The most important meal of the week at Casa Ralat is not taco night. Surprise! It’s burger night. Usually, the only tacos we cook at home are for breakfast, or we’ll grill fajitas and wrap them in thick, dusty flour tortillas made at the mercadito that morning. Tacos are also normally a weekend meal. But burgers—oh, burgers. They’re so easy to sling and they pair perfectly with tater tots. We do that every Wednesday night. On a recent Wednesday, I miraculously persuaded the wife and kid that I needed to try Whataburger’s new pico de gallo burger. I argued that it was worth getting drive-through and not messing up the kitchen any further that day. It would be only my third or fourth visit to the iconic San Antonio–based Texas burger chain.
My most memorable Whataburger experience was at the brand’s birthplace in Corpus Christi, at the two-story location on North Shoreline Boulevard. Fans lovingly call it the Whataburger by the Bay, and the view is indeed scenic. I stood on the rooftop terrace and looked east across the ruddy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It was late summer 2015, and I’d just finished a day of crisscrossing Selena’s hometown for that year’s Texas Monthly taco issue. I got a quick burger and soda to justify my time looking out at the horizon. It was a peaceful and satisfying experience. Though I may never quite understand the depth of love that drives diehard fans to sell table tents on the black market, throw elaborate Whataburger-themed parties, or crochet a Whataburger koozie, I do appreciate the brand’s significance to Texans. It’s almost equal to my appreciation of getting a reprieve from the Sisyphean quarantine tasks of doing the dishes, scrubbing pans, and wiping counters.
Drive-through burgers would be a relief, I thought. Instead, it was an ordeal. I’m not referring to long lines or the wait to place an order. Those things are expected. It was the passing back and forth of the debit card and the receipt, plus the pawing through bags to make sure orders were correctly processed, that sent me nervously fumbling for the hand sanitizer kept in the car. (We should have worn pairs of the medical-grade gloves we keep in a box in the backseat.) My fingers and mind were aflame with anxiety over this outing. This was, of course, after my wife and I accidentally got into the I-30 HOV express lane and shot past the office high-rises of Irving in the distance. “I hope this doesn’t take us to Arlington,” she said sharply before we found the next exit, somewhere near Arlington.
It was a relief to return home to Oak Cliff with our burger combos in orange-and-white striped paper bags. Eating this burger didn’t top the experience of my Corpus Christi pilgrimage, but it was a solid runner-up. The combination of pico de gallo with creamy lime cilantro sauce atop warm, melting pepperjack cheese approximates the heat and pleasant gooeyness of chile con queso—about as comforting a dish as any signature Texan culinary invention. Less bold than the brand’s popular jalapeño burger, the pico de gallo burger has a spice that creeps up at the end of each bite, then subsides. It doesn’t claw at your tongue or the back of your throat. But it’s there. The sturdy, squishy bun helps smooth out the kick.
My only problem with the burger was the meat. The pico de gallo is supposed to be made with two patties, but when I squeezed the burger between my hands, I was unable to tell if the order was filled incorrectly. There could very well have been only one patty in the burger. The meat itself was cooked well-done and charred from the edges to the center. Not a ringing endorsement, I know. But I’d try it again. It was a comforting, slightly above-average burger, and sometimes that’s what hits the spot. Next time, I’ll have to ask if they make it a little less well-done, and I might ask for extra sauce to up the fantastic chile con queso factor.