Home of the Squealer
Bet you a beer the biker is going to get the Squealer. The guy with the Fu Manchu mustache and a blue bandanna on his head is sitting at a table near mine at a roadhouse called Tookie's. He's wearing a Harley-Davidson sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off to showcase his tattoos. His blond girlfriend keeps her sunglasses on as she props her chin up with her hand. Every detail of this man's meticulously selected accoutrements -- from his transportation to his choice of companion -- is working hard toward a fashion statement. That's why I'm betting he's not going to ruin the whole thing by ordering a fish fillet sandwich.
Tookie's Squealer is the hamburger that goes with this look. It exudes attitude. Instead of sporting a pile of bacon that's been fried separately and drained of its grease, this extreme bacon cheeseburger has bacon ground up with the beef. The thick, hand-formed, bacon-slick patty is fried crisp on the griddle, covered with cheese and served on a bun. The genius of this concept is that the bacon grease bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a very salty, very greasy, crisp-edged burger that is exceptionally juicy, even when well done.
Tookie's is in Seabrook, a scenic half-hour drive down State Highway 146. All along the route, bayside refineries shimmer in the afternoon sun; the smokestacks stand as straight and tall as palm trees. The aroma of petroleum permeates the air in Pasadena and La Porte. As they say in these parts: "That's the smell of money." Here, in the toxic heart of the oil industry's urban jungle, you forget about alfalfa sprouts and textured tofu. Instead, you long to be a part of all that awe-inspiring machinery and industrial might -- and Tookie's Squealer takes you there.
But if you were thinking that this must be the most artery-clogging, cholesterol-elevating, life-threatening hamburger ever devised, you would be wrong. After I got my Squealer, five people sat down at the table beside mine, and one of them ordered a double Squealer. This sent me back to the menu with a furrowed brow. And there I found it: Officially known as the Piggyback, this is the double-patty version of the Squealer; it takes the original's excess and squares it. When it was delivered, I admired the double-decker burger with some amazement. It seemed as tall as a cracking tower, and it was dripping grease down both sides. It's a good thing I didn't see it on the menu.
After a solid month of eating healthy, I was craving a wicked overdose of greasy meat -- "moderation in all things, including moderation," as the saying goes. But I offset my cholesterol fix by ordering the Squealer "with everything," which includes a healthy portion of lettuce and tomatoes. I got the famous onion rings, too. And onion rings are a vegetable; ask any vegan.
There's a large painting of a spritely, middle-aged woman in a purple dress behind the cash register. They tell me that this is Miss Tookie, the founder of the place. She used to come in early every morning to make the onion rings by hand. Frankly, I'm not all that impressed with the rings. They're kind of chewy, and the batter falls off too easily. But the people at the next table are really in a huff about them. Actually, it's not the rings they're making a scene about; it's the lack of ranch dressing.
"We don't serve salad, so we don't have any dressings," the waitress tries to explain, but the customers don't accept her excuse. Ranch dressing has nothing to do with salad in Texas. Several Texas chefs have told me they've been astonished by the rise in requests for ranch dressing in their restaurants in the last ten years. It's now used as a dip and a sauce more often than as a salad topping. (In West Texas, some restaurant patrons seem to regard it as a beverage.) I suspect it long ago surpassed ketchup and salsa as the No. 1 condiment in the state. For a major segment of the dining public, onion rings without ranch dressing are unthinkable -- so are pizza, biscuits and canned peaches. They ask the waitress for it again every time she checks on them. "Why don't you go down to the convenience store and buy a bottle?" she finally chides.
The waitresses at Tookie's are no shrinking violets. This one wears dirty blue jeans, a green Tookie's T-shirt and sneakers. She got straight to the point when I asked her which burger she recommended. "The Champion burger is our biggest seller," she said. "The meat is marinated with Chablis wine and mixed with cheddar cheese and onions. The Squealer is made with bacon. Get the Squealer," she advised. The burger choices also include a bean burger, a barbecue burger and a chili cheeseburger, along with a pepper-infused burger called Stomp's Ice House Special, which carries the disclaimer "very hot."
I wonder if there really was a Stomp's Ice House around here somewhere, and what happened to it. If it once existed, odds are there's some memorabilia from the place hanging in the rafters at Tookie's. The ramshackle premises are decorated with loads of cast-off junk. From my table, I can see a pair of hockey skates, several old traffic signals, a Shell station sign and the feet of a mannequin wearing white high heels and red stockings.
As I get up to leave, the biker's burger is delivered. It's a double Squealer. I'm only half right. So you can buy me half a beer.
My second visit to Tookie's is at night. I'm expecting a Hell's Angels convention, but oddly the place has been transformed into a family hangout. Small children scamper back and forth between their parents' tables and the bathrooms. Moony high school kids on dates occupy several other tables.
I consider the double Squealer for a minute, but then decide to sample another extreme and order the "very hot" burger. The young waitress has trouble discerning the difference between Miller and Miller Lite, but several minutes of remedial menu-reading finally gets me a cold draft in an icy mug. This frosted fire extinguisher proves crucial to the enjoyment of the food.
According to the menu, the Stomp's Ice House Special features "beef topped with Pace picante sauce, chopped jalapeño peppers and chopped grilled onions with mayonnaise, lettuce and sliced tomatoes." All of those ingredients are indeed present when the burger arrives. But how many of them will make it into your mouth is something of a crapshoot. A sloppy avalanche slides off the sandwich and onto the plate every time you take a bite. They give you a fork, if you want to eat the excess hot sauce and jalapeños that way.
The heat level isn't excessive for the average Texan. But the jalapeños do add a little fire, and beer is necessary for keeping occasional flare-ups from getting out of hand. But all in all the hot sauce burger isn't nearly as exciting as the Squealer.
It's the ratio of wet stuff to ground meat on this bun that leads me to ponder the logic of Tookie's burger creations. Clearly, what they're doing is coming up with ways to keep well-done hamburger meat tasting moist. And for that they deserve our undying gratitude. Ever since the Jack in the Box hamburger scandal of 1993 and the subsequent changes in FDA cooking temperatures, the liability department of the food service industry has insisted that we eat our ground meat well done. For those of us who like it juicy and medium-rare, this change in the American institution of the hamburger has led to a lot of disappointment.
I have always attempted to get around the rules by cooking my own rare burgers at home or begging some patty flipper to take a walk on the wild side. But Tookie's has come up with several innovative ways to raise the moisture level of the sandwich while working within the confines of the new restaurant reality: mixing the ground meat with bacon, marinating the beef with wine and then combining it with cheese, topping the patty with lubricants like beans or hot sauce.
We've come to expect this kind of clever culinary engineering down here in the land of a thousand refineries. After all, this is where used oil pipe was first transformed into that icon of Texas barbecue, the double-chambered steel smoker pit on wheels. So when the modern-day burger is hampered by a soluble grease diffusion problem, it should come as no surprise that Texas oil field ingenuity shines through once again. In Tookie's Squealer, they've got a gusher.
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