John Bebout makes a little joke in Greek, much to the delight of the Greek guy behind the counter. We order a couple of half-pound hamburgers with the works and choose a table beside a gallery of Harley-Davidson motorcycle photos. Bebout is the art collector and burger connoisseur who introduced me to the spectacular hamburger at Christian's Totem (see "Totemic Burger," January 8). Today, I hope to return the favor by treating him to a burger at Moore's Double Horn Grill out in Fulshear.
Our trip was motivated by an e-mail from a reader. Shortly after I reviewed the awesome hand-formed, never-been-frozen burgers at Christian's, I got a message from a guy named Tom Gillespie. "I had driven past Christian's I don't know how many times, and never stopped and tried it," Gillespie wrote. "The burgers were very good as well as the onion rings."
But then Gillespie issued a challenge. "I have to say, and my wife agrees, Moore's Double Horn Grill has better burgers. The meat is very moist and literally melts in your mouth. I ride with a couple of Harley groups, Republic (out of Stafford) and Brazosport (out of Angleton), and both Chapters ride there often to eat."
So Bebout and I drive out to the country on a bright spring afternoon to see what the burgers are like. From the huge parking lot, it's easy to see why Moore's Double Horn Grill is a popular destination for motorcycle tours. The cafe is housed in a charming little log cabin with a gazebo and lots of picnic tables scattered around on a big lawn. It looks like a cross between a restaurant and a park. The interior walls are covered with an array of Texas collectibles, including signs and souvenirs from Luckenbach and a lot of bike photos.
I'm wondering if any of the photos on the wall above our table are of Tom Gillespie when our burgers arrive in plastic baskets surrounded by french fries. We pick up our sandwiches and marvel at the half-pound of meat.
"Obviously, it's a handmade patty," Bebout says, rotating the bun to check out the irregular shape of the ground beef. The condiments are artfully arranged on the well-toasted buns. The bottom one is spread with mustard and dressed with onion slices and dill pickle chips. There's lettuce and tomato on top of the burger, and the top bun is slathered with mayonnaise. We both take a couple of big bites. Then we look at each other with confused squints. The burgers taste good, but there's something about the meat that's not quite right.
The hamburger patties are a little too well behaved. When you bite into a hand-formed patty, you have to be careful, because the juicy meat fractures and falls apart in odd ways. At Adrian's Burger Bar in the Fifth Ward, I once caught half of a one-pound handmade hamburger patty with my shirt. But the half-pound patty here at Moore's Double Horn Grill is holding its shape perfectly, just like a frozen patty would.
Bebout studies his burger, and he looks suspiciously at mine. Then he makes a brilliant deduction. "Look at this," he says, pointing to a identical dent in each. "These patties are oddly shaped, but both of them have the exact same odd shape."
We take off the top buns and the lettuce and tomato to get a better look. Both patties have the same irregular circumference, and they're perfectly uniform in thickness. "Handmade hamburgers are like snowflakes," Bebout says. "No two are alike."
Bebout excuses himself and goes up to the counter under the guise of getting some more onions. There he proceeds to chat up the Greek owner some more. The man behind the counter opens the freezer and gives Bebout a frozen patty on a paper plate. My burger-eating compadre returns to the table, showing me the prize, his eyes wide and his mouth open in an exaggerated expression of mock terror that I can see but the counter man can't. The frozen half-pound patty has been formed into a sort of peanut shape, and there is a series of machine-made indentations across the top to break up the otherwise level surface. It is, in short, a fake handmade hamburger.
"There are actually three different shapes in each box," my brother, a restaurant purveyor, tells me. "He wasn't using them in the right order, or you never would have caught him."
The product is often called an "old-fashioned" frozen hamburger patty, he says, and it's been around for many years. Lots of meat companies make them, and all the big purveyors supply them. The meat packers give the patties odd shapes, generally two or three different ones in each box, so consumers don't suspect they're frozen. "They make frozen chicken-fried steaks in several different shapes like that, too," he says.
I complain that it's misleading to make people think they're getting a fresh product when it's actually frozen.
He disagrees. "In the food service industry, the opposite of fresh isn't frozen, it's spoiled," he says. "These days you have to be out of your mind to serve fresh hand-formed hamburger meat. It's just too risky." He argues that the industry is trying to cut down on the risk of contamination associated with human handling. That's a nice sales pitch, I say, but it boils down to deceptive marketing.
"You can barely tell the difference," he tells me with a laugh. "I guarantee you've been fooled by these burgers dozens of times."
As a test, I sample two higher-end hamburgers to see what kind of patties I get. At Shade, the lovely new restaurant on 19th Street in the Heights, I get a half-pound medium-rare burger in the shape of a meat loaf ($8.75). There's no doubt that this one has been hand-formed. And although it doesn't fit on the oversize bun very well, it is otherwise exceptional.
At my favorite alfresco lunch spot, Daily Review Cafe, I get a patty of uniform thickness with precise grill marks ($8.95). I immediately peg it as a frozen patty and ask the waiter if this is so. He agrees it's frozen. When I ask him if the frozen product is called an "old-fashioned" burger, he says the restaurant forms and freezes its own patties on the premises.
Over the phone, Daily Review owner Janice Beeson tells me that the waiter is mistaken. The patties are all made from fresh meat and never frozen, she insists. "We have a very small freezer," she says by way of explanation. No doubt one of the stories I got at the Daily Review is true.
Excuse me if I've become a little paranoid, but Moore's Double Horn Grill has burst my burger bubble. The food service industry is going to great lengths to trick us. They claim it's for our own good, but if you ask me, it's all about the bottom line.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.