I probably should have known better. In fact, my better instincts were telling me to keep moving when I stumbled on Howdy Burger while exploring the tunnel section stretching underneath the Esperson building. The glossy signage and faux-kitschy decor, heralding all of the same canned touchstones that have Top Chef pissing off food loving Texans, were out in force. The menu was confused and confusing, ranging from the expected burgers to New York-style hot dogs, with an odd swerve toward Mission-style burritos and a perplexingly pan-cultural array of salads and sandwiches bringing up the rear.
It's one of the amusing idiosyncrasies of Tunnel Dining that I've learned to be leery of any place that seems too well put-together, as if the corporate-style, homogenized packaging is a harbinger of the food. Such was the case with Howdy Burger. Take a look at the menu photo and graphics: it's like some PR flack took the first stock images available for "burger" and "Texas," superimposed them on one another, and called it a franchise concept.
Figuring I should go with their advertised strengths, I ordered the "Howdy Ultimate Bacon Cheddar Burger" (emphasis theirs), sided with onion rings. Preparation of my meal took forever, which had me (momentarily) hopeful that perhaps I'd gauged Howdy Burger all wrong. Scenes flashed before my eyes of a cook hand-shaping my burger, slicing and battering onion rings while I waited amidst the bucolic photos of cows and over-size wooden six-shooters that lined the walls. The reality was somewhat different.
Clearly pre-formed, the perfect discs that topped my burger were dessicated-looking, as if they'd been partially dehydrated before cooking. In fact, they almost had the look of freezer burn, as if the once moist beef had been allowed to sublimate as it sat in cold storage. The meat proved to have an oddly crumbly texture, like a compacted and joyless version of Roseanne's loose meat favorite.
I'll give Howdy Burger props for their packaging; the salad stuff had its own container, which should have preserved both the integrity of the sandwich and of the vegetables. Unfortunately, the little Styrofoam container was a cautionary tale of pre-portioning. Pulled from a stack of identical units lining the pass, my package contained sad ghosts of vegetables; onions with that slight translucency that indicates a long wait after slicing, tomatoes pallid, pickles wilted into a flaccid little clump.
It wasn't until halfway through the burger, and only then in the name of science, that I bothered to add them at all. A bit of extra juiciness, but no flavor to speak of. No sharp onion to contrast the fat, nor acidic snap of pickle to perk up the proceedings.
In an unexpected turn of events, the burger itself was surprisingly well seasoned and beefy, with the punch of sharp cheddar amplifying the savory character. Even this beefiness, though, had a sort of pre-fab quality to it, more of a surface sheen of salt and fat than a true depth of flavor, offering an instant, yet fleeting, gratification. The scant few curled afterthoughts of bacon added nothing of note.
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The onion rings were both overcooked and cold, as if someone had forgotten them in the fryer some hours ago, then set them aside to wither before a quick pass under a heat lamp brought them to me. They bore that crumby coating that provides the tell for so many pre-frozen fried items, a gritty and greasy affair that invariably winds up coating your hands and strewn across your shirt-front. Though decently crispy, they offered no flavor, as if the onions inside them had been prepped by some sort of vegetable vampire (Bunnicula, anyone?), who stripped them of their character before entombing them in batter.
When I brought the burger back to my desk, its impressive size elicited sounds of jealousy from my coworkers. By the end, I'd voiced so many disappointed sighs that they began offering their condolences. It just goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover, except when you can.