I've lived in Houston for 22 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.
So it's not strictly true to say that I hadn't been to Lankford Grocery. It is, however, true to say that my single previous actual visit had missed the point somewhat entirely. If you want to get technical though, I've gone at least three times. The first, I didn't bring cash, and left burgerless and dejected. The second, I showed up too early for burgers and had to assuage myself with (a pretty solid) breakfast. Third time's the charm, as it were.
My wife and I were fresh out of the hospital for the birth of our third child and first son, malnourished from three days of industrial grade meatloaf and soggy/spongy quesadillas that pass as room service in the maternity ward. The idea of a good burger glowed in our sleep-deprived brains like a grail-shaped beacon fashioned of beef and cheese; we were powerless to resist. Through one of the many minor miracles that constitute the ability of the human brain to continue functioning despite the best efforts of a tiny - albeit cute - tyrant, I remembered to bring cash.
We cased the joint from the car, gently shushing the ticking time-bomb in the car seat behind us, not wanting to inflict ourselves on a packed and unsuspecting dining room. With only a few tables filled, we figured we could at least reduce collateral damage. We wedged the kid's carrier into a booth in the corner and sipped iced tea offered in plastic tumblers seemingly gathered from someone's grandmother's personal collection of Tupperware, still vaguely bleach-scented from their turn through the dish pit. Whether that's off-putting or encouraging is mostly a matter of perspective.
I like to keep things simple on a first burger visit. If you get too caught up in bacon and chili-cheese and caramelized onion jam fritters and Beef Wellington additions, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge the actual burger, kind of like judging a musician on a remix of the remix of his cover of someone else's song. Al that embellishment is fine, but let's take a look at the fundamentals, first.
For me, "fundamental" means a cheeseburger. Barring some place that specifically specializes in burgers sans cheese, the cheeseburger is my personal baseline. At Lankford, the standard burger is a full half pound of meat, a fact I'm glad our waitress mentioned, as I was considering a double. The Texas standards - mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles - round things out into a burger that is definitely about the sum of its parts.
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The burger itself, a craggy and irregularly shaped affair with an admirably serious crust, was a bit under-seasoned for my taste. Of course, a burger is not a simple slab of meat, and the sandwich as a whole did not suffer much for it. The meat was also just a touch on the dry side, but the same logic won out. With the cheese, condiments and vegetable stuff, there was enough drippage to make this a five-napkin burger, meat juices mingling with mayonnaise, tomato and pickle-juice into a pleasing amalgam that seems the quintessence of the Texas roadside burger.
A side of "Tex Mex," battered and fried strips of onion and pickled jalapeño, was delicious for a few bites, quickly fading into a muddled mess of fryer grease and crunchy coating that could have encased anything from peppers to packing peanuts without any real change in effect.
Ultimately, I'm left with mixed feelings about Lankford. In a way, it's a testament to the bounty of Houston's burger landscape that this one didn't entirely captivate. It was a good burger, a very good burger even, if you're after a certain kind of experience. Experience, of course, is a big part of the charm. The place and the food exude a sense of history, of belonging to this place, managing somehow to belong to this time and all the times of its, and Houston's, past. The more bites I took of the burger, as regulars and waitresses chatted around us, eating their burgers in what was clearly an extension of their own homes, the more I began to appreciate the seasoning of the place itself, and that's not something easily come by.