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The Burger Behind Burger Park

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Burger Park -- a humble, low-slung burger joint on MLK that can appear abandoned on quiet days -- turns out anywhere from 400 to 500 burgers a day. One needs only to go to Burger Park around dinner time, before it closes at 7:30 p.m., to see the building spring to life.

Cars fill the tiny parking lot, lining up behind each other and often double-parking. Engines are left running if it's extra hot or extra cold outside, to keep the cars climate-controlled while the patrons prepare to wait for their burgers in line. Even though the men at the grill move quickly, there are so many orders in the evening that a 10-to-15-minute wait is inevitable.

While standing in line, people catch up with each other, joke, chat idly. Burger Park is a neighborhood joint, with just as many people walking to it as driving. Almost everyone here knows each other, including the people who own it: Gil Kim and his wife Oak, Korean immigrants who have run Burger Park for 15 years and are only the second owners in its 43-year history.

It's unusual to find such stability and durability in the restaurant industry, especially in Houston. But Burger Park's history in South Park is even more unusual. And that's the topic of this week's cover story.

While South Park has grown from a bucolic, blue-collar suburb to the crime-ridden urban area of the 1980s and 1990s that nearly cannibalized itself, one thing has remained constant: Burger Park. Even the name of the street that Burger Park is on has changed, from South Park Boulevard to Martin Luther King Boulevard in 1977. But Burger Park, selling cheeseburgers and slushes since 1968, has remained the same.

The search for a great cheeseburger is what led me to Burger Park in the first place. My love for the thin, cheese-covered patties at Cream Burger is well-documented. I'm more of a thin burger fan; those giant, baby-head-sized burgers with half a pound of meat just aren't for me. I like to be able to wrap my hands around the entire burger with ease and get a bite of each layer of fixings with every mouthful.

I've yet to have a cheeseburger at Burger Park that wasn't filled to bursting with produce that's just as fresh as its never-frozen meat: fat, bright red tomatoes, snappy iceberg lettuce, sinus-clearingly fresh white onions. The bread is soft and chewy, swiped on both sides with mustard and mayonnaise, soaking up the juices from the slender, slightly crispy patty.

But the cheese is what gets me. The way the burger is assembled, the cheese melts almost immediately into the onions and meat, looking like a cross between a hellacious patty melt and the smothered, covered and scattered hashbrowns at a Waffle House. For a Texan who loves a thin patty with plenty of cheese and fixings, it's a very nearly perfect burger.

Washed down with a peach slush as you sit outside on one of the few aluminum tables, it's not a bad way to wind down the evening. And if you get there a little bit past 7:30, don't worry; the Kims usually keep the doors open for anyone who still wants burger number 501 of the day.

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