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Our Big Fat Texas Hamburgers

Written by John O. Lumpkin. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

Capital City classic. Generations of Austinities and college students have enjoyed the juicy, free-form Kum-Bak hamburgers from Dirty Martin’s, at the northern edge of the University of Texas campus in Austin.

In the hunt for great Texas hamburgers, names speak volumes. University of Texas Longhorns return to Dirty Martin’s for Kum-Bak Burgers. The Texas Tummy Tackler at Dippity’s in Lumberton weighs in at almost a pound – it’s best shared with a friend. The King of Rock, Elvis himself, once visited The Prince of Hamburgers, on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas. Oma’s Jiffy Burger in Waxahachie is so fast that you can ask for seconds when your order arrives and have another burger made from scratch by the time you finish the first.

Juicy’s in Longview is just that, say its devotees. Newspaper readers in Midland have judged Bob’s Better Burger aptly named, while patrons of Gene’s Tastyburger in Wichita Falls believe French fries taste better with a layer of chili and melted cheese. A double-meat, double-cheese passes the truth-in-advertising test at Lota’ Burger, in the West Texas town of Snyder. Chris Madrid’s in San Antonio spreads a handful of sliced peppers under a crown of gooey cheddar atop a mound of sizzling beef, accurately labeling the concoction a Flaming Jalapeño Macho.

Alas, but names may not tell the whole story. Lankford's Grocery & Market no longer sells groceries, but now Houston lawyers, letter carriers, and neighborhood eccentrics flock to its Fourth Ward location for juicy burgers. In Big Spring, the "More" at Brenda's B-B-Q and More Cafe most often means hamburgers, a menu item as popular as Brenda's brisket. The Hot Link Palace in Mount Pleasant pushes Pittsburg Hot Links, but regulars order the sausages as an appetizer, opting for a cheeseburger and hand-cut fries as their main course.

Great Texas burgers are also found in places whose names sound like an old friend's?-Chester's, Fran's, Pat's, Jody's, Otto's, and Dan's, for example. Sons and daughters follow fathers and mothers into the family business, with an in-law or ex-spouse or two thrown into the mix. Burger joints occupy storefronts along what once were the highways out of town, rather than suburban strip malls. Their neighbors are used-car lots, railroad tracks, tire stores, or even rusty pump jacks. Their weathered signs belong in a museum of our life and times.

If that whets your appetitie, suspend your calorie counting, loosen your belt, and bring an extra supply of napkins–as we make a search for great Texas hamburgers. The trail begins in…

Freer

Trucks that work hard every day crowd the parking lot at lunchtime at Freer’s Liberty Cafe. They are fitted with headache racks, air pumps, winches, tool bins, and trailer lifts. Their tires are caked with caliche, their windshields covered with dust. Inside, servers recite the daily special, but the meal of choice is a “homemade” cheeseburger—eight ounces of juicy, loosely packed beef in an oversize bun, served with free chips and fresh salsa. The clientele compose a South Texas tableau: Border Patrol agents, roughnecks, ranch hands with worn boots and real spurs, a table of young women chatting softly in Spanish.

“The homemade hamburgers got started because of the Border Patrolmen,” explains owner Martha Salinas. She says they wanted a larger burger, made from fresh ground beef rather than preformed patties, and other customers naturally said, “I’ll have what they’re having.” Phone calls now come in from drilling rigs, asking for 30 to 40 burgers in a single order. The Freer Buckaroos might do the same on their return from an out-of-town football game.

Martha’s late mother and father founded the Liberty, sleeping in the restaurant until they could move into a nearby house. “I’ve cooked and I’ve waitressed, and I’m still doing it,” Martha says without complaint. Her sisters now help, and a family recipe is used for the popular salsa. Asked for a list of ingredients, she says, “If I gave it to you, I’d have to kill you.”

Amarillo

A burger ballet—or perhaps a fry cook’s version of the jitterbug—takes the stage daily at the Beef Burger Barrel, on Plains Boulevard west of downtown Amarillo. The Barrel is definitely the shape of a barrel: 18 feet tall and about the same in diameter. Inside, a cook, two assistants, a window clerk, and a cashier share space with a grill, Fryolater, ice machine, drink machine, prep table, cash register, and refrigerator. Of serving 250 burgers on a busy day, meat-maestro and owner Bill Fischer says, “There’s a lot of bumping and meshing every once in a while.”

No drive-through here. You park, walk to a window in the side of the “barrel,” choose your meal, return to the car, and then get out again when called to pick up the food at another window. Now, the hard part—balancing a chili cheeseburger, a bag of Tater Tots, and a Dr Pepper on your lap without having to send your wardrobe to the cleaners. “People have to really want our food to get out in the winter, especially when they’re facing a 60-mile-per-hour wind, but they still do it,” marvels Bill.

The Barrel, built in 1936, was a pickle and root beer stand in World War II and then an odd-shaped storage shack. Bill’s father-in-law “bought it out of somebody’s backyard” and eventually moved it to its current location in 1950. Bill has operated it for more than two decades, and his daughter Sondra plans to step in when he retires.

Lumberton

Even though they made “killer doughnuts,” Perry Fligar and his wife, Leslie, tired of rising at 2:30 a.m. each day to make a fresh batch for the customers at Dippity’s. So, Perry says, “We got to playing around baking hamburger buns, then got some meat and made hamburgers.” The couple gave away their first offerings to the crew at the local post office. Word spread quickly, and now, more than 16 years later, what may be the tastiest buns in Texas wrap themselves around burgers that weigh from just under six ounces to almost two pounds. Perry put tape over the “Donut” in Dippity’s sign, and from then on, the Fligars began sleeping in.

One holdover is Mr. Dippity, a statue that resembles a baker. (It was either that or a fake gorilla when Perry rented it in Jasper as an attention-getter.) Pranksters once stole Mr. Dippity, which proved to be the ultimate blessing in disguise. The Beaumont Enterprise and local broadcast stations provided daily updates on the search until Mr. Dippity was spotted at a closed drive-in theater. “Our business was just getting started, and I was scared I was going to have to buy the thing,” recalls Perry. He says when he found himself overwhelmed with business because of the publicity, “I had to buy him anyway.”

The dough for two regular-size buns goes into the seven-inch bun that holds the Texas Tummy Tackler, Perry’s one-pound burger. The double version of the Tackler, not listed on the menu, sells for $10. “You practically have to sit on it to take a bite out of it,” Perry says with a laugh.

Austin

No longer do the cooks at Dirty Martin’s Place sling a ball of meat on the griddle and flatten it into the shape of their signature burger. The Health Department discouraged that practice, and Dirty’s complied. “O lost!” a traditionalist may wail, but consider that Martin’s Kum-Bak hamburgers retain their quotient of grease, and the delicious, partially scorched fries possess none of the suspicious characteristics of the prefrozen variety.

Chalk up some of Dirty’s popularity to its proximity to the University of Texas. The white, wooden building has stood for decades on Guadalupe Street at the northern edge of the Forty Acres, which now supplies a renewable base of some 50,000 potential customers each semester. A portrait of UT’s mascot, Bevo, hangs on the wall—one bovine too sacred to ever end up as ground meat. A bottle of beer is cheap here, and the regular hamburger even cheaper ($2.25).

On a recent visit, the “nation” of Dirty’s comprised three “states”: a long picnic table outdoors, populated by a coach and his ravenous baseball team; counter seats inside the front room, where loyalists watched the cook at work; and the back room, filled with midday imbibers contemplating whether food remained an option. A fourth state—the awnings for curb service—was converted to parking space long ago.

“If this place ever goes,” wrote a contributor to the restaurant section of Austin360.com, “part of Austin’s soul will be ripped out.”

San Antonio

Hamburger heavyweights slug it out in San Antonio’s version of a citywide food fight. The Fat Boy at the Malt House drew votes in the San Antonio Express-News’ Best Hamburger poll. Other San Antonians swear by Augie’s By The Park, Babe’s Old Fashion Hamburgers, Belle’s Burgers, Biff Buzby’s Burgers, Bobby J’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, the Bug­aloo Grille, Casbeers, Cheesy Jane’s, Chester’s Hamburgers, the Cy­press Street Grill, EZ’s Restaurant, and a host of other contenders. But the add-a-room, close-in-a-porch complex at Hollywood and Blanco streets known as Chris Madrid’s Nachos and Burgers answers all challengers with its lineup of Macho Burgers. These hefty hunks are two-handed half-pounders that overwhelm the buns in which they temporarily reside.

Founder Chris Madrid’s favorite burger is the Tostada Macho, which he describes as a historical salute to “the old San Antonio bean burger.” Chips, onion, cheese, homemade salsa, and refried beans bedeck the meat—a belt-busting meal-in-one for $4.99. It’s no wonder a 10-year-old wrote a poem, now on display, praising the Madrid experience.

Chris is picky about the russets that become French fries, so he samples a delivery before accepting it. Peeled on the premises, the potatoes retain flecks of skin when they are served. A regular order—$1.35—could accommodate a small family, and the large order, a starting basketball team (well, maybe not quite).

Dallas

Want to avoid a burger-related faux pas? Instead of honking your horn to summon a carhop at The Prince of Hamburgers, honor the request to flash your lights. Proper procedures will ensure cheerful and prompt car-side service under The Prince’s candy-striped awnings. This is not some chic re-creation of the Fifties; The Prince, founded in 1927, never outgrew the era that made drive-ins famous.

Still, it takes more than atmosphere to attract suburbanites and business travelers, who may call from nearby Love Field to order after their plane has landed. The burger-building process begins at 8 a.m. with the pressing of quarter-pound patties from newly ground meat. “It was hanging beef at 2 a.m.,” says manager Ron Patrick, who operates The Prince with his father, Tom. “This is as fresh as we can get.”

The lettuce and tomatoes may have come from Dallas’ downtown Farmers Market. Ron himself makes the root beer. A nickel in 1955, it’s still a 21st-Century bargain at $1.15—and it’s delivered in a frosted mug. Ron says the restaurant’s aging sign, a prince in pantaloons hoisting a hamburger, is grandfathered from modern-day ordinances.

Last year, The Prince reached the semi-finals of a 32-team D Magazine burger tournament, although participants judged its offering a tad smallish. That doesn’t seem to bother The Prince’s customers, who collectively consume 500 burgers on a busy Saturday. Ron believes The Prince is the oldest continually operating drive-in in the nation, “and we make a great hamburger,” he says.

Glen Rose

The bill for a Rough Creek Lodge hamburger: $15, plus tip. Beverage is extra. So why is this pricey burger the choice for half of the lodge’s luncheon guests? “We include burgers on our menu because Texans love burgers,” says executive chef Gerard Thompson, who creates a different version each day.

Diners here gaze on a soaring limestone fireplace or Mallard Lake. A helipad is obscured in the distance. Closer is the executive skeet range, evidenced by the dim report of shotguns. A pale afternoon sky spreads above the wooded draws and rolling grassland that veil partridge, pheasant, and quail.

Gerard’s burger choice du jour depends on “the freshest ingredients that come to us.” There may be jalapeño jack cheese, bacon, and avocado. Or the down-home version of grilled portobello mushrooms and Gruyère. Or that old greasy-spoon favorite, watercress, balsamic onions, and Brie.

Despite the exotic decoration, the eight-ounce patty is a fine grind of fresh, semi-lean beef, grilled on a propane char-broiler. The burger’s ingredients change daily to complement the toppings. If the traditionalist in you cries no más, lettuce and to­mato are available, along with a demitasse of mustard.

Houston

The intersection of Dennis and Genesee streets reflects the two worlds of Hous­ton’s Fourth Ward. With downtown so close by, townhouses and apartments now rise from scraped lots where modest bungalows once stood. Across the street from the new housing, a relic of the Fourth Ward’s past survives: Lankford’s Grocery & Market, with its $4 breakfasts of eggs, sausage, and grits, or a lunch of Eydie Prior’s built-to-order hamburgers.

“Did you find us on the Internet?” Eydie asks a traveler who has stumbled onto the neighborhood eatery. It’s true: A cyber-search for Houston’s best hamburger produces several hits for Lankford’s, a mom-and-pop grocery that opened in 1939, but switched to sandwiches a quarter-century ago.

Window units cool Lankford’s cozy dining room. Customers converse playfully with one another, whether they are sitting at the counter or in a booth along the far wall. It could be a Larry McMurtry script without the satire.

A well-done burger, salted and peppered, is mega-juicy, requiring additional napkins. The mingling of fried beef, mustard, and mayo, nurtured by a warm sesame seed bun and a trifecta of crunchy pickles, lettuce, and tomato, make every bite a pleasure.

So there you have it—from Amarillo to Austin, Freer to Houston, you’re in Texas, the land of the burger meisters.

Tops on the Trail

Amarillo–Beef Burger Barrel, 3102 Plains Blvd., 806/374-4561, Mon-Thu and Sat 10:30-8 (till 9:30 in the summer), Fri 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

Austin–Dirty Martin's Place, 2808 Guadalupe St., 512/477-3173, daily 11-11.

Dallas–The Prince of Hamburgers, 5200 Lemmon Ave., 214/526-9081, Sun-Thu 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 9 a.m.-11 p.m.

Freer–Liberty Cafe, 420 Carolyn St., 361/394-7663, Sun-Thu 5:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30 a.m.-2 a.m.

Glen Rose–Rough Creek Lodge, FM 2013 (off US 67 west of Glen Rose), 254/965-3700, Sun 11-9, Mon-Sat 11:30-9.

Houston–Lankford's Grocery & Market, 88 Dennis St., 713/522-9555, Mon-Sat 7 a.m.-3 p.m.

Lumberton–Dippity's, 815 S. Main, 409/755-3632, Mon-Sat 10-8.

San Antonio–Chris Madrid's, 1900 Blanco, 210/735-3552, Mon-Sat 11-10.

Side Trips

Still hungry? Try these burger places:

Jams, upholding burger-joint tradition in Athens, the birthplace of the Texas hamburger (see sidebar, page 16). Southside Smokehouse in Austin, where Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso ate "The Killer." TK's, in Bay City, for hand-pressed burgers.

The tiny Burger Bar, a gem in downtown Cleburne. Snoopy's, on the Intracoastal Waterway near Corpus Christi, proving beachcombers do not live by fried shrimp alone. Keller's Drive-In in Dallas, cited among the best by Texas Highways readers (along with Al's in Arlington and Otto's in Houston, among others).

Houston's Mytiburger, where onion rings rival the appropriately named burgers. Herd's Hamburgers in Jacksboro, claiming to have opened in 1916. Storm's in Lampasas, where burgers are everyday fare, or Eve's Cafe on the courthouse square, where they are available only on Thursdays and Fridays. Michael's Charcoal Grill in Midland, serving the 2-pound "Tall City" for $11.50.

Burgerland in Paris, which once hosted singer Garth Brooks and has the snapshots to prove it. Tookie's Hamburgers and More in Seabrook, serving "The Squealer," with ground bacon and beef. The "Old" Jody's Restaurant in Temple, as opposed to the "new" Jody's across the street, serving French-fried tomatoes as a side. Kitok's in Waco, where half the menu is Asian, but the staple is the double-meat "Lip Locker," a made-on-the-spot burger bargain at $3.29. Pat's Drive-In in Wichita Falls, which actually has a drive-through.

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