Burgers!

A coworker (and one of the only people at work who can tolerate me when I’m having a bad day) and I went to Cliff’s today for a quick bite at lunch.  I ordered — as I always do — the Murphy burger, a heart-stopping concoction of 100% beef, grated sharp cheddar cheese, sauteed onions, thick strips of bacon and tangy barbeque sauce.  No wussy lettuce or tomatoes on this bad boy; it’s pure myocardial infarction-inducing goodness.

My coworker, who originally hails from Denver, watched curiously as I tossed aside the ketchup packets that came with the burger, irritated by their mere presence.  “Stupid ketchup,” I grumbled.  “Why would they give me ketchup for a burger?”

“Why wouldn’t they?  Don’t you want ketchup on your burger?” he asked, bemusedly.

I glared at him, trying to decide whether or not to answer sarcastically: “Of course!  I love ruining a perfectly good hamburger with ketchup!  Pass those packets back over here!”

Instead, I responded with a sharp, “You’re in Texas now, buddy.  We don’t put ketchup on our burgers.”

“Really?  I mean, I thought I had noticed that, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Yep.  No ketchup on burgers.  It’s like a state bylaw.  Heresy.”

“Wow.  So…what do you put on them instead?”

“Mustard, obviously.  And mayonnaise.  Sometimes.  But always mustard.  Haven’t you been here long enough to know that by now?”

“I guess not.”

“Hmph.  You’ve got a lot to learn.”

“There was this place in San Diego that used to do the best burgers with ketchup on th–”

Me, interrupting: “I don’t care.”

“I was just going t–”

Me, rudely interrupting yet again: “Don’t care.  You’re cutting into my valuable Murphy burger eating time here.  I don’t care how they do it in California or Colorado or anywhere else.  In Texas, you don’t put ketchup on burgers.  Period.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.  Can we eat now?”

Go ahead.  Tempt me.  What do you put on your burgers?  What don’t you put on your burgers?  Be prepared to feel my wrath if you answer “ketchup.”  But, seriously, I’m quite interested.

So tell me, burger fiends!

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TTFN, BBQ

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An icon of the barbeque world here in Houston is closing.

The uninitiated quickly learn what eating, Bush-plate style, is all about. A poster on the wall of the barbecue joint explains that the presidential feed consists of beef ribs, links, potato salad and beans — all for $9.79. No substitutions.

A veritable stampede of cattle has been served up as burgers and brisket at Otto’s since the restaurant’s founder, Otto Sofka, grilled that first burger at his family’s grocery 56 years ago. Otto’s wife, Annie, their son, Marcus, Marcus’s wife, June, and three of their seven children all have pulled duty at the business.

Otto’s may seem like a timeless place. The hands of a Schlitz beer clock never budge from 10 minutes till 2. The restaurants exude an authenticity that competitors can only covet. But time does move forward, and Sofka admitted that her business has been eroded by a growing public acceptance of the virtues of healthy eating.

Amid the Bush memorabilia and religious and patriotic artifacts on the walls are signs advertising new items on the menu: grilled chicken breast sandwiches and turkey burgers. Also displayed is a plug for HeartBrand beef, which is touted as “good for your body, heart and waistline.”

“As you see, we’ve enhanced the menu,” Sofka said. But, she added, business has been slack.

“It’s been a great ride, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But now it’s time to go.”

Otto’s is one of the first places that I can remember eating barbeque with my father, who is a true barbeque connoisseur.  It was rare that we actually went out to eat barbeque, since so few restaurants could meet his exacting expectations or turn out a rack of ribs or a pork butt quite as well as he could at home.  But Otto’s was always a favorite of his, especially the Bush plate as described above.

In a recent article in Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com, Otto’s was listed as one of the “legendary dealmaking entities” across the country.  A place where “…business is discussed, ideas are hatched, and deals are often sealed over a meal rather than in an office.”  Otto’s is consistently listed as one of the best barbeque joints around, at low-key websites like Roadfood.com and at high-end review houses like Zagat.  But sometimes, accolades just aren’t enough.

Otto’s was always one of those restaurants that seems trapped in an indeterminate time period, somewhere between 1965 and 1972, similar to another old favorite, Bellaire Broiler Burger.  It’s become quite unfashionable as of late to be “old” in Houston, though.  Houston seems to be purging itself of all buildings and memories prior to 2000, tearing down beautiful old houses and replacing them with shoddily-built, stucco McMansions and replacing wonderful old structures like Otto’s with faux-stone strip malls that, inevitably, only reach about 50% occupancy and sit there looking pretty but dead, even more of an eyesore than what they replaced.  This particular corridor of Memorial Drive is particularly susceptible to gentrification, having already lost the classic “One’s-a-Meal” diner years earlier only to see the 5,782nd Starbucks and 30th Texadelphia take its place a few months later.

And it’s just as sad to me that people are becoming so “health-conscious” (actually, “image conscious” — I fear that Houston is rapidly becoming the new Dallas sometimes…) that they can’t appreciate good comfort food in moderation.  Sure, you don’t need to be eating burgers and barbeque for every meal.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go enjoy a plate of brisket on the weekend or grab a good, oozy burger with some friends over lunch.

The whole thing just makes me sad.  But the only thing to do now is to go grab a good Bush plate at Otto’s while I still can.  I recommend you do the same if you have the chance.

Cuisine Cartography

I graduated from college with a degree in cartography.  Like many other post-grads, I’ve found very few real-world applications for my degree (at least, ones that pay enough to live off of…) and so I work in a completely different field now.  That said, I still have a deep appreciation for the art of cartography and the beauty of maps.  Take, for example, these fascinating maps of food (and be sure to click on each heading to visit the page where I found these lovely maps):

Totem Foods of North America

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I’m kind of startled to see that Houston (and San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, the entire Valley, etc.) falls into the “Gator Nation” belt.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love alligator as much as the next person.  But I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as a Totem food here.  And I can’t imagine trying to serve someone alligator in the Valley.  Houston’s close enough to Louisiana and the swamps of East Texas for alligator to be fairly standard cuisine, but that’s not true in points west.

In reality, the whole portion of the Gator belt starting with the Texas-Louisiana border and heading west should be an amalgamation of the Corn Bread & BBQ Nation and the Chile Pepper Nation.  Mmm…  Now who wouldn’t want to live in that nation?

Continue reading Cuisine Cartography

Southwell’s – UPDATED

After doing some browsing through other bloggers’ opinions of Southwell’s (this opinion in particular), it appears that I was mistaken about my not-so-dearly departed Dubl-R!  Also, I think I’ve found a new favorite food blog.

The Texas Burger Guy has reviews of nearly every landmark burger joint in this great state.  The reviews are, much like a good burger, addictive.  He covers the gamut of burger joints in Houston: Lankford Grocery, Christian’s Totem, Bellaire Broiler Burger, and even my old neighborhood restaurant, Sam’s Deli Diner.  And I was even more gobsmacked to see that my beloved Dubl-R was listed among the reviews!

According to the review (which was posted in 2006, well after I graduated from Baylor), Dubl-R is still operating at its old haunt on Herring Avenue.  The review doesn’t go into the specifics of why it originally closed down circa 2001 and it doesn’t discuss the heretic Dubl-R outpost at Baylor.  I’m okay with this, though; maybe the reviewer isn’t familiar with this snippet of Dubl-R’s history.  I’m just thrilled to see that the Dubl-R of my memory is up and running again!

I guess I’ve got a reason to go back to Waco for the next Homecoming now.