For a 73-year-old restaurant, Lankford Grocery is a breath of fresh air. Straddling the quickly gentrifying neighborhoods of Montrose and the Fourth Ward, the tumbledown burger joint in circus hues of red and white has never suffered the crippling mediocrity of an old-timer that's given up on ingenuity. Instead, Lankford has remained curiously current throughout the years, while still dealing in both juicy burgers and nostalgia.
Lankford is frayed around the edges, inside and out, and better for it with every passing year. Its dining room is a carnival funhouse of clustered tables under gaudy tablecloths and grease-slicked floors that undulate like waves while you try to navigate the place without crashing into your neighbor's booth.
Outside, cherry red picnic tables sprawl across an equally uneven cement terrain that's been warped by years of tree roots and Houston humidity. But for generations of Houstonians, it's been a home away from home. And one of the most remarkable things about Lankford is the way it manages to be both modern and blissfully anachronistic at the same time. There are no flat-screen TVs in the dining room, and the waitresses wear T-shirts with their names stenciled on in silver puff paint. The prices barely reflect the fact that it's the 21st century. And although Lankford doesn't accept credit cards, it does accept cash — and checks.
The same Old Fashion hamburgers that made Lankford a household name for burger lovers across the city are on the menu today, as are other classics: the cheese-and-onion-topped beef enchilada plate that's served on Wednesdays only and has remained a weekly favorite since the 1980s, or the Saturday morning biscuits with a dark, creamy, cast-iron-skillet-tinged gravy that would make a Southern grandmother blush with envy.
Those Old Fashion burgers were the culmination of many a post-church Sunday journey into the tangled heart of the city when I was a kid, my parents driving through the maze-like streets lined with shotgun shacks until we reached Genessee and Dennis and those telltale red picnic tables. We didn't travel into "downtown" from the far western suburbs very often — and certainly not into Fourth Ward back when it was still considered "scary," especially after hearing my police officer father's stories of late-night drug busts and shootings — but when we did, it was for oxtails at This Is It or big, messy burgers at Lankford Grocery.
They're still as big and messy today. This is especially true of the more modern incarnations like the pineapple-wasabi burger that's topped with crunchy red onions and a spicy, horseradish-infused mayonnaise that's offset by the sweetness of a thick, dripping slice of pineapple. These creations are among the things that keep Lankford popular in a city where burgers are as plentiful as potholes. This year, that pineapple-wasabi burger made it onto our list of 100 Favorite Dishes in Houston. Last year, it was the macaroni-and-cheese-topped Grim Burger, which also comes with jalapeños, bacon and a fried egg for maximum beauty and artery-clogging potential.
"About ten years ago when I first moved to Houston, we left Zula to go eat the best burger ever — so Neal Cox and Lance Fegen said," recalls Jared Hunter, who now runs the Zilla Street Eats food truck, which specializes in mad burgers of its own. "They were correct," he said of the Lankford Grocery burgers that longtime Houston chefs Cox and Fegen directed them to.
"In fact," Hunter says, "we made our Zilla Dirty Burger stealing the idea from the Grim Burger."
"I think I might have to go to lunch [there]," he finished. It's the same reaction that most longtime residents have when you ask them about Lankford Grocery, whether they grew up eating its burgers or came to know it as adults.
"I guess I've only been eating there for the last 11 to 12 years," said my friend Emily Schwenke Ybarra when I asked her for her favorite memories of the place. Only 11 or 12 years? "Katharine, come on," was her quick reply. "For a native Houstonian that's nothing."
For Paula Murphy — whose own longtime clients at her PR firm include such Montrose restaurants as Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe and Mockingbird Bistro — her fondest memory of Lankford also happened 11 years ago, when a fellow diner approached her table at breakfast to inquire about the coffee mug she was holding.
"[He] asked me if I was going to be done with my coffee mug soon," Murphy recalled, "as that was his favorite mug and he'd only drink from that one."
Breakfast at Lankford is a quieter affair than at lunch, when it's sometimes impossible to find a seat either inside or out. It's during these morning meals — especially during the week — that you get a sense of how vital Lankford has always been to its surrounding neighborhood. Gooey, cheese-drenched chilaquiles are served with tortillas and two fried eggs on top, spilling bright yellow yolks across the plate as you build a breakfast taco with the entire affair. Bacon is cooked to a perfect crisp, with just a hint of that burger flavor from the old griddle. And while the grits always need salt, the creamy texture of the buttery breakfast cereal is never wanting.
The people eating breakfast there range from the bespectacled hipsters who now live in nearby fourplexes to old-timers who've taken their eggs and bacon there each morning for decades. (The yuppies who live in the new townhomes across the way tend to take their breakfasts on Saturdays, which is when Lankford is at its busiest.) And it's during breakfast when you really get a feel for the family that's held the place together for more than seven decades.
Lankford Grocery started out its life as just that: a grocery store, begun in 1938 by Nona and Aubrey Lankford. You can still get bacon and eggs there these days, it's just that now they're cooked for you first. And you can still grab beers — Lankford offers everything from Lone Star to Shiner Wild Hare — but you'll need to drink them there instead of taking them home. The burgers, on the other hand, weren't added to Lankford's repertoire until the 1970s. Before that, the little store specialized in deli sandwiches.
It's hard to believe that today, so popular are its huge, greasy burger masterpieces. The restaurant — now run by a new generation of Lankford family members under the loving guidance of matriarch Eydie Prior, whose parents first opened the store — addresses this in its own mission statement, summing it up in its first sentence: "We have nothing small, nothing healthy and nothing fast."
The Old Fashion burger is still all of these things. It's a towering cheeseburger on a soft sesame seed bun, with fixings that are the standards in any roadside burger joint: iceberg lettuce, occasionally mealy tomatoes, crunchy onions and dill pickles. Mayonnaise and mustard also come standard — not ketchup; this is Texas, after all. The cheese itself is nothing special — just a slice of plain American — and the burger can sometimes be overcooked. But there's still nothing quite like it, perhaps in part due to the city's shared nostalgia for the place.
Better are its more updated selections: the aforementioned Grim Burger, for example, or the new Frito Pie burger that sees its standard burger disappear under a flood of thick chili, cheese and corn chips. And while the french fries have never been anything special either, the tater tots and onion rings (while also frozen, like the fries) are still excellent examples of the genre. You may be tempted to order the Tex-Mex mix, but you shouldn't: It's just a collection of cast-off, fried-up end bits of jalapeños and onions that are unappealing on their own and would be better suited as a burger topping.
And if burgers aren't your bag (although that's hard to imagine in Houston), you'll be pleased to know that Lankford does something else even better than burgers — but only on Wednesdays. That's when the beef enchiladas are served at lunch, along with a bowl of stewed beans and a basket of freshly fried chips with bright green salsa. The exact same enchiladas have been served on this day of the week for almost as long as I've been alive, and I imagine they have tasted as excellent each Wednesday for the past 30 years.
Wrapping strings of cheddar cheese around the enchilada on your fork is an altogether brilliant way to pass the afternoon outside at a picnic table, remembering the Montrose and the Fourth Ward of days past and reconciling yourself to the fact that although Houston itself isn't terribly interested in preserving its history, at least Lankford Grocery is.