Calvin Trillin would have you believe that the best hamburger in the world is a double-with-everything-and-grilled-onions at Winstead’s Drive-In in Kansas City. Calvin Trillin is wrong. But then what can you expect from a roving reporter for the New Yorker? The truth is that any number of burgers in Texas easily eclipse Winstead’s, foremost among them the offerings at Kincaid Grocery and U.S. Sub Post Office in Fort Worth. If Mr. Trillin wanted a world-class burger, you’d think he’d try the city whose very name suggests the essence of hamburger: Cow Town.
After all, I took the barren pilgrimage to Kansas City and visited Mr. Trillin’s shrine. I passed up the grilled onions and was brought a creditable sandwich consisting of juicy meat, pickles sliced lengthwise, and thinly sliced onions (no tomatoes!), all on a warm bun unadorned by seeds. A passable, if not surpassing, creation. Unfortunately, Missourians think that ketchup is appropriate on something other than french fries and onion rings. My double-with-everything-sans-grilled-onions arrived bathed in a contemptible orange glop of mustard, mayonnaise, and, you guessed it, ketchup. It made me yearn for another (and better chosen) of Mr. Trillin’s superlatives—the fries at another Kansas City eatery, Arthur Bryant’s. Maybe I should’ve had grilled onions—maybe it’s the grilled onions that set it off. Without them—and with the ketchup—Winstead’s hamburger just isn’t number one in my book.
Perhaps Mr. Trillin was unduly influenced by the chance historical fact that Missouri and not Texas is the home of the American hamburger; the first burger in this country was served at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. But no country can convincingly claim to have invented grilled chopped beef. Hamburg steak was included in the 1898 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book and obviously had been a staple in German diets since some queasy soul first put flame to steak Tartare. Ah, but it took good old American know-how and ingenuity to package it between bread; add salad, cheese, mustard, and/or mayonnaise; and sell billions of this invention to people all over the world who took three courses to consume the same commodities.
The hamburger (it is still called hamburg in some areas) has become an American institution so entrenched that passions run high about what a good example of the species should be. I knew a family where hamburgers had to be fetched from at least two sources to keep the peace. One faction steadfastly refused to eat ashen broil-a-burgers while the other obstinately disdained the local greasy drugstore product. That was in simpler days when those were the only choices. I shudder to think of the insurrections that must currently take place. Does one want a mini-burger-bite-on-a-biscuit or a three-quarter-pounder only Martha Raye could eat? Do you want a Stroganoff burger carved at the table by a silly tuxedoed captain or the output of a franchise which has circumvented God’s own fattening process by adding the feed to the finished product? There are doubleburgers, tripleburgers, even quintupleburgers; there are chiliburgers, patty melts, steakburgers of all descriptions. The choices are endless, and everyone who eats the sandwich is an expert.
Even the expert experts don’t agree completely. They all recommend freshly ground meat with 15 to 20 per cent fat content, light handling, turning only once, and no overcooking. From there, almost anything goes. James Beard adds ice chips to keep the meat moist and sometimes adds onions, herbs, cheese, or whatever is on hand and strikes his fancy. He prefers cooking the meat on a griddle rather than over coals, which are generally too hot and will char and dry the meat. Craig Claiborne, who feels that good hamburger has more flavor than filet, either charcoals his burgers or cooks them in a skillet; he salts the skillet; sears the burgers then reduces the heat to cook them slowly. He doesn’t use grease, but may add a touch of butter at the end. Julia Child mixes egg, onions, and herbs into the beef, then dusts the patties with flour and cooks them in butter.
Cheese is fine if it is cheddar—American is as tasteless as most Bicentennial hoopla, Swiss too dry.
The 21 Club in New York serves probably the most expensive hamburger in the world—$8.50 for lunch, $9.50 at dinner. They grind beef from the short rib to order and form the patties with wet hands to insure moistness. They also add a little finely chopped celery, egg, Worcestershire, and a secret dressing. On the other end of the scale, McDonald’s serves their Big Mac with “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.” Someone somewhere serves burgers the way you want them.
Scattered throughout the state are franchised burger chains, which I dislike almost without exception. Their burgers are invariably made with inferior ingredients, mass-produced before rush hours, and kept warm and tasteless under infrared lamps. Instead of proper accouterments, they usually substitute ketchup (the runny institutional kind—never Heinz, the only ketchup worthy of a fry), or a secret or not-so-secret sauce, relish, and a few minced onions—fresh or dehydrated—and maybe a rancid pickle. I would rather eat the wrapper. The only ascending angel in franchise purgatory is the Corpus Christi-based Whataburger. Inevitably, Whataburger has the usual frozen fries, soupy malts and shakes, institutional interiors, and squeaky-clean adolescents at the counter. They are, however, the only franchise that serves a decent hamburger. Their sandwiches have a generous portion of meat, real sliced tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and pickles on a large warm bun. Don’t opt for the Junior variation, however. They are too small and tend to be dry. Whataburger’s regular model is clearly superior to the other burgers in franchise row.
Another area of rapid proliferation in burgerdom is peacock burgers. Everyone is trying to out-do the original Hippopotamus of San Francisco, which does a thriving business by inventing elaborate concoctions with ground beef. There are places in Texas that serve hamburgers laced with everything from wine to teriyaki and topped with every imaginable sauce or cheese. There are rye buns, sesame buns, caraway buns, whole-wheat buns, pumpernickel buns. The most flagrant case of gilding the lily that I ran across was the disco burger served at an Austin hotel discotheque. It was six ounces of good beef, smothered with bacon, mushrooms, asparagus, bell peppers, onions, and various cheeses, on a fancy caraway-seed bun. I recently learned this dinosaur is extinct, and rightfully so. When I want all of that, I shall fortify my pocketbook, and eat it in proper sequence. When I want a hamburger, I shall go someplace greasy.
To get burgers exactly the way I want them, I cook them myself, but following are some examples of ones I especially enjoy and some I don’t. Straight hamburgers were sampled since cheddar cheese was never available.
Dirty’s on the Drag, aka Martin’s KumBak Place, has seen more generations of University students through hard times than any place extant. It’s comforting to know that with a buck in your Levi’s, you can get a filling if not terribly balanced meal. Just go watch Wes or J.T. take a ball of ground beef, place it on the old marble slab as gently as if James Beard were observing, then, with one fell swoop of the spatula, splat!—a thin juicy greasy patty is made and thrown on the grill along with the sesame-seed bun. You now have a class-A Dirtyburger, guaranteed to rekindle fires which have been drenched the night before.
Grove Drug on East 6th Street has an old-fashioned counter and still serves respectable hamburgers plus very good ice cream milk shakes. It is a good spot to read magazines and recall your childhood. Besides, if you’re reading you can’t watch the cook wrestle apart the pre-made frozen patties—that takes some of the fun out of the reminiscence.
Dan’s Hamburgers has two locations in south Austin where they claim to serve the best in town. They may be right. The cook pierces the pre-formed patties with the edge of a spatula while they’re cooking to release some of the rendered fat; the buns are grilled under a weight to give them a pleasant toasting .The burgers are juicy without being fatty and when accompanied by the onion rings (but not the fries) will satiate even the greediest greasemonger.
Dirty’s in Austin evokes memories of college; Keller’s at three locations in Dallas evokes memories of high school. Keller’s is a classic curb-service drive-in that dispenses burgers of yore on poppy-seed buns (a pleasant rarity). They make their milk shakes with ice cream, and I even saw someone drinking a frosted draught root beer float. Raked Chargers and pickups dominate the scene and all the guys flirt with the carhops in tight pants. People still cruise around looking cool, trying to find a drag. Besides the sheer delight of deja vu, the burgers are delicious and the beer cheap.
Full circle from Keller’s (and across town where cruising around looking cool and trying to find a drag is a different race entirely) is Adair’s Bar. There are legions who swear by what I consider the colossal dumbburger. They are pre-cooked and reheated on a grill on order and are so fat that you need jaws hinged like a rattlesnake’s to eat one comfortably.
There are those who attended SMU who share what I feel about Dirty’s. They have fond memories of Burger House. This is one of a small city-wide chain, but everyone calls the one on Hillcrest “Jack’s.” Jack oversees the preparation of his excellent burgers which are predictably tasty with just the right amount of grease dripping from the bun.
The best hamburger in Cow Town—and by extension, the world—can be had at Kincaid Grocery and U.S. Sub Post Office on Camp Bowie. What started as a sideline to their meat market has turned into a booming business. All the grocery shelving now has formica topping to provide a place for customers to stand up and eat. Before too long, Kincaid’s may have to discontinue groceries and go into the hamburger business. The place is crowded and few customers seem to be shopping or posting mail. They all come for the juicy hamburgers which are made with freshly ground meat from the market fried on a griddle. The salad garnish is likewise freshly purloined from the produce case and generously applied. The cooks don’t overdo it and every bite is unforgettable.
Another satisfying burger source in Fort Worth is the New Orleans Sandwich Shop on South University. You can get it on a bun or a New Orleans-style oblong French roll but the bun seems more authentic for old-time burger enthusiasts. There is ample garnish and the juice runs everywhere—delightful.
There seems to be a hamburger ward in Houston. Otto’s, Roznovsky’s, and Mama’s are all within a few blocks of one another on the city’s west side, and all offer basically the same type of griddle-cooked product on a toasted or grilled bun with plenty of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Otto’s and Roznovsky’s are both filled to overflowing at lunchtime with double-knit businessmen trying to convince themselves and each other that they’re slumming it. Mama’s, the newest of the three, is not as popular, perhaps because the burgers are sometimes overcooked. When properly done they are quite good, but not as good as Roznovsky’s, which is always excellent. Otto’s is even better than Roznovsky’s, but the choice is most difficult. The only thing harder to decide than where to go for a burger, is whether to have a burger at all—Otto’s also serves what many consider to be the best barbecue in town.
Hipp’s Bubble Room is dripping with so much of what used to be known as camp decor that it seems out of place. It belongs not on McCullough in San Antonio, but on the boardwalk in Atlantic City or on IH 10 in Arizona hawking genuine Navajo moccasins. It is just mad enough to have a loyal following, as does the somewhat less zany Little Hipp’s half a block away. Evidence of the generation gap: Hipp’s has real french fries and Little Hipp’s does not. Both are crowded at lunch with eager folks who have a choice of burgers from the modest Hippburger to an excessive five-patty extravaganza. If the choices don’t suit you, they’ll make one to your specifications. A doubleburger proved more than I could handle despite the succulent meat with plenty of lettuce and tomatoes on a plain hot bun. One word of warning: beware the world’s ugliest turtle at Little Hipp’s bar—it will make you lose your appetite.
Another cult favorite is the Ize Box on Broadway. It is a drive-in grocery of the type that flourishes in San Antonio, where the locals call them ice houses. Adjacent to the seating area is the meat market where the meat is ground fresh. They use real Idaho spuds for the fries and ice cream for the shakes. The bun is also grilled and the result is a good greasy burger—the kind you dare not try to eat while driving lest you ruin your clothes and seat covers.