cajun Chef hot sauce for good measure.) But rational or no, our basic notions of burger truth and beauty run deep -- which is why I keep going back to Jim Goode's and Otto's, and why the '90s permutations running rampant through our culinary landscape so often fill me with dismay.

Take the buffalo burger. I implore you. The one I sampled at Ziggy's Healthy Grill (now there's an enticing restaurant name!) left me feeling deprived and disgruntled; the meat was so infernally lean and juiceless that all the high-caliber embellishments lavished upon it couldn't fool me into thinking I was having a good time. The awful truth is that rigorously lean burgers aren't nearly as delicious as the kind made with hamburger meat possessed of a respectably nasty fat content. Ziggy's is a quirky little neo-Montrose spot that seems serious about quality, and I wouldn't mind returning for one of their real burgers. But dabbling in buffalo land cemented my conviction that I'd rather indulge in one decent, guilt-inducing hamburger a month than eat a virtue-burger twice a week.

Same goes for my experiments with the so-called "garden burgers" advertised so widely in the restaurant trade magazines of late. Romeo's, the nifty new Rice Village place that supplanted the late Burgerville, does a lot of things right, but one of them isn't their terminally inert, musty-tasting "veggie burger." Again, high-quality fixings (leaf lettuce, good wheat buns, smoky stripes from the mesquite grill) can't conquer the strong sensation that you're eating compressed silage. I don't know what legumes or pulses go into these misbegotten, cookie-cutter discs, and I don't want to know, either. If this is a burger, I'm a Nobel Prize winner.

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