A small black dog greets me at the front door of Rudyard's on Waugh. I take a seat at the short end of the bar. The place is dimly lit, and my eyes adjust slowly. The walls and windowsills are all painted drab brown. But Rudz is one of the most colorful bars in town, thanks to the Montrose-area characters that hang out here.
Tonight the cast consists of a tall man in his mid-twenties with a wispy Brad Pitt beard, shoulder-length hair and a backward baseball cap; he's drinking Guinness and smoking American Spirit cigarettes at the end of the bar. Isn't he somebody's bass player? At a table by the wall, a double-chinned woman in her late forties is laughing in a loud, hoarse cackle that sounds eerily like Janis Joplin. Beside me a couple of regulars are drinking Shiner Bocks and looking at Halloween party photos. Halfway down the bar, a young man with a shaved head and a Camp Bluebonnet T-shirt is having an intense conversation with an Asian woman in tiny black almond-shaped glasses.
The aroma of cigarettes and stale beer doesn't do much for my appetite, but I order anyway. "One bacon cheeseburger and a Spaten Oktoberfest," repeats the barmaid as she scribbles on her pad. She then places a chrome stand that holds a piece of cardboard bearing the number seven on the bar in front of me.
I tried to come to Rudyard's for lunch earlier today, but the kitchen doesn't open until 5 p.m. I am intent on eating here because of an e-mail I received from a reader named Jimmy Sanchez. "I think Rudyard's Pub has the best bacon cheeseburger in town and their jukebox has Roky Erickson on it," the message said. I have been looking for a benchmark burger in Houston. And it's a good idea to grab a bit of Roky Erickson wherever it floats by.
The other bartender, who is wearing shorts, hiking boots and a T-shirt that says "Montrose Beer and Gun Club," assures me that the burger here is a thing of wonder. "Our kitchen guys make their own patties and season them with all kinds of shit," he brags. I express the hope that it is good shit.
I have auditioned some other outstanding burgers. These include the free-form patty at Market Square Bar and Grill and the nostalgic classic at Bellaire Broiler. The Market Square sandwich was a tad dry; its voluminous sesame-seed bun a little too big for the hand-formed patty within. The Bellaire bacon cheeseburger, on the other hand, was wet and wild, a delicious masterpiece of dripping tomato and sauces, marred only by the thinness of the preformed patty.
Once upon a time, burgers were all shaped by hand. The thick, old-fashioned patties stayed juicier than the preformed frozen kind. There were still a few holdouts until the Jack in the Box catastrophe in Portland, Oregon. After three kids died from eating contaminated burgers, a wave of paranoia about ground meat swept the land. Restaurants were instructed to serve well-done burgers whether we liked them that way or not. And health authorities cracked down on meat-handling practices. Burger makers were asked to wear plastic gloves and to refrain from handling meat in the presence of any other foods. The once-popular method of putting a raw meat ball on the griddle and slapping it with a spatula to make a free-form patty was banned for fear of spreading contamination. These complicated new rules make it a whole lot easier to forget about meat handling and just buy frozen hamburger patties.
"I don't like games," the Asian girl says a little too loudly. The guy with the shaved head looks embarrassed. He moves closer to her and whispers adamantly. A kitchen hand wanders up behind them holding a plate. I believe he is searching for my lucky number seven. He sets an ornate china plate in front of me; it is heaped with a burger, toppings and fries.
The plate has a royal blue rim with a zigzag gold design and the words "Heritage Club" inscribed in the middle -- a very fancy garage sale relic. The burger is presented with its top bun askew. Alongside it, a slice of tomato, another of purple onion and a chunk of iceberg lettuce are neatly stacked. Mayonnaise is offered in a small ceramic ramekin. The patty looks very thick, and breaking off a small chunk, I ascertain it is nicely pink inside. I pop the meat in my mouth. If I had to guess, I'd say it is seasoned with garlic powder, salt and pepper. The meat is generously covered with bacon and American cheese. The fresh bakery bun has a high enough yeast content that large bubbles have formed in the dough, creating an excellent porous texture. I arrange the salad ingredients over the bacon, spread the mayo on the top bun and lower it into place. The whole assembled sandwich is ridiculously tall. Using the second joint of my index finger as a ruler, I estimate the height to exceed three and a half inches, roughly twice the clearance between my top and bottom teeth when my mouth is fully open.
A tentative attempt to pick it up reveals that the bottom bun is dangerously squishy. If I just go for it, I figure it will fall apart within three bites. At home, I wouldn't worry about it. But one of the drawbacks of eating at the bar is that your table manners are on display. So I eat a few french fries while I consider the engineering problem.
I decide to go with the divide-and-conquer strategy. By pushing down on the airy bun and compressing the bread, bacon and lettuce, I reduce the height by a good inch. Then I cut the whole thing down the middle. Picking up a more manageable half-burger, I turn it upside down, so that the sodden lower bun is now supported by the rest of the burger. This solves most of the logistical problems. The burger, however, is so moist that juice runs between my fingers as I eat it. But I am unable to stop. Once the flavors and textures of hot, juicy, medium-rare beef, crunchy bacon, crisp and pungent onion, gooey melted cheese and cold, wet tomato hit my mouth, they create a sensory overload that alters my mind. My inhibitions and my sense of propriety melt away. This is a psychedelic bacon cheeseburger.
"You're going to miss me when I'm gone," Roky sings. And he is right. I do miss the whole 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix era. It was a time of unabashed self-indulgence, unrestrained enthusiasm and magnificent excess. Unfortunately for the survivors, this ten-year binge was followed by a 20-year hangover cure of low-cholesterol foods, aerobic exercises and alcohol-free beverages.
In this era of abstinence and self-discipline, Rudyard's bacon cheeseburger is a flashback, a return to the sybaritic good old days. It is an out-of-control, over-the-top combination of too many ingredients in a spectacular but impractical package. This is not a food experience for everybody. If you are mostly vegetarian, allergic to smoke, wearing your best dress or trying to cut down, you better get a bite somewhere else. But for serious meat-on-a-bun surfers, this is a mandatory exercise. Gloriously self-destructive by its very design, it should be eaten with complete disregard to dribbles, stains or table manners while a Roky Erickson song plays on the jukebox.
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