Texas Burger Binge

Our food critic reports on the state of the Texas burger -- and recommends 18 you need to try immediately

If a burger renaissance means a return to the aesthetics of an earlier time, then there is no better place to relive the classic era than Texas. Visiting food writers come here to experience oddities like the 1950s-era bean burger. And they end up amazed at all the classic artisanal burgers they find in icehouses, bars, bowling alleys and grocery stores all over Texas.

In 1998, New York Times food writer William Grimes drove around the state sampling burgers both famous and unheralded. In his article "The Pride of Texas on a Bun," Grimes concludes, "What the croissant is to France, what goulash is to Hungary, what pickled herring is to Sweden, the hamburger is to Texas. It is a symbol, a necessity and a triumph, a part of the cultural patrimony so tightly woven into the fabric of Texas life that Texans themselves do not even remark on it…"

The roots of the hamburger are so deep in Texas culture, Grimes postulates, "that even the forces of modernization can't quite pull them up." It's why Texans still prefer big honking beef patties, why they place more trust in greasy side-of-the-road joints than national chains, and how they instinctively know that "all the way" means pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, mustard and mayo -- but never ketchup.

Burger judge Amanda Stewart samples the winner at 
the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.
Robb Walsh
Burger judge Amanda Stewart samples the winner at the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.
Arnold's Texas burger is served on an iconic bun.
Robb Walsh
Arnold's Texas burger is served on an iconic bun.

The ultimate Texas hamburger, according to Grimes, can be found at a joint called Arnold's in Amarillo. Embarrassed that I'd never been there, I caught a plane to the Panhandle city and checked the place out.

The Texas burger at Arnold's is a large, irregular, three-quarter-pound hamburger patty pressed flat on a griddle and cooked well done. The patty is served on a Texas-shaped bun with pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, plus mustard and mayo. You have to take several bites of the plain meat that spreads out beyond the borders of the bun before you get to the Rio Grande and the condiments beyond it. If you like beef, that's not a bad thing.

Arnold's is a sorry dump with cracked concrete floors, eight tables and a window air conditioner that drips. While I sat and ate my burger, owner Gayla Arnold berated members of the local high school football team when they attempted to order Arnold burgers with mere three-quarter-pound patties. Growing boys needed double-meat burgers, with a pound and half of beef, Arnold contended. Two of the linemen in the group followed her advice.

"I thought the burger patty itself would be shaped like Texas," I told Arnold.

"Well, sometimes it is," she said, looking over at the griddle beside her. "It depends on how much we've got going on."

At the moment, the griddle was crowded because they had one of their giant "family burgers" going. It's an 18-inch, ten-pound hamburger patty served on a giant bread round that's designed to feed ten to 12 people. They also have a 24-inch version, which claims to be the biggest burger in Texas. I promised to come back another time when things were calmer.

Arnold's is a lot of fun. And if you're looking for iconic burgers, one that comes on a Texas-shaped bun is hard to top. But I think the ultimate Texas hamburger is something a little less self-conscious.

The "killer burger" at Mr. Hamburger comes on a shiny oversize bun neatly wrapped in tissue paper. Inside are two half-pound patties of loose ground meat pressed into free-form shapes, griddle-fried to a dark shade of brown, with lots of delectable cracks and fissures. The two monstrous patties are stacked one on top of the other with a slice of American cheese in the middle. Adornments include pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo, plus jalapeños.

I happened upon Mr. Hamburger while driving north on I-45, heading to the burger contest in Athens. I was probably daydreaming about the perfect hamburger when I missed the exit for State Highway 19. Looking for a shortcut, I took a Huntsville exit and got lost. When I spotted a dilapidated hamburger drive-in on 11th Street with a weird scary clown sign, I pulled over immediately.

A conversation with the employees behind the service window revealed that Mr. Hamburger has been serving burgers to Sam Houston State students for more than 50 years. I wondered if all the signs recommending the "killer burger" were meant as a come-on to Huntsville visitors protesting the death penalty. Conscious or not, the irony was too rich to ignore. I ordered mine with fries and a soda.

Eating a hamburger on the way to judge a hamburger cook-off may sound idiotic. But one of the biggest problems with judging cook-offs is how to score the first entry when you have no basis for comparison. Do you give it a five on a scale of one to ten and mark everything else up or down from there? What if the first one turns out to be the best?

Eating a hamburger on the way to the cook-off was a brilliant way around the dilemma. Or at least this was the elaborate rationalization I was using to cover up my hamburger-eating disorder.

However sane my choice of lunch was that day, I have no regrets. From the full pound of fresh ground meat and the juicy condiments, to the ramshackle joint that turns it out, Mr. Hamburger's killer burger is a true Texas classic. I was indeed slain by it -- or at least it made me feel like taking a nap.

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