"Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy." -- Calvin Trillin
Where else but Space City could you find so many fancy new burgers, time-honored classics and dinosaurs on a bun? It's not a single burger but the staggering array of choices that makes our city a burger-eaters' paradise. I dare any other city in the world to submit a list of burgers that can top these.
Three Grocery Store Burgers
Some of the most famous burgers in Texas are served in old convenience stores and groceries. These are Houston's three best examples of the genre.
Stanton's Super Market
1420 Edwards Street, 713-227-4893
This shabby convenience store and grill has been in business since 1961. The plainest burger on the menu is a giant bacon cheeseburger with a half-pound hand-formed patty on an oversize well-toasted sesame seed bun topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard and red onions. "All the way" burgers come with two strips of bacon and an ample amount of American cheese, and upgrades include the "Rio jalapeño burger" (add pickled peppers), the "BBQ blues burger" (with barbecue sauce) and the "Tex-Mex burger" (with salsa). The patty melt is a plain cheeseburger served on Texas toast. Burgers are "to go" only, so have a plan for where to eat it.
Lankford Grocery & Market
88 Dennis Street, 713-522-9555
Juicy, loose-packed homemade hamburger patties on greasy toasted rolls have been the specialty here for half a century. Lankford's was a grocery when owner and head cook Eydie Prior was growing up there. Her parents opened the store in 1939, but it was the old-fashioned hamburgers that brought in the crowds. And so Lankford's became a restaurant. And it may be the homiest one in the city. Eydie's grandkids often sit at the bar and watch cartoons while her daughter waits tables.
Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar
7340 Washington Avenue, 713-864-9744
Once there was a very old convenience store with the wonderfully cryptic name Christian's Totem. The place was famous for its awesome jalapeño cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, the owner, Steve Christian, didn't have the sense to preserve his family's heritage. He removed the convenience store shelves, expanded and renamed the place Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar. (A religious sports bar?) Luckily, Christian hasn't screwed up the jalapeño cheeseburger. (Yet.) You get your choice of Swiss or standard American singles on a hand-formed patty of never-been-frozen freshly ground beef served with crunchy Cajun Chef pickled jalapeños. It's served on a perfectly toasted bun with just the right amount of lettuce and tomato, all wrapped in tissue paper and balanced on the edge of a red plastic basket full of fries.
Three Soul Food Burgers
Adventurous burger-lovers will want to hunt down these Fifth Ward soul food shacks. They serve three of the most incredible hamburgers in the city.
Lockwood Malt Shop
5410 Mulvey, 713-671-2706
Perfection on a buttered bun. They call it an old-fashioned burger. It's cooked on a hot griddle, so there are lots of dark, crinkly, crunchy edges and yet it's still fat and juicy in the middle. Half a pound? Five-eighths of a pound? Who knows. They just grab a big handful of ground meat and make a burger out of it. The meat comes from a nearby meat market, fresh-ground every morning. The tomatoes taste homegrown. "All the way" means tomatoes, lettuce, mustard, mayo, onion and pickles. When you get it to go, they wrap it up in wax paper. Now that's old-fashioned! The malt shop doesn't sell malts, but they go through gallons of Kool-Aid every day. There is no sign and no way to tell the address. Look for the seemingly abandoned red building on the southwest corner of Lockwood and Mulvey, and push hard on the screen door.
Adrian's Burger Bar
5311 Sonora Street, 713-674-1488
A hamburger at Adrian's is a mess waiting to happen. The honking one-pound hand-formed meat patty is cooked so that the meat remains extremely juicy and a little loose. It's topped with a sloppy mountain of lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles. The burgers are fried to order, so they're piping hot. Cutting the sandwich in half makes it less likely the whole mess will explode and run down the front of your shirt when you bite it. The food there is beautiful, but the dining room is ugly. Oh, and if a pound of ground meat isn't enough to satisfy your appetite, ask Adrian for a double. He sells lots of them.
3303 Lee Street, 713-222-7104
There's the regular hamburger on the menu at the J&J Lounge, and then there's the old-fashioned burger. The regular burger is made with a skinny frozen patty à la Mickey D's. The old-fashioned burger is a half-pound hand-formed patty served on two slices of toasted Wonder Bread with chopped lettuce, chopped onion, tomato, mustard and mayo. This is probably the closest thing to Fletcher Davis's original hamburger that you will find in the state of Texas. But be forewarned that this ramshackle pool room and beer joint in the Fifth Ward is not a place for small children, old ladies or the faint of heart.
Three Burger Joint Burgers
The independent burger joint was long ago eclipsed in popularity by the chains and the fast food franchises. The ones that still survive offer a burger you can't find anywhere else.
710 11th Street, Huntsville, 936-291-0571
There is no car service at this half-century-old hamburger drive-in, so you have to order at the window. Mr. Hamburger's "killer burger" -- which features two hefty handmade burger patties with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mustard and mayo with jalapeños -- is not only a favorite of Sam Houston State students, it's a Texas burger classic. Look for the scary clown sign.
Stamps Super Burger
7590 West Bellfort, 713-771-5077
The original Stamps was opened in 1970 on Dalton Drive near Jackson State University in the Mississippi capital by a Methodist minister named Algernon Stamps. The Bellfort location is owned by the Mississippi minister's Houston relatives. Stamps's legendary SuperBurger features 12 ounces of freshly ground beef, hand-formed into a patty, griddle-fried and dressed with fresh produce. Call your order in beforehand, or suffer a wait that can be as long as an hour at busy times. And be prepared to eat at the back counter (there are no tables). The burger is so juicy, it's difficult to get it home in one piece -- the bottom bun turns to mush on the drive.
5815 Westheimer, 713-975-6082
A clean, well-lit place for quality burgers in the Galleria area, Pappas Burger is a modern burger joint that also serves beer. The meat is first-rate; they start with never-been-frozen beef, ground fresh daily next door at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Then they make a half-pound patty and griddle-cook it. You choose from a wide variety of configurations and order at the counter. The blue cheese burger is the local favorite.
Honorable mention: Miller's Cafe, Champ Burger
Three Bar and Grill Burgers
Nothing tastes better with a big juicy burger than a cold beer. And that gives the neighborhood bar and grill a decided edge in any discussion of where to go eat burgers.
Goode's Armadillo Palace
5015 Kirby Drive, 713-526-9700
They call it the Michael Berry Burger, after the city councilman. It features a half-pound of fresh-ground USDA Choice sirloin served on a puffy golden bun with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. The substantial buns help hold the burger together perfectly, even though the meat is extremely juicy. I've never been fond of the burgers across the street at the Goode Co. burger and taco joint, but this one is in an entirely different class.
2010 Waugh Drive, 713-521-0521
At its greasy best when ordered with bacon and cheese, Rudz's burger arrives on a china plate with its top bun askew. Alongside it, a slice of tomato, another of purple onion and a chunk of iceberg lettuce are neatly stacked, waiting for audience participation. Mayonnaise is already slathered on the lower bun beneath the meat. The patty is thick and pink inside, generously seasoned with garlic powder, salt and pepper. The fresh bakery bun is shiny on the top, with a porous egg-bread interior. The burger is so moist that juice tends to run between your fingers while you eat it.
318 Gray, 713-523-6404
Order it medium-rare and your half-pound of char-grilled Black Angus comes to the table bright red, smothered with melting Gorgonzola and topped with a pile of wispy batter-fried onions, on a honey wheat hamburger bun bottom. Three black lines across the top bun attest to its recent toasting on the grill. The spring greens come on the side as well as your choice of spreads. Tomato by request.
Honorable mention: Bar at Cafe Annie, Blanco Cafe, Cahill's on Durham, Kenneally's, Market Square Bar & Grill
Three Offbeat Burgers
The burger is a blank canvas upon which Texans express their eccentricities. Don't be surprised if you fall in love with some of these barbecue burgers, bean burgers and bigger-than-a-pound monstrosities.
1202 Bayport Boulevard, Seabrook, 281-474-3444
Tookie's best burger is the "squealer." It's sort of like a bacon cheeseburger, but instead of frying the bacon separately so the grease can be drained off, they grind up the smoked pork with the beef. The genius of this concept is that the bacon fat bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a salty, greasy burger that stays juicy even when well done. Tookie's also serves a salsa-accented "bean burger" that's better than most of the ones you get in San Antonio.
Mel's Country Cafe
24814 Stanolind, Tomball, 281-255-6357
There are normal burgers on the menu, and then there's the "Mel's burger," a pound of ground meat with bacon and three slices of American cheese. The pound comprises three individual patties, and they're available cooked medium well -- don't ask for medium, because they won't do it. If you're really hungry, try a "mega Mel." It's a pound and a half of meat, a pound of bacon and a quarter-pound of cheese. Eat it in under two hours and get your name on the Wall of Fame. Nine minutes is the current record.
Guy's Meat Market
3106 Old Spanish Trail, 713-747-6800
Barbecue burgers are available only Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., while they last, and they always sell out. A juicy half-pound ground beef patty is cooked and then finished in a hickory-stoked smoker. For best results, be sure to get it with barbecue sauce, onions and pickles, not lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo.
Honorable mention: Original New Orleans Po' Boy (cheeseburger poor boy)
Three Chain Burgers
Oversize hamburgers made with freshly ground beef are all the rage at chain restaurants these days. Here are three Houston favorites worth checking out.
2902 Kirby Drive, 713-524-7085; and seven other locations
Don't complain if the dining room is smoky -- it's a small price to pay for mesquite-grilled meat. USDA Choice chuck roasts are ground on the premises of each location every morning. The fresh ground meat is formed into half-pound patties by machine. You can get them medium-rare if you like. The original on Kirby has been open since 1985. A Bellaire bakery has been baking the buns for 20 years. This may be the best chain burger in America.
3899 Southwest Freeway, 713-626-9950; and two other locations
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When Houstonians went "cruising for burgers" back in the day, the most popular destination was Prince's Drive-In, which first opened in 1934. The new locations pay homage to the old drive-ins with historic photos and old menus. The Angus beef, which is ground fresh daily, is available medium-rare. The "king's favorite" is a half-pound patty with chili, cheese and grilled onion on top, and lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo on the bottom. The "original" features Prince's sauce, which looks like a slurry of pureed fresh tomatoes.
3929 Southwest Freeway, 713-621-8222; and 17 other locations
Born in San Antonio, the Fuddrucker's chain is famous for grinding its own meat and baking its own buns. The machine-formed burger comes in third-pound, half-pound, two-thirds-pound and one-pound sizes. They'll griddle-cook it medium-rare if you want, though there is a warning on the menu about the health risks. You dress the burger yourself. This is the granddaddy of the new old-fashioned burger chains.
Honorable mention: Culver's ButterBurgers, Chili's, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday