The burger was a monster -- well over a pound of ground meat scorched to a forbidding-looking shade of black with charred bits on the outside that crunched between your molars. The black crust was a delightful contrast to the rosy pink interior, which oozed juices. The homemade bun was decorated with the traditional Texas garnish: pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, with mustard and mayo on the bun.
I gave this purist's rendition of the Texas hamburger a perfect ten on my ballot sheet. But when the results of the 2005 Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off were announced, this awesome classic burger didn't even make the top three.
The contest was held on June 11 in Athens, an East Texas town that calls itself the "Original Home of the Hamburger." In a field of 15 contestants, I awarded three perfect tens. Maybe my standards as a hamburger judge were a bit too lenient. Or maybe, after years of eating cooked-to-death hamburgers made from frozen patties, I was just overjoyed to see so many old-fashioned hand-formed hamburgers all in one place.
According to a new book called Hamburgers and Fries by John T. Edge, artisanal hamburgers, as the new hand-formed burgers are being called, are making a comeback across the country. "We are at this very moment, in the midst of a burger renaissance," he writes. To prove it, Edge takes us on a grand tour of the American burger-scape, with several notable stops in Texas. The book's final scene is set here in Houston, the home of some of the nation's most remarkable burgers.
Ever since reading the book, I've had burgers on the brain. If our state and our hometown were playing a part in a national hamburger revival, then I figured I ought to be on the front lines filing some firsthand reports. So I did my own mini-tour this summer to check out the state of the Texas burger.
For my remedial eating, I sought out the famous burgers around the state that I'd read about but never tried. I also ate a couple dozen classic hamburgers here in Space City and compiled a list of standouts in several genres (see sidebar). And then there are the 15 burgers I ate in one day while judging the burger cook-off in Athens -- a burger binge that proved to be extremely educational.
The Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was founded in 1984 to publicize Athens as the "birthplace of the hamburger." One of the organizers was Dallas newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert, who helped supply the proof that it was an Athens cafe owner named Fletcher Davis who first put a cooked ground meat patty between two slices of bread in the late 1880s, and subsequently at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, where a reporter for the New York Tribune made the first documented mention of a "hamburger sandwich."
Frank X. Tolbert claimed that the guy who served the burger to the reporter was Fletcher Davis. Along with numerous oral histories, Tolbert had discovered a photo of the World's Fair midway in the possession of an Athens banker with a handwritten caption that pointed out "Old Dave's Hamburger Stand." (Fletcher Davis was known as Uncle Fletch and later as Old Dave.)
Tolbert died a few months before the first contest was held. For 20 years or so, his Athens, Texas, creation story competed with similar yarns from all over the country. Hamburg, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and Seymour, Wisconsin, have also declared themselves the birthplace of the hamburger. Most of those claims are based on oral histories given by family members of the purported inventor. None comes with any written or photographic evidence.
No doubt the idea of putting ground meat on a sandwich occurred to several people at around the same time. During the Civil War, James Salisbury, an Ohio physician, used a diet of minced or ground beef patties to cure soldiers of intestinal ills. His "Salisbury steaks" became popular all over the country in the late 1800s. Putting one on toast took no great leap of imagination.
But the Athens story gained official acceptance during the meat industry's "100th anniversary of the hamburger" celebration last year. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association headquarters in Denver issued press releases pinpointing the hamburger's birth date to the World's Fair of 1904 and crediting Fletcher Davis as the inventor.
The publicity took the town of Athens by surprise. The Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was suspended in 1999. Logistics and traffic were the official explanations. But the hamburger had fallen on hard times, beginning with the Jack in the Box scandal of 1993, and worsening in 1998 after the Hudson Foods hamburger-patty recall prompted the USDA to tell consumers to treat all ground meat as if it were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Perhaps health and liability concerns had something to do with the cancellation of the contest.
But thanks to all the attention Athens was getting, the charcoal grills were dusted off and the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off was resumed in conjunction with the anniversary celebration in 2004. I called the organizers and talked them into letting me be a judge at this year's event. I was exaggerating a little when I told them I was a burger expert. But I figured I still had a couple of months to cram.
Call it research or call it gluttony, but a conservative estimate of the number of burgers I sampled would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 65.
The waiter at DB Bistro in Manhattan brought me what looked like an oversize meatball balanced between two halves of a dinner roll. A wooden skewer kept the unwieldy meat in place between the diminutive buns. It was decorated with rounds of roasted tomato, feathery frisée and slices of red onion. Three jars of fine Dijon mustards, along with ketchup and mayonnaise, were offered on the side.
This was the one and only stop outside Texas in my hamburger pilgrimage. But I had to experience the $29 DB burger, which is, after all, a national curiosity. It's described on the menu as a "sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle." Some call it the best hamburger in the world; others call it an icon of excess.
When I picked the thing up, I discovered there was no way to get a grip on it with my teeth. DB Bistro may be French chef Daniel Boulud's low-end eatery, but it's still a pretty posh place. So before I squirted foie gras all over the white linen tablecloth, I summoned the waiter. "Do people eat this thing with their hands?" I asked him.
"Well, it depends on the dimensions of the mouth. I try not to look," he said with a smile. Then he whispered, "Most people do the best they can with their hands, but they usually end up with a knife and fork." I took his advice and ate the decadent combination of rare sirloin, fatty short ribs, livery foie gras and pungent truffles with utensils.
Boulud, a French chef who relocated to New York, was seeking to make a statement about American pop culture with his new restaurant. Thanks to the timing, his burger hit the publicity jackpot. Introduced a few months before 9/11 when the American economy was at its superheated height, the foie gras-stuffed burger became a monument to "irrational exuberance."
Oddly, 2001 was the same year that Eric Schlosser's indictment of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation, was published. According to Edge, Boulud's burger and Schlosser's book are the two extremes in America's "bipolar" relationship with the hamburger. Despite Schlosser's and the USDA's warnings, we keep looking for bigger, greasier, nastier burgers to satisfy our cravings.
Perhaps the possibility that a burger might kill us makes it more exciting, putting it in the same category as sex, drugs and motorcycles?
Boulud's foie gras-spangled burger sparked the national imagination. Restaurants in Miami, San Francisco and Minneapolis came up with their own expensive burgers. Burgers stuffed with aged Gouda, burgers stuffed with expensive mushrooms, and burgers made with Kobe beef began to appear around the country.
I figured Texans were immune to such newfangled silliness -- until I got to Athens and started sampling burgers at the 2005 Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off. Two of the top three burgers ranked in the cook-off, including the winner, were stuffed. Granted, the stuffing was pepper Jack, not foie gras, but the technique was more reminiscent of Daniel Boulud than Fletcher Davis.
Maybe the DB burger set us free. Or maybe the burger, in all its simplicity, just begs to be tinkered with.
The "tostada burger" at Chris Madrid's in San Antonio starts with a hamburger patty that's been whacked flat with a spatula on the griddle and cooked well done and crispy. The flattened patty is so wide, it overhangs the toasted roll on all sides. The oversize meat is then slathered with refried beans and layered with tortilla chips. Jalapeños are 50 cents extra but, in my opinion, indispensable. The crowning glory, and Madrid's trademark, is a mound of cheddar cheese melted on top of the burger, beans and chips until it flows over the edge of the patty and solidifies on the plate beneath it. What comes to the table looks like a cheddar cheese waterfall on a bun.
Chris Madrid's, a roomy Blanco Street icehouse and burger emporium, frequently ranks at the top of San Antonio "best burger" surveys. Although my basis for comparison was limited to the four San Antonio hamburger joints I made it to that day, Chris Madrid's was my favorite. I also sampled their "cheesy cheddar" burger, which was much like a tostada burger without the beans and chips.
The tostada burger is one of several variations on an old San Antonio tradition called a bean burger. Invented near Fort Sam Houston in the 1950s at a joint called Sill's Snack Shop, the original bean burger was a regular ground beef patty on a bun, topped with refried beans, Fritos corn chips and a dollop of Cheez Whiz. Lots of burger joints in San Antonio serve the old version, while upscale variations include bean burgers made with black beans and bean burgers with guacamole added. Closer to home, Tookie's in Seabrook serves an excellent bean burger topped with salsa.
In Hamburgers and Fries, Edge spends an entire chapter on the Alamo City delicacy. The bean burger and its Tex-Mex embellishments "define the burger as Texan, while paying homage to the Mexican roots of the state's people," Edge writes. He goes on to compare the bean burger's sense of place with that of cedar-planked salmon in Washington State.
If a burger renaissance means a return to the aesthetics of an earlier time, then there is no better place to relive the classic era than Texas. Visiting food writers come here to experience oddities like the 1950s-era bean burger. And they end up amazed at all the classic artisanal burgers they find in icehouses, bars, bowling alleys and grocery stores all over Texas.
In 1998, New York Times food writer William Grimes drove around the state sampling burgers both famous and unheralded. In his article "The Pride of Texas on a Bun," Grimes concludes, "What the croissant is to France, what goulash is to Hungary, what pickled herring is to Sweden, the hamburger is to Texas. It is a symbol, a necessity and a triumph, a part of the cultural patrimony so tightly woven into the fabric of Texas life that Texans themselves do not even remark on it "
The roots of the hamburger are so deep in Texas culture, Grimes postulates, "that even the forces of modernization can't quite pull them up." It's why Texans still prefer big honking beef patties, why they place more trust in greasy side-of-the-road joints than national chains, and how they instinctively know that "all the way" means pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, mustard and mayo -- but never ketchup.
The ultimate Texas hamburger, according to Grimes, can be found at a joint called Arnold's in Amarillo. Embarrassed that I'd never been there, I caught a plane to the Panhandle city and checked the place out.
The Texas burger at Arnold's is a large, irregular, three-quarter-pound hamburger patty pressed flat on a griddle and cooked well done. The patty is served on a Texas-shaped bun with pickles, onions, lettuce and tomato, plus mustard and mayo. You have to take several bites of the plain meat that spreads out beyond the borders of the bun before you get to the Rio Grande and the condiments beyond it. If you like beef, that's not a bad thing.
Arnold's is a sorry dump with cracked concrete floors, eight tables and a window air conditioner that drips. While I sat and ate my burger, owner Gayla Arnold berated members of the local high school football team when they attempted to order Arnold burgers with mere three-quarter-pound patties. Growing boys needed double-meat burgers, with a pound and half of beef, Arnold contended. Two of the linemen in the group followed her advice.
"I thought the burger patty itself would be shaped like Texas," I told Arnold.
"Well, sometimes it is," she said, looking over at the griddle beside her. "It depends on how much we've got going on."
At the moment, the griddle was crowded because they had one of their giant "family burgers" going. It's an 18-inch, ten-pound hamburger patty served on a giant bread round that's designed to feed ten to 12 people. They also have a 24-inch version, which claims to be the biggest burger in Texas. I promised to come back another time when things were calmer.
Arnold's is a lot of fun. And if you're looking for iconic burgers, one that comes on a Texas-shaped bun is hard to top. But I think the ultimate Texas hamburger is something a little less self-conscious.
The "killer burger" at Mr. Hamburger comes on a shiny oversize bun neatly wrapped in tissue paper. Inside are two half-pound patties of loose ground meat pressed into free-form shapes, griddle-fried to a dark shade of brown, with lots of delectable cracks and fissures. The two monstrous patties are stacked one on top of the other with a slice of American cheese in the middle. Adornments include pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo, plus jalapeños.
I happened upon Mr. Hamburger while driving north on I-45, heading to the burger contest in Athens. I was probably daydreaming about the perfect hamburger when I missed the exit for State Highway 19. Looking for a shortcut, I took a Huntsville exit and got lost. When I spotted a dilapidated hamburger drive-in on 11th Street with a weird scary clown sign, I pulled over immediately.
A conversation with the employees behind the service window revealed that Mr. Hamburger has been serving burgers to Sam Houston State students for more than 50 years. I wondered if all the signs recommending the "killer burger" were meant as a come-on to Huntsville visitors protesting the death penalty. Conscious or not, the irony was too rich to ignore. I ordered mine with fries and a soda.
Eating a hamburger on the way to judge a hamburger cook-off may sound idiotic. But one of the biggest problems with judging cook-offs is how to score the first entry when you have no basis for comparison. Do you give it a five on a scale of one to ten and mark everything else up or down from there? What if the first one turns out to be the best?
Eating a hamburger on the way to the cook-off was a brilliant way around the dilemma. Or at least this was the elaborate rationalization I was using to cover up my hamburger-eating disorder.
However sane my choice of lunch was that day, I have no regrets. From the full pound of fresh ground meat and the juicy condiments, to the ramshackle joint that turns it out, Mr. Hamburger's killer burger is a true Texas classic. I was indeed slain by it -- or at least it made me feel like taking a nap.
The burger that won the Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off featured three pounds of ground beef formed into two stuffed patties that sat on a one-foot-diameter custom-baked seeded bun. It had impressive heft, like the behemoths you find at Arnold's and Mr. Hamburger. It also had the glorious pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard trimmings Texans consider indispensable. Yet the clever stuffing of pepper Jack cheese inside the burger patties is part of the modern trend.
Gary Beams headed up the winning team, which came from Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. Beams, who is the TVCC cafeteria manager, is also a trained chef who's worked in the kitchens of such fine restaurants as the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.
He ground three pounds of sirloin and chuck and seasoned it with a combination of spices that remains his secret. He then divided the meat into four three-quarter-pound patties, put pepper Jack cheese on two of them, and formed two humongous pound-and-a-half stuffed burger patties by pinching the layers together. The two giant patties were then grilled and removed from the fire when they reached an internal temperature of 146 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The hamburger keeps cooking after you take it off," Beams explained. He hoped the burger would be cooked to 150 degrees by the time it made it to the judging. At that temperature, no pink color remains, but the meat's still juicy. It's also ten degrees lower than the USDA guidelines allow (see sidebar, page 27).
Stuffing a hamburger patty with cheese is one way to make it taste moist even when the meat is fairly well done, Beams confided. Second-place winner Derek Holdredge of Athens mixed ground pork and ground beef to keep the meat juicy (a technique familiar to fans of Tookie's "squealer"). He put his half-pound patties on grocery-store kaiser rolls with the standard pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. Third-place winner Jan Canterbury, a second-grade teacher in Cut and Shoot, stuffed two-and-a-half-pound patties with Monterrey Jack and grated jalapeños, much like the first-place winner.
Gary Beams doesn't think a cheese-stuffed burger will ever make it in Texas restaurants because it complicates the cooking-temperature equation even further. "It's a health department nightmare," he said.
But Beams believes that the American hamburger has recently turned a corner. According to the burger champion, the once noble American burger has been in a slump that goes all the way back to the infancy of the fast food industry.
"Clown burgers" is what Beams calls McDonald's version, and he blames the company for trying to squeeze more profits out of each sandwich by making the patties smaller and smaller. "Our winning burger weighed three pounds. Clown burgers are now a tenth of a pound per patty!"
Homemade hamburgers, which were always the burger lover's alternative to the fast food chains, began their own decline in the 1990s. "I think the integrity of the burger got lost when we couldn't cook them medium-rare anymore," Beams said. "E. coli dealt the burger a blow at a time when beef already had a bad rap."
But the new popularity of outdoor cooking seems to have changed matters. "Burgers are coming back," Beams said. And in his opinion, consumers are leading the revival. "The fast food chains are following the backyard barbecue craze," said Beams.
In fact, the idea of an upscale hamburger chain got kick-started here in 1980 when Phil Romano opened the first Fuddrucker's in San Antonio. Romano told me on the phone that his inspiration was the introduction of the McDonald's quarter-pounder. "They were charging three times more, but it wasn't any better," he said. Romano decided to make an adult hamburger. And he would serve it in a place with cold beer and "no funny clowns or milk shakes." The earliest Fuddrucker's location had a butcher shop and a bakery in front so you could watch your meat being ground and your buns being baked. The Fuddrucker's chain went on to open locations in 30 states.
Houstonians swear by the eight-location hamburger chain Becks Prime, where USDA Choice chuck is ground fresh every morning and grilled to order over mesquite wood. Other chains around the country, like Backyard Burgers and Culver's ButterBurgers, are following the trend.
At a time when many fast food outlets are struggling to survive, the artisanal hamburger is clearly on the rise.
Ask Texas burger visionary Phil Romano about the shape of the future, and he'll point you to his new hamburger joint in Dallas's Highland Park. The new concept is called Who's Who Burgers, and the upscale joint's specialty is a Kobe burger. At first, the restaurant offered a special trial of the Kobe burgers to encourage consumers to try them. Now Kobe burgers, which cost $11 each, are outselling other burgers there by 70 percent.
Kobe is the Japanese term for beef from the Wagyu cattle. Who's Who Burgers gets theirs from a company called Yama Beef. The same company was giving away free burgers at the cook-off. I called the East Texas company to see if any of the competitors in the Uncle Fletch's cook-off were using Wagyu beef. They weren't. I also asked where I could sample a Wagyu burger. No one in Houston sells them yet, they told me. But they sent me an overnight shipment of burger patties so I could try them at home.
We don't eat purebred Wagyu cattle in the United States -- the breeding stock is too expensive to slaughter. Instead, Yama Beef markets beef from cattle that are half Wagyu and half Angus. But even half-Wagyu crossbreeds produce beef that routinely grades above USDA Prime.
USDA grades are based on internal marbling. USDA Prime is roughly 15 percent more marbled than USDA Choice. Wagyu steaks are well over 15 percent more marbled than USDA Prime. But the hamburger patties have the same 80-20 lean-to-fat ratio you can find in grocery-store ground meat. So what makes a Wagyu burger better?
According to Australian nutrition researchers, Wagyu cattle yield a different, and more healthful, form of fat that's high in beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Chefs seem to think it also tastes better than other forms of beef fat.
"The fat is different. It seems to coat your mouth -- the flavor is more intense," says Kent Rathbun of Jasper's restaurant in Plano, where Wagyu burgers are popular. Houstonians will be able to sample the premium burger when Jasper's opens in the Market Street Center in The Woodlands this fall.
I tried cooking some half-pound Wagyu hamburger patties on a gas grill, but the meat seemed to stick to the grate. Patties cooked in a hot cast-iron skillet came out much better. I cooked them until they developed a dark, crunchy crust on top but remained medium-rare in the center.
I baked oversize homemade sourdough buns, split them, toasted them and spread them with Hellmann's mayo and a fiery Russian mustard. I arranged the patties on the bread and decorated them with slices of heirloom tomatoes from my garden. Then I added a thick ring of raw, sweet onion and a few homemade bread-and-butter pickle chips. One of my taste-testers declared it the best burger she'd ever eaten.
Two months of greasy-chinned research brought me to the conclusion that the state of Texas is simultaneously the most backward and the most forward of places when it comes to burgers. You can still eat the hamburger of 50 years ago in small-town Texas burger joints and Fifth Ward soul food eateries. You can taste new artisanal burgers in countless restaurants and upscale burger chains. And if Phil Romano is right, a bite of a Texas Kobe burger may foretell the future.
Will foodie philosophers point to the Japanese-Texan Kobe burger as a symbol of the free flow of culture (and genetics) in our increasingly globalized world? I don't know. All I can say for sure is that they taste damned good.
I'm thinking of entering one in next year's Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off.
Eighteen Greater Houston Hamburgers You Need to Try Right Now
"Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy." -- Calvin Trillin
Here's a "must try" list of Houston-area burgers. Where else but Space City could you find so many fancy new burgers, time-honored classics and dinosaurs on a bun? It's not a single burger but the staggering array of choices that makes our city a burger-eaters' paradise. I dare any other city in the world to submit a list of burgers that can top these.
Three Grocery Store Burgers
Some of the most famous burgers in Texas are served in old convenience stores and groceries. These are Houston's three best examples of the genre.
Stanton's Super Market
1420 Edwards Street, 713-227-4893
This shabby convenience store and grill has been in business since 1961. The plainest burger on the menu is a giant bacon cheeseburger with a half-pound hand-formed patty on an oversize well-toasted sesame seed bun topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard and red onions. "All the way" burgers come with two strips of bacon and an ample amount of American cheese, and upgrades include the "Rio jalapeño burger" (add pickled peppers), the "BBQ blues burger" (with barbecue sauce) and the "Tex-Mex burger" (with salsa). The patty melt is a plain cheeseburger served on Texas toast. Burgers are "to go" only, so have a plan for where to eat it.
Lankford Grocery & Market
88 Dennis Street, 713-522-9555
Juicy, loose-packed homemade hamburger patties on greasy toasted rolls have been the specialty here for half a century. Lankford's was a grocery when owner and head cook Eydie Prior was growing up there. Her parents opened the store in 1939, but it was the old-fashioned hamburgers that brought in the crowds. And so Lankford's became a restaurant. And it may be the homiest one in the city. Eydie's grandkids often sit at the bar and watch cartoons while her daughter waits tables.
Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar
7340 Washington Avenue, 713-864-9744
Once there was a very old convenience store with the wonderfully cryptic name Christian's Totem. The place was famous for its awesome jalapeño cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, the owner, Steve Christian, didn't have the sense to preserve his family's heritage. He removed the convenience store shelves, expanded and renamed the place Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar. (A religious sports bar?) Luckily, Christian hasn't screwed up the jalapeño cheeseburger. (Yet.) You get your choice of Swiss or standard American singles on a hand-formed patty of never-been-frozen freshly ground beef served with crunchy Cajun Chef pickled jalapeños. It's served on a perfectly toasted bun with just the right amount of lettuce and tomato, all wrapped in tissue paper and balanced on the edge of a red plastic basket full of fries.
Three Soul Food Burgers
Adventurous burger-lovers will want to hunt down these Fifth Ward soul food shacks. They serve three of the most incredible hamburgers in the city.
Lockwood Malt Shop
5410 Mulvey, 713-671-2706
Perfection on a buttered bun. They call it an old-fashioned burger. It's cooked on a hot griddle, so there are lots of dark, crinkly, crunchy edges and yet it's still fat and juicy in the middle. Half a pound? Five-eighths of a pound? Who knows. They just grab a big handful of ground meat and make a burger out of it. The meat comes from a nearby meat market, fresh-ground every morning. The tomatoes taste homegrown. "All the way" means tomatoes, lettuce, mustard, mayo, onion and pickles. When you get it to go, they wrap it up in wax paper. Now that's old-fashioned! The malt shop doesn't sell malts, but they go through gallons of Kool-Aid every day. There is no sign and no way to tell the address. Look for the seemingly abandoned red building on the southwest corner of Lockwood and Mulvey, and push hard on the screen door.
Adrian's Burger Bar
5311 Sonora Street, 713-674-1488
A hamburger at Adrian's is a mess waiting to happen. The honking one-pound hand-formed meat patty is cooked so that the meat remains extremely juicy and a little loose. It's topped with a sloppy mountain of lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles. The burgers are fried to order, so they're piping hot. Cutting the sandwich in half makes it less likely the whole mess will explode and run down the front of your shirt when you bite it. The food there is beautiful, but the dining room is ugly. Oh, and if a pound of ground meat isn't enough to satisfy your appetite, ask Adrian for a double. He sells lots of them.
3303 Lee Street, 713-222-7104
There's the regular hamburger on the menu at the J&J Lounge, and then there's the old-fashioned burger. The regular burger is made with a skinny frozen patty à la Mickey D's. The old-fashioned burger is a half-pound hand-formed patty served on two slices of toasted Wonder Bread with chopped lettuce, chopped onion, tomato, mustard and mayo. This is probably the closest thing to Fletcher Davis's original hamburger that you will find in the state of Texas. But be forewarned that this ramshackle pool room and beer joint in the Fifth Ward is not a place for small children, old ladies or the faint of heart.
Three Burger Joint Burgers
The independent burger joint was long ago eclipsed in popularity by the chains and the fast food franchises. The ones that still survive offer a burger you can't find anywhere else.
710 11th Street, Huntsville, 936-291-0571
There is no car service at this half-century-old hamburger drive-in, so you have to order at the window. Mr. Hamburger's "killer burger" -- which features two hefty handmade burger patties with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mustard and mayo with jalapeños -- is not only a favorite of Sam Houston State students, it's a Texas burger classic. Look for the scary clown sign.
Stamps Super Burger
7590 West Bellfort, 713-771-5077
The original Stamps was opened in 1970 on Dalton Drive near Jackson State University in the Mississippi capital by a Methodist minister named Algernon Stamps. The Bellfort location is owned by the Mississippi minister's Houston relatives. Stamps's legendary SuperBurger features 12 ounces of freshly ground beef, hand-formed into a patty, griddle-fried and dressed with fresh produce. Call your order in beforehand, or suffer a wait that can be as long as an hour at busy times. And be prepared to eat at the back counter (there are no tables). The burger is so juicy, it's difficult to get it home in one piece -- the bottom bun turns to mush on the drive.
5815 Westheimer, 713-975-6082
A clean, well-lit place for quality burgers in the Galleria area, Pappas Burger is a modern burger joint that also serves beer. The meat is first-rate; they start with never-been-frozen beef, ground fresh daily next door at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Then they make a half-pound patty and griddle-cook it. You choose from a wide variety of configurations and order at the counter. The blue cheese burger is the local favorite.
Honorable mention: Miller's Cafe, Champ Burger
Three Bar and Grill Burgers
Nothing tastes better with a big juicy burger than a cold beer. And that gives the neighborhood bar and grill a decided edge in any discussion of where to go eat burgers.
Goode's Armadillo Palace
5015 Kirby Drive, 713-526-9700
They call it the Michael Berry Burger, after the city councilman. It features a half-pound of fresh-ground USDA Choice sirloin served on a puffy golden bun with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. The substantial buns help hold the burger together perfectly, even though the meat is extremely juicy. I've never been fond of the burgers across the street at the Goode Co. burger and taco joint, but this one is in an entirely different class.
2010 Waugh Drive, 713-521-0521
At its greasy best when ordered with bacon and cheese, Rudz's burger arrives on a china plate with its top bun askew. Alongside it, a slice of tomato, another of purple onion and a chunk of iceberg lettuce are neatly stacked, waiting for audience participation. Mayonnaise is already slathered on the lower bun beneath the meat. The patty is thick and pink inside, generously seasoned with garlic powder, salt and pepper. The fresh bakery bun is shiny on the top, with a porous egg-bread interior. The burger is so moist that juice tends to run between your fingers while you eat it.
318 Gray, 713-523-6404
Order it medium-rare and your half-pound of char-grilled Black Angus comes to the table bright red, smothered with melting Gorgonzola and topped with a pile of wispy batter-fried onions, on a honey wheat hamburger bun bottom. Three black lines across the top bun attest to its recent toasting on the grill. The spring greens come on the side as well as your choice of spreads. Tomato by request.
Honorable mention: Bar at Cafe Annie, Blanco Cafe, Cahill's on Durham, Kenneally's, Market Square Bar & Grill
Three Offbeat Burgers
The burger is a blank canvas upon which Texans express their eccentricities. Don't be surprised if you fall in love with some of these barbecue burgers, bean burgers and bigger-than-a-pound monstrosities.
1202 Bayport Boulevard, Seabrook, 281-474-3444
Tookie's best burger is the "squealer." It's sort of like a bacon cheeseburger, but instead of frying the bacon separately so the grease can be drained off, they grind up the smoked pork with the beef. The genius of this concept is that the bacon fat bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a salty, greasy burger that stays juicy even when well done. Tookie's also serves a salsa-accented "bean burger" that's better than most of the ones you get in San Antonio.
Mel's Country Cafe
24814 Stanolind, Tomball, 281-255-6357
There are normal burgers on the menu, and then there's the "Mel's burger," a pound of ground meat with bacon and three slices of American cheese. The pound comprises three individual patties, and they're available cooked medium well -- don't ask for medium, because they won't do it. If you're really hungry, try a "mega Mel." It's a pound and a half of meat, a pound of bacon and a quarter-pound of cheese. Eat it in under two hours and get your name on the Wall of Fame. Nine minutes is the current record.
Guy's Meat Market
3106 Old Spanish Trail, 713-747-6800
Barbecue burgers are available only Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., while they last, and they always sell out. A juicy half-pound ground beef patty is cooked and then finished in a hickory-stoked smoker. For best results, be sure to get it with barbecue sauce, onions and pickles, not lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo.
Honorable mention: Original New Orleans Po' Boy (cheeseburger poor boy)
Three Chain Burgers
Oversize hamburgers made with freshly ground beef are all the rage at chain restaurants these days. Here are three Houston favorites worth checking out.
2902 Kirby Drive, 713-524-7085; and seven other locations
Don't complain if the dining room is smoky -- it's a small price to pay for mesquite-grilled meat. USDA Choice chuck roasts are ground on the premises of each location every morning. The fresh ground meat is formed into half-pound patties by machine. You can get them medium-rare if you like. The original on Kirby has been open since 1985. A Bellaire bakery has been baking the buns for 20 years. This may be the best chain burger in America.
3899 Southwest Freeway, 713-626-9950; and two other locations
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When Houstonians went "cruising for burgers" back in the day, the most popular destination was Prince's Drive-In, which first opened in 1934. The new locations pay homage to the old drive-ins with historic photos and old menus. The Angus beef, which is ground fresh daily, is available medium-rare. The "king's favorite" is a half-pound patty with chili, cheese and grilled onion on top, and lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo on the bottom. The "original" features Prince's sauce, which looks like a slurry of pureed fresh tomatoes.
3929 Southwest Freeway, 713-621-8222; and 17 other locations
Born in San Antonio, the Fuddrucker's chain is famous for grinding its own meat and baking its own buns. The machine-formed burger comes in third-pound, half-pound, two-thirds-pound and one-pound sizes. They'll griddle-cook it medium-rare if you want, though there is a warning on the menu about the health risks. You dress the burger yourself. This is the granddaddy of the new old-fashioned burger chains.robb
Honorable mention: Culver's ButterBurgers, Chili's, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday