By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Swaddled in tissue paper and laid in a plastic cradle full of french fries, the jalapeño cheeseburger seems to glow. Maybe it's just the greasy sheen on the upper bun reflecting the fluorescent lights above our booth. Or maybe there really is an aura surrounding the burgers at the convenience store called Christian's Totem.
I'm sitting with Houston art collector and raconteur John Bebout, who turned me on to the place. I'm pretty sure he sees the aura, because he talks about the sandwich in a hushed, reverential tone. He points out the way the whole sandwich balances on the edge of the basket, awaiting your grasp. The tissue paper is wrapped more tightly on the lower side so that the buns part slightly to reveal the colorful lettuce, tomato, cheese and jalapeños within.
I'm getting pretty hungry looking at it, but Bebout won't let me take a bite until he's finished his didactic speech. "Look at this," he says, indicating with a graceful motion of his hand the artful way the corners of the tissue paper face forward and then double back so that the burger seems to be emerging from the center of a flower blossom. "And check this out," he says, pulling up the top bun to reveal a dark charred circle surrounding a golden, griddle-toasted interior.
Houston, TX 77007
"This is the best burger in Houston," Bebout whispers devoutly.
Finally, I'm allowed to eat. And I have to say, it's absolutely awesome. The hand-formed patty is made from a half-pound of never-frozen, freshly ground beef that cooks up into a very juicy burger. The french fries are average, but the onion rings are excellent. I would have liked the meat a little closer to medium rare, but that's my only quibble.
"Well?" Bebout demands a verdict. I reply by mentioning my usual favorite burger joints. Bebout allows that Adrian's Burger Bar in the Fifth Ward is outstanding. But Adrian puts a whole pound of meat on every burger, and that's too much for average folks to eat at lunch. And yes, he says, the cheeseburger at Rudyard's is indeed psychedelic. But Rudz isn't open for lunch. He goes on to say that the barbecue burger at Guy's is tasty but very well done. And however good the burgers at Tookie's and Gilhooley's may be, these restaurants are inconveniently located way the hell down there on Galveston Bay.
I'm forced to concede. At lunchtime, within the city limits, for hand-formed burger enthusiasts who don't want a whole pound of ground meat, Christian's Totem has the best burger in town.
Texans love to eat in establishments that aren't really restaurants. As a result, a lot of our best burger joints are former convenience stores. That's the genesis of Kincaid's Hamburgers in Fort Worth, Lankford Grocery and Market in Houston and Christian's. But Christian's Totem is also right up there with convenience stores Pay'n Takit, Git 'n' Go and Wag-A-Bag in the eccentric-name department. I assume the moniker is based on the same bad pun as U-Tote-M. I ask third-generation owner Steve Christian for an explanation over the phone, but he's not much help. "It's just a name," he says cryptically.
The convenience-store eatery also offers fried chicken and a steam-table selection. Today's special is all-you-can-eat fried pork chops served with your choice of green beans, macaroni and cheese, french fries, red beans, rice, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, brown gravy and biscuits for $6.99. "I've tried the chicken and some of the other stuff," recalls Bebout. "It's good, but it's not worth going out of your way for."
My second visit is on a Tuesday evening. I get a jalapeño bacon cheeseburger, and my date gets a jalapeño cheeseburger. This time, I also order a beer with my burger. And as luck would have it, we sit down right at the start of a very exciting bowl game between Boise State and Texas Christian University. (They're tied at the half.) Another establishment, the Tailgate Bar, adjoins Christian's Totem. The bar area features six TV sets tuned to various sports events.
The beer and the football make this burger taste even better than the last one. I scarf the entire sandwich in record time. When I'm finished, I notice that four jalapeño slices remain in the tissue paper-lined basket. So I start munching on them. And I'm amazed that the attention to detail here extends all the way to the jalapeño slices. The peppers are wonderfully crunchy, unlike the usual squishy ones. I wonder whether they're Trappey's brand, one of my favorites.
I once detoured off I-10 to search for Trappey's headquarters in New Iberia, Louisiana, just to ask the folks who work there how they keep their jalapeños so crisp. They happily explained that instead of pouring hot pickling liquid over the peppers like most packers, Trappey's cures its peppers in cold brine, the same way kosher pickles are cured. I even got to look into the giant concrete vats where the peppers were pickling.
I get up and walk over to the convenience-store side, which is now empty of customers. I ask the grill cook what kind of peppers he uses. He shows me the can. They aren't Trappey's after all; they're Cajun Chef. I've also visited the Cajun Chef headquarters, which are in St. Martinsville, Louisiana. Those jalapeños undergo a similar cold-brine process.