Barbecued brisket, chicken-fried steak, and tacos aside, there is no more iconic Texas food than the hamburger. Not only was the most famous American sandwich invented here, but every day, we Texans consume burgers by the millions. Which is why Texas Monthly concluded some six months ago that it was high time we published the definitive story celebrating this indigenous food and identifying the fifty greatest examples currently being served. That such a story had never before greased, er, graced these pages seemed inexplicable.
Almost immediately, we understood the omission. The task was impossible! Everybody who wrote, called, or stopped us in the hallway had a different favorite burger. (For fun we also asked a bunch of notable Texans for their top picks.) Sure, the names of classic joints kept popping up, but basically people nominated their neighborhood favorites. It was as if we had asked, “Who’s the best kid in Texas?” The answer’s always “Mine, of course.” ( Editors’ note: To be clear, “The Fifty Best Kids in Texas” will not be featured in an upcoming issue; please do not send nominations.)
We boiled down these recommendations, plus everything else our research turned up, into a list of candidates ranging from the ultrasimple to the über-swanky. For patriotic and aesthetic reasons (and to maintain our sanity), we eliminated national chains and urban steakhouses. Our 31 valiant tasters covered 12,343 miles, visited 253 restaurants, and gained a cumulative 45 pounds.
The results were startling. Legions of legendary places—Dirty Martin’s, Nau’s, Kincaid’s, Chris Madrid’s, Adair’s, Bellaire Broiler Burger—had failed to score in the top fifty. Though plenty of old-school joints did appear, the thin-patty, no-nonsense burger of bygone days was routinely upstaged by a buxom, tricked-out twenty-first-century iteration.
The conclusion? This is what happens when you go for quality over nostalgia. In seeking burgers that stopped us in our tracks, we left some hallowed names in the dust. Undoubtedly, burger-loving readers will be outraged at a few of our picks and misses, but so be it. Here begins our list of the fifty best hamburgers in Texas. PATRICIA SHARPE AND JAKE SILVERSTEIN
$12 ( Fries are included in this price.)
The Grape, Dallas
Not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but if ever there were a burger that could sitteth at the right hand of the Almighty, this would be the one. We sweareth. This is a celestial sandwich in every tiny detail. The meat, ground in-house, is ten ounces of high-quality chuck-eye (renowned for having the best fat-to-lean ratio). The peppered bacon is cured on-site. The slightly sweet bun hails from a local bakery. Are you getting the picture? Are your salivary glands in Pavlovian mode? Let us rave on: The lettuce is Texas hydroponic Bibb, just the tender inner leaves; the Lemley tomato has achieved ideal ripeness. White cheddar cheese oozes across the meat patty, melding irresistibly with the Dijonnaise blend that has been swiped across the amply buttered, crisply toasted bread. Is there a drawback? Just one: Unless your mouth is the size of Julia Roberts’s, you’ll need to press this tower down to a manageable height before attempting to stuff your face. The Grape’s creation does not attempt any radical maneuvers, but in its simple perfection it achieves the pinnacle of burgerdom: It makes you wonder why you would ever eat anything else. That it’s offered only during Sunday brunch makes it even more desirable. Granted, some curmudgeons might balk at eating a burger in a wine bistro on Sunday morning, but they’d be missing the very best burger in Texas. 2808 Greenville Ave., 214-828-1981. PS
$9 ( Fries are included in this price.)
Counter Cafe, Austin
During any given lunch hour, more than half the customers are having burgers, despite a menu with first-rate crab cakes and fried oysters. That’s what happens when you have a monster hit. This simple, flawless burger is like an expertly composed three-minute pop song: There are no wrong notes. The hand-pressed patty is six ounces of plump and succulent Niman beef from Colorado, cooked to order. The sweetness of the bun plays treble against the meaty bass line, and the toppings all contribute excellent backup. The lettuce is Boston, the onion is Bermuda, the cheese is very good cheddar, and the tomatoes are ripe. Elegant, uncomplicated, addictive. 626 N. Lamar Blvd., 512-708-8800. PS
Cheeseburger (with green chiles on a jalapeño-cheese bun)
Alamo springs Café, Fredericksburg
There are burgers that go quietly and then there are those that must be wrestled to the mat with both hands and a pile of napkins. At the top of the latter category sits the green-chile cheeseburger at this little roadhouse ten miles south of Fredericksburg in the middle of beautiful nowhere. This burger is like a roller coaster: You have to hang on for dear life, and you can’t get off in the middle. Scrumptious beef juices drip from the humongous, hand-pressed patty (no two alike!) and mix with the roasted green chiles, cheese, mayo, and mustard to create a kind of divine burger roux that soaks into the cloud-soft jalapeño-cheese bun without ever making it soggy and runs down your hands (both of them) as you bury your face over and over again in this meaty marvel. 107 Alamo Rd., 830-990-8004. Closed Tue. JS
Toro Burger Bar, El Paso
The moist, fresh Angus patty came just slightly burned and ragged at the edges, exactly like the ones Mom used to make. But Mom never made anything like this sesame brioche bun. Good God! Toppings include pepper jack, avocado, and a reddish chipotle-mayo blend called Toro Sauce. We like how the avocado mushes into the bun, surrounding the tender patty in a cocoon of boggy, yummy richness that the slight heat from the cheese and the sauce cut right through. This burger looks uptown but tastes homemade. How’d they do that? The bar’s dark and stylish mixture of swank and funk