There are two kinds of burger patties at Tornado Burger on Murphy Road in Stafford — the regular, seasoned with salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and the spicy, which also includes fresh garlic and minced jalapeño for a little bit more money.
The first time I visited this fast-food outlet was in September. I got the No. 1 combo, a double-meat, double-cheese with fries and medium drink. The price was $4.99 for regular and 50 cents extra for spicy. It came on a piece of tissue paper in a plastic basket. The awesome french fries were hand-cut.
It wasn't the easiest burger to handle. It slid around inside the bun on the lubricating layer of special sauce and melted American cheese. But it was extremely juicy and expertly cooked. The flavor of garlic and jalapeño in the spicy patty was so pronounced, it made me think of a Pakistani kebab. It was not only unique, it was the best fast-food burger I have eaten in Texas.
Tornado Burger starts with thin burger patties — I'm guessing they weigh an eighth of a pound before cooking. A flyer in the restaurant said they serve "ground fresh, never frozen" burgers and that "no burger touches the grill until you order."
If this sounds vaguely familiar, but you can't quite remember where you heard it before, check out the Web site of In-N-Out Burger (www.in-n-out.com). "At In-N-Out we use only the freshest ingredients...Never frozen. And no burger hits the grill until you ask for it."
Transplanted Californians pine for In-N-Out burgers the way ex-pat Texans long for cheese enchiladas. In-N-Out burgers have acquired a mystique. The late Julia Child had them delivered to her hospital room when she was recovering from knee surgery. Thomas Keller, the owner of two of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in the country, confesses he eats them. Hell's Kitchen super-chef Gordon Ramsay praised them on Jay Leno's show. The list of celebrities who rave about them is lengthy.
Part of the charm is that In-N-Out is a family-owned company. Founded in 1948, at a time when most burger joints still used carhops, In-N-Out became the first chain to employ the speaker system, which makes it the inventor of the modern drive-through. There are around a hundred locations, all in California, Nevada and Arizona.
In-N-Out burgers are made from thin, one-eighth-pound patties and served on buttered and toasted buns. The onions are sliced thin; the lettuce is hand-leafed; the french fries are made from fresh-cut potatoes; and the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry milk shakes are made from pure ice cream. Other than drinks, there are only four items on the menu — french fries, a hamburger, a cheeseburger and a double/double (double meat/double cheese).
But In-N-Out is famous for its off-the-menu variations. There's the Animal Burger, which is fried in mustard and served with grilled onions. Atkins diet followers get the "Protein Burger," which is a hamburger packaged in lettuce leaves instead of a bun. And then there's the 3x3, the 4x4 and the 26x26, as the triple meat/triple cheese, quadruple meat/quadruple cheese and frat boy stunt burger with 26 patties are known.
I ate my first In-N-Out burger in San Francisco a couple of years ago. I got a double/double, and it was a good fast-food burger. But I have never been a big fan of thin patties. My gold standard is the classic Texas burger-joint burger, a thick, hand-formed half-pounder cooked medium-rare and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, mustard and mayo, with jalapeños if available. You would need to get four patties at In-N-Out to approximate the meat content of my favorite Texas burger.
I have heard many Californians speculate that an In-N-Out would kick ass in Houston. It seems like a reasonable assertion given the quality of the product and this city's appetite for burgers in general and fast-food burgers in particular. So you'd think an In-N-Out clone would be an instant success.
Tornado's thin burgers, hand-cut fries and real ice cream shakes are nearly identical to In-N-Out's.
The spicy patty option and the availability of jalapeño slices as an add-on would even seem to go In-N-Out one better in creating a burger to satisfy Texans. Tornado Burger's promotional materials claim they're "converting former chain customers to believers by the hundreds every week."
Maybe the believers were busy with Christmas shopping when I visited Tornado Burger on a recent Monday afternoon. The place was awfully quiet. Between noon and 12:30 p.m., I counted three customers besides my group.
A couple of menu items had changed. The prices had gone up slightly, so the spicy double meat/double cheese with fries and medium drink I paid $5.49 for last time was now $5.74. And oddly, there was a Philly cheese steak added to the menu.
This time, I ordered a triple meat/triple cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo, plus fries and a drink. If the double/double was a bit messy, the triple/triple was over the top. The meat slid all over the place while I ate the sandwich. I had to drop it in the basket and reorganize the layers several times in the course of consumption. But the flavor was even better than I remembered it. I think they increased the amount of garlic and chile peppers in the meat mixture. For a multi-patty burger, it was sensational.
My burger-eating companion went for a single spicy patty, with lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo and jalapeños. She was delighted with her burger, but when she was finished with it, she was still hungry. So I ordered a Philly cheese steak for us to split.
I like mine the way they make them at Pat's, with provolone on the bottom and Cheez Whiz on the top. The idea is to line the interior of the roll with the provolone to keep the meat juices from leaking through the bread. Then you drizzle the Cheez Whiz over the top to bind the sandwich together.
Unfortunately, the counter man at Tornado Burger got the cheeses reversed. He put the liquid cheese on the bread and added the provolone on top of the meat and onions. The steak slices and onions were perfectly cooked, and the sandwich was delicious, but the meat leaked out of the bottom and the whole thing started falling apart after a couple of bites.
It wouldn't take much to fix the Philly sandwich. But what's it doing there to begin with? Are the owners of Tornado Burger abandoning the In-N-Out model? Or is one of them from Philadelphia?
And the real question is, why isn't the In-N-Out type burger knocking them dead in Houston?
You can't blame Murphy Road — there's a Whataburger not far away that seems to be doing fine. And you can't blame the quality of the burger — I like the spicy burger here better than the ones at In-N-Out.
The difference is marketing. Tornado Burger's homegrown decorating and kooky twister logo work fine for me, but they're no match for the squeaky-clean appeal of In-N-Out. The crisp white uniforms, the palm tree packaging and the bright white-and-red signage have made In-N-Out Burgers a California icon. And icons aren't created overnight.
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