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Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Speedy Burger, Plausible Inventor of the Hamburguesa Mexicana

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Whoosh-zing. My order is written on a paper ticket and fastened into a large, metal binder clip that's suspended from a tiny zip line in Speedy Burger's kitchen. The smiling teenager behind the counter flings it back toward the line cooks, where it whips through the air over a soda fountain before clanging to a stop above the grill.

Whoosh-zing. Whoosh-zing. You can hear order after order relayed this way during a busy lunch hour at the Lindale Park restaurant, which sells tortas and burgers with equal frequency (and is technically in North Lindale, but who's counting?).

"This is how I get my exercise," laughs the girl behind the counter as she clips another order to the zip line and sends it zooming away. "One arm's a lot stronger than the other, though," she says, like when you scoop ice cream for a summer and your forearm Hulks out after the first month.

Speedy's claim to fame in this heavily Hispanic neighborhood is its hamburguesa mexicana, which earned the joint a spot on Texas Monthly's list of the 50 best hamburgers in Texas back in 2009. (The hamburguesa mexicana is not to be confused with the far different, far weirder Mexican hamburger, the famous Denver-created dish which typifies Colorado's...interesting...approach to Mexican food.)

Interestingly, although the hamburguesa mexicana is somewhat ubiquitous in Houston -- it's my burger of choice at Taqueria Taconmadre, another entry on our ongoing Burgers Off the Beaten Path list -- owner Nancy claims to have invented the burger herself in 1999. Calls to the restaurant to explore this fascinating claim further were unanswered, but Speedy Burger's website tells the story this way:

Always smiling and ready to serve, Nancy and her husband earned the respect of her parents and were able to get the opportunity of owning this burger staple in the Houston cuisine. As the original inventor of La Hamburguesa Mexicana, while under her parents operation of Speedy Burger; this burger has become Speedy's signature burger.

I can recall eating hamburguesas mexicanas for years in Houston, although last week was my first visit to Speedy Burger, which is approaching 50 years old. I'd honestly never given much though to the creation mythology behind a Mexican hamburger -- I just figured someone somewhere along the line had fused a torta and a burger together because they happened to have the ingredients on hand and got hungry. I relished the idea that I'd inadvertently stumbled upon the birthplace of a dish I'd always taken somewhat for granted.

Interested to know more, I asked famous etymologist and Austin resident Barry Popik for some background into the phrase "hamburguesa mexicana." Popik, who's also a bit of a foodie, is the man responsible for chasing down the etymological origins of such phrases as "hot dog" and is a consulting editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.

Despite a thorough knowledge of Texas culinary etymology, Popik hit a dead end too.

"I couldn't find any easy answers on this one," he told me after a few days of researching, "but I'll keep looking." Popik directed me to an entry for a "Hot Hamburger" that was as close as he could find to the elusive hamburguesa mexicana.

This burger was born in Del Rio and, says, Popik, "it might be a lead." You can see a connection between the two in the ham that's incorporated into the actual hamburger, but that's where the similarities end. A "Hot Hamburger" -- which, by the way, sounds delicious -- features a "Mexican pâté" that pairs ground beef with cubed ham, celery, Cheddar cheese, an onion, an apple and more, all of which are thrown into meat grinder with some hot sauce.

The classic hamburguesa mexicana, on the other hand, is a standard hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes and onions that also happens to sport a slice of ham, asadero [or other Mexican white] cheese and half an avocado sliced on top of it all. It's typically served with a roasted jalapeño pepper on the side. But as Mexican food writers such as Robin Grose have pointed out, all kinds of other additions can be made as well, from pickled jalapeño slices on the burger to swapping tortillas or telera rolls for buns.

Versions of the hamburguesa mexicana seem to have been popular at least since 1994. That's when Cabin Donuts -- a small restaurant chain in Chihuahua, Mexico -- trademarked its own Mexican hamburger, which it called "la primera hamberguesa con sabor mexicano" (the first hamburger with Mexican flavor). It was topped with roasted chile peppers, tomatoes, cheese, onions and sliced avocados -- but no ham.

Shortly afterward, McDonald's launched a new product -- la nueva hamburguesa mexicana -- promoted by a huge ad campaign starring El Chapulín himself: Mexican soccer legend Jorge Campos. McDonald's sold plenty of its hamburguesas mexicanas, which were simply burgers topped with guacamole, which was a good and a bad thing for the far smaller Cabin Donuts chain.

Cabin Donuts sued McDonald's for trademark infringement in 1999 -- and won. The terms of the settlement forced McDonald's to pay 40 percent of the sales of its "nueva hamburguesa mexicana" to Cabin Donuts, a figure well into the millions of dollars.

But as interesting as this David versus Goliath story is, it still doesn't settle the question of who really invented the hamburguesa mexicana. Since Cabin Donuts never added ham to its burgers (nor did McDonald's), and I can't find any other chef or restaurant who lays claim to the singular creation offered at Speedy Burger.

For now, I'm happy for Speedy Burger to promote this claim to fame. After all, the hamburguesa mexicana at the Lindale Park restaurant truly is the best item on its menu and worth of the praise that's been given to it over the years. For instance, the chori-burger -- a new product at Speedy -- that I tried on my last visit was good. But it wasn't in the same league as the hamburguesa mexicana nor burgers such as the esteemed trompi-burger that's placed Taqueria La Macro on the map.

La Macro owner Saul Obregon tells me that he's already set the wheels in motion to trademark this invention, a smart idea considering the Cabin Donuts case and the general difficulty in tracing these sorts of fusion-y dishes that arise organically in places with overlapping culinary heritages.

If anyone will sort out the history behind the hamburguesa mexicana, however, it's Popik. He's already set up a page for it on his Web site. At the top it reads: "Entry in progress."

See also: - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: The Hideaway - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Watson's House of Ales - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Poppa Burger - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Blake's BBQ & Burgers - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Stomp's vs. Tookie's - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Taqueria Taconmadre - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Chief's Cajun Snack Shack

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