The double-meat, double-cheese at 105 Grocery & Deli in the rural hamlet of Washington was too much burger for me. I got exactly halfway through it. If I had known how big it was, I would have ordered a single. But the grill cook, a wisecracking woman named Pam Pennington, wouldn't give me a straight answer.
"How big are the patties?" I had asked.
"Bigger than McDonald's," she replied.
"Do I want a double or a single?" I queried.
"Ask your stomach," she chided.
I went with a double, double, pink in the middle, all the way. I could barely believe the size of the sandwich that was set in front of me. It came wrapped in tissue paper in a paper-lined blue plastic basket full of golden fries. The meat bulged out of the bun. It was unevenly shaped, with a lot of charred crispy areas along the edges. I am guessing that each patty was around two-thirds of a pound.
Two slices of cheese, one white and one yellow, were artfully applied so that they swirled together on the surface of the top patty. Two more pieces of cheese graced the bottom one. A round piece of iceberg and two tomato slices were positioned underneath the burger in the "upside down" configuration, with a modest sprinkling of chopped onions and a couple of pickle slices. The puffy oversize bun was well toasted and spread with yellow mustard and mayo.
I am assuming that they put the lettuce and tomato on the bottom of the cheeseburger so as not to mess up the cheese. I cut the towering, dome-shaped sandwich in half and ate a few sloppy bites. Then I put the thing down and paid my respects to the cook. It may have been the best burger I have ever eaten in Texas — or the best burger I have ever eaten half of in Texas, to be more precise.
The 105 Grocery & Deli is located about eight miles southwest of Navasota on Highway 105, not far from Washington-On-The-Brazos State Park. The store has two signs out front. An old yellow one says "DK Gen Store, Café, Meat Market, Feed Store"; the newer blue one near the gas pumps says "B&J." Neither of these former monikers is currently in use.
Inside, there are a lot of cold-drink cases and about six tables scattered around the interior. On my visit, I saw three men sitting at a table in back and drinking beer. Since the grill cook wasn't answering any questions, I tried my luck with the drinkers. A white-haired, white-bearded gentleman in overalls who called himself Bubba set me straight.
"I have traveled halfway around the world in both directions, and I have never had a better burger," Bubba said. No, the store wasn't under new ownership, he said, nor was there a new cook. They have been making the same burger here for 20 years. And I didn't even get a good one, since I didn't order mine well-done, the way a burger is supposed to be cooked, Bubba told me pointedly.
He went on to debunk some popular misconceptions about Texas barbecue, such as the idea that it's supposed to taste smoky.
In his recently released book Hamburger America, author George Motz praised two Houston burger joints, Lankford Grocery and Christian's Totem, both of which are former grocery stores. Why is it that the best burgers in Texas are so often found in grocery and convenience stores?
Here's my new theory: The burgers taste so good because the convenience stores don't take the burger business too seriously.
When you grab a wad of freshly ground beef, throw it on a hot flattop and slap it down with a spatula, you are already way ahead of the high-volume burger outlet where the mass-produced burger patties come frozen or compressed into a uniform shape by a machine.
And conversely, according to this theory, as the convenience store becomes more famous for burgers than groceries, it begins ruining the homemade quality of the burgers by borrowing bad habits from high-volume burger operations.
Witness the sad state of the most famous example of the genre — Charles Kincaid's Grocery and Market in Fort Worth. In the mid-1970s, Life magazine ranked Kincaid's the best burger in the entire country, alongside Cassel's in L.A. The future of Kincaid's is currently in doubt due to a family real-estate squabble. But some critics contend that the burger at Kincaid's isn't worth saving anyway.
My friend Ed Levine, who runs the Serious Eats Web site, home of the blog A Hamburger Today, visited Kincaid's in April along with Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison, and both were sorely disappointed.
Levine photographed a bunch of pre-cooked burger patties sitting along the side of Kincaid's grill. Precooked burgers (or "par-grilled burgers" in Levine's parlance) taste like sawdust patties on a bun. Even when Levine demanded a freshly cooked patty, he wasn't impressed by the overcooked, dried-out burger he was served.
The usually stellar burger at Hruska's, a convenience store, gas station, Czech bakery and gift shop in Ellinger on Highway 71 just south of La Grange, has also suffered a decline in juiciness lately. I asked for a double-meat, double-cheese with bacon, cooked medium, there last Sunday night. The burger I got was well done and dry as a bone. (See "A Fall from Glory for Hruska's Grocery & Bakery," Houston Press Eating...Our Words blog.)
If you're going to cook burgers well-done, the easiest way to keep them juicy is to use ground meat with a high fat content. Which is why 70/30 (meat to fat ratio) ground chuck makes a better burger than 90/10 ground sirloin. I suspect that the meat at Hruska's was too lean.
Hruska's burger patties are preformed in the store and stored in a plastic tub with little pieces of paper between them. I wonder if they are using a patty machine. Has Hruska's started taking their burgers a little too seriously?
Last Wednesday, I called up two big hungry Houston burger-lovers and told them I wanted them to join me for lunch in Washington, where I would treat them each to one of the best hamburgers in Texas. Maybe I was looking for someone to validate my opinion; maybe I just wanted to show off. Or maybe I hoped for help buying gas.
After the hour-long drive, the three of us were pretty damn hungry. We climbed the steps into the grocery store and started perusing the hamburger menu that hangs on the wall above the front counter. But we didn't get very far.
"No hamburgers today — the grill man didn't show up," said the gruff old lady at the register. The three of us looked at each other in amazement. There was a paper sign hanging on the counter that said the grill was closed on Monday and Tuesday. But today was Wednesday, I pointed out to the lady. It didn't matter what day it was; if the grill man didn't come to work, there weren't any hamburgers, she told me.
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Hunger makes me grouchy. As we headed back to Houston, I roundly cursed the 105 Grocery along with its employees, owner and heirs. What kind of business operates on this sort of lackadaisical basis?
I was forced to qualify my recommendation of the 105 Grocery & Deli. Now I must say that they had the best hamburger in Texas on 50 percent of my visits. And if you want to give it a try, don't go on Monday or Tuesday, and don't drive to Washington at all unless you call first and confirm that the grill man has decided to come to work that day.
But after stopping for some barbecue, I became philosophical. As I mulled it over on the long ride home, the correlation between the casual nature of the business and the homemade quality of the burger first dawned on me. You will never be turned away from McDonald's because the grill man didn't show up, I reasoned. And you will never eat a big honking homemade hamburger at a franchise either.
For the last 20 years, they haven't taken the burger business very seriously at the 105 Grocery & Deli. And if you're a burger lover, you have to hope they never will.