Even with my healthier diet I enjoy getting a hamburger now and again, especially when summertime rolls around. My dad used to grill burgers every weekend and after he died my mother continued the tradition. I’d rather just pick one up at a drive though than have to go through all of the trouble of making one at home, and in my mind there is no substitute for a Whataburger. I’ve tried In n Out burgers and they just don’t cut the mustard. (Pun grossly intended) The only other version of the American classic that I ever really liked came from a local chain called Chuck Wagon.
The first Chuck Wagon that I visited was on Old Spanish Trail in Houston. It was good but lacked the ambience of the one on Park Place that ultimately stole my heart. It was little more than a truck eatery without wheels. It was a box just large enough for a small crew and a griddle along with places to stash the meat and other supplies. A big hulk of a man labored over the cooking while sweating profusely and wielding salt and pepper shakers like a Samurai sword. He was a sight to behold along with the heavy red faced woman who took the orders. The only seating was outdoors, so unless it was a perfect weather day we would take our food home where we savored the lusciousness of our beef sandwiches that were cooked and dressed to perfection. That hole in the wall lasted for most of my childhood and early adult life and then simply faded away, being overtaken by bigger chains with drive in windows and more variable menus.
For a time there was a great place for burgers on the campus of the University of Houston in a little wooden building called The Woods. It was located on what was then the edge of the campus and run by a couple of ladies who were so business like that they rarely smiled or paused from their work to chat. They had learned how to prepare their juicy delights as quickly as possible to keep the long lines moving. I rarely had the money to purchase their gourmet cooking but when I did I truly enjoyed their culinary expertise. Their fare was dripping with greasy delight that didn’t worry me at all because I was not yet twenty years old and weighed under a hundred pounds. A little fat and cholesterol probably did me more good than bad, and I got plenty of both there. My mouth still waters when I think of those yummy bites of beef. Unfortunately progress and growth required cutting down the trees that gave the place its name and putting in a big building to house more classes and research.
I really can’t take a bad burger and there are so many candidates for that dishonor. I avoid MacDonald’s unless it’s breakfast time. If I’m forced to try one of their traditional offerings I prefer the kiddie version. I find that less burger is best in that establishment. I also avoid Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, Wendy’s and the worst of them all in my mind, Burger King.
I can’t completely explain what I despise about Burger King. It was a favorite of my mom and I always see a big crowd wherever they set up a restaurant. I just almost gag even at the thought of eating there. I suspect that I have some deep seated psychological problem with the place brought on by a traumatic event that I have blocked in my mind. I can’t otherwise think of any other reason for my extreme feelings of loathing. I would literally prefer going without food to consuming a meal from there. In fact, I once did on a long road trip to Chicago.
We had driven from early morning and when lunchtime game we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices for eating. Mike attempted to find a place that would be satisfactory for me with no success. Frustrated, he finally saw a Burger King and announced that I would have to make do. I almost barfed at the thought but decided that my strange feelings were perhaps a bit silly, and so I agreed to give it a try as long as the burger was made according to my specifications. When we got the order and continued down the highway I opened my sandwich only to find that they had used mayonnaise in spite of my very specific demand that mustard be the only acceptable condiment. I wanted Mike to turn around and go back but he was on a mission to make time and told me to show a bit of flexibility and just do my best to enjoy the nourishment as is. Instead in a flash of fury I threw the whole thing out the window onto the highway to the delight of a flock of vultures that immediately descended on the feast. I pouted for hours searching hopelessly for another place to stop. That didn’t materialize until later that night at a service station where the only offering was a tuna sandwich in one of those plastic sleeves. I decided to go hungry and sulk rather than take a chance on being poisoned. Mike on the other hand found the repast to be delightful.
Not long ago there was a news story about a Burger King in Delaware that showed mice crawling around inside bags of buns. The health department rushed out to the restaurant after a report from a customer and found mouse droppings and other filth all over the place. They summarily shut the place down. My stomach heaved as I watched the images and I found myself feeling a bit justified for my strange aversion to all food from Burger King even though I’ve never had any evidence that the ones around here are unclean.
For now I’ll stick to Whataburger since I don’t indulge in that sort of diet much anymore. A local chef named Killen makes a rather good version that I like to consume now and again as well but his are a bit more pricey. Amazingly the most memorable hamburger that I have ever eaten was in a hotel in Minneapolis. It was so good that I went back for more multiple times before I left that town. The meat was superb and it didn’t hurt that it was smothered in blue cheese which I didn’t initially think that I would like as much as I actually did. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
For me a hamburger is the great American summertime sandwich, but if it isn’t done right, then I’m not interested. I’d rather feed a bad burger to the buzzards than compromise my standards and at least for now Whataburger has my loyalty.