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Texas Burger Binge

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

We don't eat purebred Wagyu cattle in the United States -- the breeding stock is too expensive to slaughter. Instead, Yama Beef markets beef from cattle that are half Wagyu and half Angus. But even half-Wagyu crossbreeds produce beef that routinely grades above USDA Prime.

USDA grades are based on internal marbling. USDA Prime is roughly 15 percent more marbled than USDA Choice. Wagyu steaks are well over 15 percent more marbled than USDA Prime. But the hamburger patties have the same 80-20 lean-to-fat ratio you can find in grocery-store ground meat. So what makes a Wagyu burger better?

According to Australian nutrition researchers, Wagyu cattle yield a different, and more healthful, form of fat that's high in beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Chefs seem to think it also tastes better than other forms of beef fat.

"The fat is different. It seems to coat your mouth -- the flavor is more intense," says Kent Rathbun of Jasper's restaurant in Plano, where Wagyu burgers are popular. Houstonians will be able to sample the premium burger when Jasper's opens in the Market Street Center in The Woodlands this fall.

I tried cooking some half-pound Wagyu hamburger patties on a gas grill, but the meat seemed to stick to the grate. Patties cooked in a hot cast-iron skillet came out much better. I cooked them until they developed a dark, crunchy crust on top but remained medium-rare in the center.

I baked oversize homemade sourdough buns, split them, toasted them and spread them with Hellmann's mayo and a fiery Russian mustard. I arranged the patties on the bread and decorated them with slices of heirloom tomatoes from my garden. Then I added a thick ring of raw, sweet onion and a few homemade bread-and-butter pickle chips. One of my taste-testers declared it the best burger she'd ever eaten.

Two months of greasy-chinned research brought me to the conclusion that the state of Texas is simultaneously the most backward and the most forward of places when it comes to burgers. You can still eat the hamburger of 50 years ago in small-town Texas burger joints and Fifth Ward soul food eateries. You can taste new artisanal burgers in countless restaurants and upscale burger chains. And if Phil Romano is right, a bite of a Texas Kobe burger may foretell the future.

Will foodie philosophers point to the Japanese-Texan Kobe burger as a symbol of the free flow of culture (and genetics) in our increasingly globalized world? I don't know. All I can say for sure is that they taste damned good.

I'm thinking of entering one in next year's Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.

Eighteen Greater Houston Hamburgers You Need to Try Right Now

"Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy." -- Calvin Trillin

Here's a "must try" list of Houston-area burgers. Where else but Space City could you find so many fancy new burgers, time-honored classics and dinosaurs on a bun? It's not a single burger but the staggering array of choices that makes our city a burger-eaters' paradise. I dare any other city in the world to submit a list of burgers that can top these.

Three Grocery Store Burgers

Some of the most famous burgers in Texas are served in old convenience stores and groceries. These are Houston's three best examples of the genre.

Stanton's Super Market
1420 Edwards Street, 713-227-4893

This shabby convenience store and grill has been in business since 1961. The plainest burger on the menu is a giant bacon cheeseburger with a half-pound hand-formed patty on an oversize well-toasted sesame seed bun topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard and red onions. "All the way" burgers come with two strips of bacon and an ample amount of American cheese, and upgrades include the "Rio jalapeño burger" (add pickled peppers), the "BBQ blues burger" (with barbecue sauce) and the "Tex-Mex burger" (with salsa). The patty melt is a plain cheeseburger served on Texas toast. Burgers are "to go" only, so have a plan for where to eat it.

Lankford Grocery & Market
88 Dennis Street, 713-522-9555

Juicy, loose-packed homemade hamburger patties on greasy toasted rolls have been the specialty here for half a century. Lankford's was a grocery when owner and head cook Eydie Prior was growing up there. Her parents opened the store in 1939, but it was the old-fashioned hamburgers that brought in the crowds. And so Lankford's became a restaurant. And it may be the homiest one in the city. Eydie's grandkids often sit at the bar and watch cartoons while her daughter waits tables.

Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar
7340 Washington Avenue, 713-864-9744

Once there was a very old convenience store with the wonderfully cryptic name Christian's Totem. The place was famous for its awesome jalapeño cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, the owner, Steve Christian, didn't have the sense to preserve his family's heritage. He removed the convenience store shelves, expanded and renamed the place Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar. (A religious sports bar?) Luckily, Christian hasn't screwed up the jalapeño cheeseburger. (Yet.) You get your choice of Swiss or standard American singles on a hand-formed patty of never-been-frozen freshly ground beef served with crunchy Cajun Chef pickled jalapeños. It's served on a perfectly toasted bun with just the right amount of lettuce and tomato, all wrapped in tissue paper and balanced on the edge of a red plastic basket full of fries.

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