Fads and trends breeze in and out of the culinary world on a regular basis. But there are always old standbys – foods that aren’t going anywhere and probably never will, because they’re delicious and easy to make.
One of these is the cheeseburger. It’s a simple, timeless, eminently customizable food item that you can get practically anywhere. Ali Khan, an Austin-based food writer and television host who also serves as the burger columnist for Texas Highways magazine, joined the Standard to discuss his search for the best burger in the state.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Texas Standard: So what makes a classic Texas cheeseburger, in your opinion?
Ali Khan: Well, we did a story about this as a recipe. I teamed up with Evan LeRoy of LeRoy and Lewis and the folks over at Huckleberry, too, and we identified the toppings. The toppings, to me, really tell you where you are in the country with the burger. One of the things that really just caught me as a transplant– because I am a transplant in Texas – was yellow mustard, chopped white onion and a basic, God’s honest, familiar pickle.
You didn’t mention jalapeños. Why not?
I would absolutely consider them. I got a hot tip saying, “you know, Ali, there are great burgers at Mexican restaurants.” So, I went to San Angelo. When I went there, I really wanted to run with jalapeños on all my burgers, because I’m at these Mexican restaurants. They were really, truly Tex-Mex, Mom and Pop.
There’s something about — you know what? I just saw this the other day. It was on Burger Hot Takes with Alvin Cailan. He said that there should be a limit on toppings – three things.
Something else missing from your classic Texas burger seems to be ketchup.
You know, the thing that really caught me was mustard. I think mustard was the must. Maybe it’s personal, but I find ketchup and mustard to be confusing, and the act of an impulsive 4-year-old. I think I would put more chips on mustard enhancing the flavors of beef than ketchup. I think ketchup can cover up an inferior patty.
I’m curious about the patty itself here, because you don’t want something that’s too floppy or too moist. You don’t want it to be too dry. In Texas, I would think that there would be a beef-centric approach to this. But it sounds like you’re thinking that a lot really focuses on the toppings.
I think that is what sets a classic Texas burger experience apart from the rest of the country. Now, I will say this: We would be fools to ignore the fact that Texas is simply known for beef, right? But when you look at how burgers have just accelerated and evolved since 2000, since chefs started going, “I’m going to make a burger,” and people started coming in droves to try an expensive burger – these guys are sourcing beef from these really, really, really special Texas farms. When you add that component, you really can accelerate a burger experience.
Well, let’s name names. When it comes to the best Texas burgers, what would you put on your top tier list?
I feel like I’ve really just started this journey. Once I got the mandate to explore the state, what’s been really fun is I’ve been able to create these categories. So, I’ll start with one of the first burgers that I wrote about, which is right here in Austin at JewBoy Burgers.
It’s really interesting because for the gentleman who started it, Mo Pittle – he is Jewish, by the way, some people are always thrown by the name – JewBoy is a reflection of his own cultural heritage and his religion. He does a burger that one could argue is almost, like, true to the sauce Tex-Mex. There’s a lot of influence of what he calls cholo culture.
Now, I’ve never been a big kitchen sink burger guy, but he does a burger called the Goyim, which has pastrami on it. I always found pastrami on a burger to just be overkill. It’s kind of like chili and cheese. It’s like, “can I just have the chili as a separate course?” But he makes big, over-the-top burgers work. So, that one was up there.
Hit us with another.
Evan LeRoy’s smoked brisket burger at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue.
Wait a minute, a smoked brisket burger? Are we not entering barbecue territory here?
You know, it’s Texas. Smoked and smashed are the two hottest trends in burgers. Evan was one of the first people to put it on the menu. It uses fantastic beef, akaushi beef. He takes a brisket and mixes it with ground beef. It simultaneously takes care of my brisket fix and my cheeseburger fix. So, I love that one.
My third one – you asked for three, right? ‘Cause I could be here all night if we keep going. I went to Houston, because it seemed to me that there are a lot of really good smash burgers coming out of Houston.
A smashburger is a very thin patty. A cook will take essentially what looks like a meatball, and then take the back of a spatula and just crush it down on a very hot griddle. Because the patty is so thin and it cooks so fast, it stays juicy, but you get all this sear. You get two patties in there, you add American cheese.
There was one place I went to called burger-chan. The chef there, Willet Feng, he’s doing a smash burger. Like I said, there are a lot of good smash burgers in Houston. What Chef Willet does is, because of his time working in Japanese restaurants, he makes a tare. So, he makes this wet seasoning that has brown butter, garlic confit, powdered shiitake mushroom … it’s just nuts.
The crazy thing is, he has 40 different topping options. He has two different sized patties and then he does other proteins as well. So, it sounds anticlimactic, but the mushroom swiss at burger-chan is one of the most intriguing, interesting burgers I’ve had in years.
I have to ask you – because we can’t talk about burgers, we can’t even say the word burger without talking about a certain chain. What do you make of the big W?
Well, I’ll say this. The truth is I had Whataburger three times. It didn’t strike me as something like magnificently different. This will be the big heresy, but it kind of reminded me of something going on the heartier end that, say, a Carl’s Jr. or Burger King would serve. They do have lots of different options. I had the chicken tenders not too long ago and I was like, “they’re pretty good.”
For so many people, there’s this idea that a hamburger is an every person’s food. How does that temper your approach as you go travel the highways of Texas now with Texas Highways magazine as its burger columnist? How do you approach when you go into a new restaurant?
You know, when I went to San Angelo, what got me was that these are places that aren’t sourcing anything special in terms of beef, right? But it’s okay to make something that’s just familiar and approachable. If you’re making it with love, you don’t have to hit people with things that they didn’t expect.