Texas Burger Binge

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

The burger that won the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off featured three pounds of ground beef formed into two stuffed patties that sat on a one-foot-diameter custom-baked seeded bun. It had impressive heft, like the behemoths you find at Arnold's and Mr. Hamburger. It also had the glorious pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard trimmings Texans consider indispensable. Yet the clever stuffing of pepper Jack cheese inside the burger patties is part of the modern trend.

Gary Beams headed up the winning team, which came from Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. Beams, who is the TVCC cafeteria manager, is also a trained chef who's worked in the kitchens of such fine restaurants as the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.

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.

He ground three pounds of sirloin and chuck and seasoned it with a combination of spices that remains his secret. He then divided the meat into four three-quarter-pound patties, put pepper Jack cheese on two of them, and formed two humongous pound-and-a-half stuffed burger patties by pinching the layers together. The two giant patties were then grilled and removed from the fire when they reached an internal temperature of 146 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The hamburger keeps cooking after you take it off," Beams explained. He hoped the burger would be cooked to 150 degrees by the time it made it to the judging. At that temperature, no pink color remains, but the meat's still juicy. It's also ten degrees lower than the USDA guidelines allow (see sidebar, page 27).

Stuffing a hamburger patty with cheese is one way to make it taste moist even when the meat is fairly well done, Beams confided. Second-place winner Derek Holdredge of Athens mixed ground pork and ground beef to keep the meat juicy (a technique familiar to fans of Tookie's "squealer"). He put his half-pound patties on grocery-store kaiser rolls with the standard pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. Third-place winner Jan Canterbury, a second-grade teacher in Cut and Shoot, stuffed two-and-a-half-pound patties with Monterrey Jack and grated jalapeños, much like the first-place winner.

Gary Beams doesn't think a cheese-stuffed burger will ever make it in Texas restaurants because it complicates the cooking-temperature equation even further. "It's a health department nightmare," he said.

But Beams believes that the American hamburger has recently turned a corner. According to the burger champion, the once noble American burger has been in a slump that goes all the way back to the infancy of the fast food industry.

"Clown burgers" is what Beams calls McDonald's version, and he blames the company for trying to squeeze more profits out of each sandwich by making the patties smaller and smaller. "Our winning burger weighed three pounds. Clown burgers are now a tenth of a pound per patty!"

Homemade hamburgers, which were always the burger lover's alternative to the fast food chains, began their own decline in the 1990s. "I think the integrity of the burger got lost when we couldn't cook them medium-rare anymore," Beams said. "E. coli dealt the burger a blow at a time when beef already had a bad rap."

But the new popularity of outdoor cooking seems to have changed matters. "Burgers are coming back," Beams said. And in his opinion, consumers are leading the revival. "The fast food chains are following the backyard barbecue craze," said Beams.

In fact, the idea of an upscale hamburger chain got kick-started here in 1980 when Phil Romano opened the first Fuddrucker's in San Antonio. Romano told me on the phone that his inspiration was the introduction of the McDonald's quarter-pounder. "They were charging three times more, but it wasn't any better," he said. Romano decided to make an adult hamburger. And he would serve it in a place with cold beer and "no funny clowns or milk shakes." The earliest Fuddrucker's location had a butcher shop and a bakery in front so you could watch your meat being ground and your buns being baked. The Fuddrucker's chain went on to open locations in 30 states.

Houstonians swear by the eight-location hamburger chain Becks Prime, where USDA Choice chuck is ground fresh every morning and grilled to order over mesquite wood. Other chains around the country, like Backyard Burgers and Culver's ButterBurgers, are following the trend.

At a time when many fast food outlets are struggling to survive, the artisanal hamburger is clearly on the rise.

Ask Texas burger visionary Phil Romano about the shape of the future, and he'll point you to his new hamburger joint in Dallas's Highland Park. The new concept is called Who's Who Burgers, and the upscale joint's specialty is a Kobe burger. At first, the restaurant offered a special trial of the Kobe burgers to encourage consumers to try them. Now Kobe burgers, which cost $11 each, are outselling other burgers there by 70 percent.

Kobe is the Japanese term for beef from the Wagyu cattle. Who's Who Burgers gets theirs from a company called Yama Beef. The same company was giving away free burgers at the cook-off. I called the East Texas company to see if any of the competitors in the Uncle Fletch's cook-off were using Wagyu beef. They weren't. I also asked where I could sample a Wagyu burger. No one in Houston sells them yet, they told me. But they sent me an overnight shipment of burger patties so I could try them at home.

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