Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Stomp's vs. Tookie's

Here's the quick story as I understand it: Tookie's -- the iconic gold-and-green burger stand in Seabrook -- opened in 1975, served happy customers giant burgers for many wonderful years and was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

In the interim, Stomp's opened two years later in Bacliff -- just a few miles up the road from Tookie's -- with many of the same recipes under different names. The bacon-infused Squealer at Tookie's became the Hog Wild at Stomp's; the Bean Burger at Tookie's became the Stomper; even the freshly battered onion rings at Stomp's resembled those at Tookie's so closely as to call to mind the classic art forgeries of Mark Landis. Landis never sought to profit off his forgeries, but the care and attention to detail made his copies art in their own right.

See also: - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Taqueria Taconmadre - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Chief's Cajun Snack Shack

And then, in August 2011, Tookie's reopened. New owner Barry Terrell had purchased the restaurant -- and its recipes -- from longtime owner Jim Spears, and reassembled the old girl as best he knew how, even hiring as many of the old Tookie's staff as possible.

Nearly two years later, Tookie's still boasts a line out the door during lunchtime and an hour wait at peak times. Stomp's, on the other hand, is smaller than Tookie's but will seat you the moment you walk in.

As such, I quite naturally expected that Tookie's -- the original, the one-and-only the matriarch of Bay Area burgers -- would turn out the superior product. And having never eaten at Tookie's, I was excited to finally taste its famous burger for myself. But because my friends and I couldn't quite stomach an hour wait at high noon, we decided to head to Stomp's first and follow back up with Tookie's after we'd had our first lunch of the day.

I liked the rough-and-tumble look of Stomp's from the start. Someone had painted "STOMP'S" on the brown-shingled roof in large white letters using something resembling shoe polish so that you couldn't pass it from the road, while the interior looked like a hospitable barn. There is nothing fussy about Stomp's -- right down to its prices. The most expensive burger on its menu is a double-meat item with refried beans, avocado slices and more on a torta bun for $5.98.

We went with a simple cheeseburger and a Jezebel, for $3.68 and $4.98 respectively, and a Round-Up appetizer that featured fries topped with "campfire chili," melted shreds of Cheddar cheese, guacamole, sour cream, real bits of roughly chopped bacon and jalapenos for $5.28. This lovely mess of fries arrived first and set the tone for the meal to follow.

Any good Texan has been to a party where someone brought a rectangular hunk of Philly cream cheese topped with raspberry-chipotle "salad dressing." It's the ubiquitous appetizer of church potlucks, baby showers and Christmas parties from Houston to Henderson. Imagine that on a rugged, half-pound burger and you've got the Jezebel. It went very quickly.

Stomp's cheeseburger looked rather plain by comparison, but went equally fast. The meat on both was well-seasoned and I liked the soft, slightly sweet, eggy bun on both. More importantly, I couldn't wait to try the Tookie's burgers. Considering that the Stomp's versions had just rocketed into my personal list of Top 5 burgers in the greater Houston area, the Tookie's burgers seemed poised to blow my burger-loving mind.

"I have to warn you," said my friend Cortney, a Clear Lake resident who's eaten at Tookie's for years, "the Squealer I had last time I was there wasn't very good." She couldn't taste the bacon at all, she claimed, and the overall burger seemed to have lost its luster. But as we headed to Tookie's, we were both determined to chalk it up to a bad day.

Not so, as I quickly found out. After a "brief" 20-minute wait, we paraded past packed tables and a colorful merchandise counter selling all manner of Tookie's paraphernalia to our own table -- which had been occupied so recently that it was still being wiped clean of burger debris.

I can't stress enough how popular Tookie's is and how clearly happy the local residents are to have their old burger joint back and intact.

Which is why it made me doubly sad to find a boring, bland, almost lukewarm burger after such fanfare had preceded its delivery to our table. We'd ordered the #99 -- listed on the menu as "A Champion" -- but couldn't find any trace of the wine the beef had apparently been marinated in, nor "special spices." I also wasn't impressed with the comparatively drier sesame seed bun, which flaked apart as we cut the burger.

It wasn't bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it wasn't worth a 20-minute wait, nor an hour wait for that matter. And at $6.25, it was one of the less expensive burgers on the menu. Granted, it appeared larger than the Stomp's burgers (and the $8.25 burgers on the menu feature a full pound of meat, so order wisely).

"It's fine," said Cortney. I agreed: "A perfectly serviceable burger." But based on this sample, not one deserving of the fame and fanfare afforded to the little Seabrook burger joint.

The famous onion rings and Pelican Eggs on the other hand? To use the menu's parlance for the bacon-and-cheese-stuffed jalapeno peppers: "Perfection." The service, too, was comparable at both places: cheerful, welcoming and efficient.

While Tookie's may be worth the drive south for the nostalgia (real or imagined, depending on whether or not you've visited in the past) and the onion rings, it's best to just keep heading south on Highway 146 until you hit Stomp's. The burgers aren't just better, the prices will make up for the gas money you spent getting there.

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Katharine Shilcutt