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.