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Burger Heaven, Burger Hell

When is a burger not a burger? This is a riddle to which there is no longer an easy answer. Not since cholesterol consciousness and animal-fat paranoia came between Americans and their national dish, loosing a virtuous tide of ground turkey and tempeh and esoteric vegetable substances. Not since chefs emerged as pop culture demigods, and then felt obliged as a matter of chefly pride to trick up, modernize and otherwise mess with their fellow citizens' preferred comfort food. Not since a new Culinary Institute of America book called The Burger Meisters, culled from the fevered brains of the nation's most famous burger tamperers, published recipes for everything from a New York caterer's Virgin Island codfish burger with okra fungee to Brennan's chef Carl Walker's buffalo patty sandwiched between sage tortillas. These may taste just dandy, but are they burgers? It's debatable.

Such matters have preyed on me ever since I set out to investigate the summer bulletin that Rio Ranch's Ranch-Hand Burger had been named by Food & Wine magazine as one of America's top five examples of the genre. Way, way out Westheimer at celebrity chef Robert del Grande's cosmopolitan-cowboy joint, the arrival of an open-faced beef patty swamped with bland pinto beans proved a minor disenchantment -- and major food for thought.

It was hard to argue with the quality of Rio Ranch's ground beef: gratifyingly smoky from the grill, shaped by man rather than machine, cooked to a nicely rosy turn, it spoke to the outdoor carnivore that prowls within our civilized shells and gives a juicy, carbonaceous burger such powerful, primitive appeal. It was hard to fault the trimmings of roasted green-chile slabs, crisp bacon and a sparing confetti of sharp Cheddar cheese that functioned as an accent rather than a mask.

So why did the man sitting opposite me look so dissatisfied? Maybe it was the negative charisma exerted by those beans, which begged for a wake-up call from the restaurant's wonderful bottled hot sauces. (Rio Ranch Red helped a lot.) Maybe it was the way the elements never quite clicked as a whole, or the way the meat lost its rightful primacy. But I suspect his attitude had more to do with the fact that he had to eat this creation with a knife and fork -- thereby flouting his notions of true burgerhood.

I saw his point. Utensils violate the integrity of the burger as self-contained unit and portable American food icon. There is an elemental satisfaction to be had in holding all your vital food groups -- beef, bread, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard and mayo -- right there in your hands. It can drip, it can slide, it can rain shards of iceberg (what else are tissue wrappers for?): that's all part of the fun. But once a knife and fork come into play, it just ain't a burger anymore. And a Top Five contender? Highly unlikely.

Actually, it takes a pretty compelling specimen to lure most of us from our well-worn burger paths. Burgers inspire fierce and unreasonable loyalties, probably because our collective fondness for them is so rooted in childhood, so firmly linked with treats, cookouts, happy times. As adults, we find the burgers that strike a chord in us, then we stick with them. Oh, our standards may modify over time. (I long ago forswore my New England taste for ketchup in favor of the edgier Southern constellation of mustard and mayonnaise, with maybe a little Cajun Chef hot sauce for good measure.) But rational or no, our basic notions of burger truth and beauty run deep -- which is why I keep going back to Jim Goode's and Otto's, and why the '90s permutations running rampant through our culinary landscape so often fill me with dismay.

Take the buffalo burger. I implore you. The one I sampled at Ziggy's Healthy Grill (now there's an enticing restaurant name!) left me feeling deprived and disgruntled; the meat was so infernally lean and juiceless that all the high-caliber embellishments lavished upon it couldn't fool me into thinking I was having a good time. The awful truth is that rigorously lean burgers aren't nearly as delicious as the kind made with hamburger meat possessed of a respectably nasty fat content. Ziggy's is a quirky little neo-Montrose spot that seems serious about quality, and I wouldn't mind returning for one of their real burgers. But dabbling in buffalo land cemented my conviction that I'd rather indulge in one decent, guilt-inducing hamburger a month than eat a virtue-burger twice a week.

Same goes for my experiments with the so-called "garden burgers" advertised so widely in the restaurant trade magazines of late. Romeo's, the nifty new Rice Village place that supplanted the late Burgerville, does a lot of things right, but one of them isn't their terminally inert, musty-tasting "veggie burger." Again, high-quality fixings (leaf lettuce, good wheat buns, smoky stripes from the mesquite grill) can't conquer the strong sensation that you're eating compressed silage. I don't know what legumes or pulses go into these misbegotten, cookie-cutter discs, and I don't want to know, either. If this is a burger, I'm a Nobel Prize winner.

Fortunately, Romeo's also turns out some of the best honest burgers in town: big, juicy ones cooked precisely to order, assertively seasoned with charcoal and salt and pepper, lopping over the edge of the very decent sesame-seeded buns in a confidence-inspiring way. With their leaf lettuce, untoasted bread and absence of mustard (you'll have to add your own), they reflect the burger idiosyncrasies of co-owner and counterwoman Linda Louie, who feels passionately that once you get past the lettuce-and-tomato stage, mayonnaise, pickles and onion are the only acceptable burger adornments.

The irrepressible Louie literally shudders at the idea of mustard or ketchup sullying her beloved burgers, which just goes to show that our individual burger beliefs really do verge on the primal. Her distinguished results, which weigh in at a fairly unthreatening three bucks, also provide one of Houston's nicer cross-cultural grace notes: these American classics arrive by way of Chinese owners (the four principals also run Cafe Chino) and one smiling Chinese grill man who knows what he's doing. The very Texan Blue Bell milk shakes served up in this rather startling room -- with its larger-than-life pulp-cartoon murals in vivid primaries -- seem only fitting.

My recent burger forays turned up only one other local specimen that might lure me from my established favorites. The remarkably fresh-tasting cheeseburger at the crisp and chipper 610 Diner, a sweetly nostalgic establishment at the juncture of South Main and Loop 610, qualifies as real food: there's nothing prefab about the irregular, salt-and-peppered patty that peeks out from the bun, substantial without veering into the thickness that often unbalances highfalutin burgers. The juice will run right down to your elbow if you let it -- always a good sign. The iceberg used here works better, in my book, than softer, fancier lettuces that tear rather than crunch; and the onion rounds have a satisfyingly sweet snap.

Indeed, my sole quibble is that the friendly 610 folks could go a wee bit easier on the mustard. I can't even bring myself to care that the French fries in the $3.25 cheeseburger basket appear to have come from a freezer bag -- especially since there's compensation in the form of a baroque and hilarious chocolate milk shake, swirled with chocolate syrup and heaped with whipped cream, that arrives in a tall, heavy soda glass. If you're going to sin, sin big, is the way I see it.

Which brings me to the subject of time-honored burger accessories and the way they can seduce you into making allowances for a less-than-distinguished burger. I'm thinking of the stellar chocolate milk shakes that lull me into believing that the perfectly ordinary, insanely mustardy hamburgers at the Avalon Drugstore are not half bad. And the sublimely crisp, old-fashioned onion rings -- almost the last of an endangered species -- that render the dryish, unenthralling beef patties at the northwest side's Myti-Burger pretty damn tolerable. (Other mitigating factors: the blindingly white and primary-striped decor that gives Myti-Burger the air of small towns past; a talkative cat who hangs out in front with the assurance of a monarch.)

In extremely rare cases, add-on accouterments can transform a burger with scant intrinsic appeal into something irresistible. That's the deal at the time-warpy Bellaire Broilerburger, where thinnish chili and cheddar cheese turn gray, unsucculent patties into magnificent overachievers; the vintage wood paneling and booths make them taste even better.

Add-ons can just as easily muck up a burger, interfering with the essential purity of a classic version; I am among those naysayers who believe artichokes and Brie have no earthly business on a burger. Again, it is the exceptions that prove the rule. The impeccable Black Angus burgers at Barnaby's, the rambly-shambly hideaway that is pure essence of Montrose, are actually improved by the addition of a smooth, tart guacamole and Monterey jack cheese; the whole is better than the sum of its parts, and it isn't trying too hard, like some of the fancier regionalized burgers in town.

I was also astonished and pleased to discover during my wanderings that the caviar burger at the drolly upscale River Oaks Burger Joint is far from the insufferable social climber it sounds like. Some people might argue that at $5.95, it no longer deserves to be called a burger. (Indeed, strict purists might insist anything over $3.50 flouts the inexpensive conventions of true burgerhood, a standard which would knock even River Oaks' basic burger into the fancy zone.)

To bite into this rarefied burger, though, is to be persuaded that its airs don't cancel out its claims to burgerness. The clean, briny quality of all those tiny black fish eggs works magically well with the pure, strong flavors of good beef and charcoal. A little sour cream mellows the effect just enough. None of this would matter if the Burger Joint hadn't replaced its original, miserable buns with far better ones (their French fries are crisper and browner these days, too, but that's another story). There's even a suitable and amusing frozen lemonade, in the palest possible shade of pink, to go along.

One of the pleasures of the Burger Joint -- and of Romeo's and the 610 Diner -- is that they ask you how you want your meat cooked, and then they actually do it that way. Ever since the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli scare a couple of years back, it's been hard to get a medium-rare burger in this town. Even places like Jim Goode's burgeria, where they grind their own beef, are serving their burgers medium these days; and to my sorrow, I've noticed that such erstwhile stalwarts as Roznovsky's and downtown's Pat & Pete's are cooking the hell out of their burgers as well. What a world.

Not that I'll stop looking -- or complaining. I've yet to meet a ground-turkey burger I considered worth eating, even at 8.0, where the mere sight of a tempeh burger on the menu makes me blanch. I reserve the right to sneer at those portobello mushroom burgers, and to giggle about the beet and taro chips Ruggles is dispensing with its thoroughly modern vegetarian, chicken and buffalo burgers. And when a friend swears to me that the freshly ground burgers at the 11th Street Cafe taste "just like the old-fashioned drive-in kind," I will dutifully check them out. In the heart of the true burger nut -- which means just about all of us -- hope springs eternal.

Rio Ranch, 9999 Westheimer, 952-5000; Romeo's Burgers, 5503 Kelvin, 521-7018; 610 Diner, 3202 South Loop West, 662-0085; Bellaire Broiler Burger, 5216 Bellaire, 668-8171; Barnaby's, 604 Fairview, 522-0106; River Oaks Burger Joint, 4074 Westheimer, 993-0100.

Rio Ranch:
Ranch-Hand Burger, $6.75;

burger, $3;

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610 Diner: cheeseburger basket, $3.25;

Bellaire Broiler Burger:
chili-cheeseburger, $2.85;

guacamole burger, $4.95;

River Oaks Burger Joint:
caviar burger, $5.95.

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