Swaddled in tissue paper and laid in a plastic cradle full of french fries, the jalapeño cheeseburger seems to glow. Maybe it's just the greasy sheen on the upper bun reflecting the fluorescent lights above our booth. Or maybe there really is an aura surrounding the burgers at the convenience store called Christian's Totem.
I'm sitting with Houston art collector and raconteur John Bebout, who turned me on to the place. I'm pretty sure he sees the aura, because he talks about the sandwich in a hushed, reverential tone. He points out the way the whole sandwich balances on the edge of the basket, awaiting your grasp. The tissue paper is wrapped more tightly on the lower side so that the buns part slightly to reveal the colorful lettuce, tomato, cheese and jalapeños within.
I'm getting pretty hungry looking at it, but Bebout won't let me take a bite until he's finished his didactic speech. "Look at this," he says, indicating with a graceful motion of his hand the artful way the corners of the tissue paper face forward and then double back so that the burger seems to be emerging from the center of a flower blossom. "And check this out," he says, pulling up the top bun to reveal a dark charred circle surrounding a golden, griddle-toasted interior.
"This is the best burger in Houston," Bebout whispers devoutly.
Finally, I'm allowed to eat. And I have to say, it's absolutely awesome. The hand-formed patty is made from a half-pound of never-frozen, freshly ground beef that cooks up into a very juicy burger. The french fries are average, but the onion rings are excellent. I would have liked the meat a little closer to medium rare, but that's my only quibble.
"Well?" Bebout demands a verdict. I reply by mentioning my usual favorite burger joints. Bebout allows that Adrian's Burger Bar in the Fifth Ward is outstanding. But Adrian puts a whole pound of meat on every burger, and that's too much for average folks to eat at lunch. And yes, he says, the cheeseburger at Rudyard's is indeed psychedelic. But Rudz isn't open for lunch. He goes on to say that the barbecue burger at Guy's is tasty but very well done. And however good the burgers at Tookie's and Gilhooley's may be, these restaurants are inconveniently located way the hell down there on Galveston Bay.
I'm forced to concede. At lunchtime, within the city limits, for hand-formed burger enthusiasts who don't want a whole pound of ground meat, Christian's Totem has the best burger in town.
Texans love to eat in establishments that aren't really restaurants. As a result, a lot of our best burger joints are former convenience stores. That's the genesis of Kincaid's Hamburgers in Fort Worth, Lankford Grocery and Market in Houston and Christian's. But Christian's Totem is also right up there with convenience stores Pay'n Takit, Git 'n' Go and Wag-A-Bag in the eccentric-name department. I assume the moniker is based on the same bad pun as U-Tote-M. I ask third-generation owner Steve Christian for an explanation over the phone, but he's not much help. "It's just a name," he says cryptically.
The convenience-store eatery also offers fried chicken and a steam-table selection. Today's special is all-you-can-eat fried pork chops served with your choice of green beans, macaroni and cheese, french fries, red beans, rice, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, brown gravy and biscuits for $6.99. "I've tried the chicken and some of the other stuff," recalls Bebout. "It's good, but it's not worth going out of your way for."
My second visit is on a Tuesday evening. I get a jalapeño bacon cheeseburger, and my date gets a jalapeño cheeseburger. This time, I also order a beer with my burger. And as luck would have it, we sit down right at the start of a very exciting bowl game between Boise State and Texas Christian University. (They're tied at the half.) Another establishment, the Tailgate Bar, adjoins Christian's Totem. The bar area features six TV sets tuned to various sports events.
The beer and the football make this burger taste even better than the last one. I scarf the entire sandwich in record time. When I'm finished, I notice that four jalapeño slices remain in the tissue paper-lined basket. So I start munching on them. And I'm amazed that the attention to detail here extends all the way to the jalapeño slices. The peppers are wonderfully crunchy, unlike the usual squishy ones. I wonder whether they're Trappey's brand, one of my favorites.
I once detoured off I-10 to search for Trappey's headquarters in New Iberia, Louisiana, just to ask the folks who work there how they keep their jalapeños so crisp. They happily explained that instead of pouring hot pickling liquid over the peppers like most packers, Trappey's cures its peppers in cold brine, the same way kosher pickles are cured. I even got to look into the giant concrete vats where the peppers were pickling.
I get up and walk over to the convenience-store side, which is now empty of customers. I ask the grill cook what kind of peppers he uses. He shows me the can. They aren't Trappey's after all; they're Cajun Chef. I've also visited the Cajun Chef headquarters, which are in St. Martinsville, Louisiana. Those jalapeños undergo a similar cold-brine process.
The convenience-store side closes down and stops serving burgers at 7 p.m. At that hour, Steve Christian takes off his burger-joint hat and puts on his beer-joint hat, so to speak. (Actually, tonight he's wearing a NASCAR cap with flames running down the sides.) Christian the bartender is much more talkative than Christian the burger-joint cashier. Especially after a couple of beers.
Tuesday is "Jam Night" at the Tailgate Bar, and as we watch, the pool tables are pulled back and a stage area appears. Some guys with guitar cases have been slowly filing in, and now they're signing up to play. While the musicians set up, Steve Christian comes by our table and chats for a while.
He explains that the history of his little convenience store/sports bar goes all the way back to 1917, when Camp Logan was built during World War I. Christian's Totem is located on the former site of the camp store. Steve Christian's grandfather bought the place in the 1940s. The elder Christian built a chain of stores in the 1950s, the grandson explains. "There were 40 locations at one time. Some of them were icehouses, some of them had other names, but mostly they were called Christian's Totems. They're all gone or leased out now," Steve Christian says.
On the stage, the first player can't get his guitar in tune. He finally hands it over to a more experienced musician, who takes a crack at it. The open-mike show doesn't look promising. "Have you ever had any famous musicians show up for Jam Night?" I ask Christian.
"Just my friend Billy," he says.
There's a framed ZZ Top article hanging in the bar. So I take a guess. "You mean Billy Gibbons?"
"That's right," the owner says with a nod. "In fact, we're talking about going into business together. I'll show you the plan." Christian strolls over to the bar and retrieves some papers he was showing to the regulars a little earlier. He hands us an artist's rendering. Basically, it looks like Christian's Totem and the Tailgate Bar with a second story built on top. Only there's a giant sign on the front of the place that says, "Billy Gibbons' House of Enchiladas."
"Enchiladas?" I ask with some shock. "What about the hamburgers?"
"The hamburgers will still be there," Christian assures me. But I'm suspicious. Once they start calling the place Billy Gibbons' House of Enchiladas, it seems like only a matter of time before the hamburgers go downhill. And although I've only recently discovered them, I'm not ready to trade Christian's Totem's bacon jalapeño cheeseburgers, made with hand-formed, half-pound patties and really crispy jalapeños, for some rock star's take on enchiladas. I like his music fine, and I love the inside of the Tres Hombres album cover, which pictures a Tex-Mex spread from the late Leo's Mexican Restaurant. But how do I know Billy Gibbons can cook?
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