Last call! After four-and-a-half years of motoring all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area on a Vespa, I’ve decided to pull up chocks and head to Los Angeles in search of new things to eat. I’m shipping the scooter and traveling in the relatively safe cocoon of a Honda Civic, hauling away a few extra pounds, a newfound love of smoked brisket and better appreciation for the hamburgers I used to mindlessly feast on.
When I first moved to Dallas to work at the Observer, I had a serious burger problem. As a new critic, I was in a mad rush to eat at as many new restaurants as possible, and rightly argued that the humble hamburger was a great barometer of a kitchen’s overall prowess because it was so often overlooked. But even when I wasn’t eating for work, I’d soothe myself with a burger at whatever bar. At the height of my addiction I was probably consuming three or four of them a week.
At that time I was obsessed with cheffed-up, fancy burgers, the kind made from freshly ground, pedigreed beef and topped with refined ingredients like house-brined pickles and bacon made from heritage pigs. Price wasn’t an issue; I craved the perfect sear, juice that dripped all the way down to my elbows and a sensory experience that left me in a grease-tinged coma. Was I self-medicating? Maybe. But they were fun to write about, and they were delicious.
After a little more than a month on the job, I stumbled on the Cleaver and Block burger served at the now defunct NHS Tavern. Made from a blend of house-ground brisket and chuck, it was massive, juicy and came on a great sesame seed bun. It was the first burger I really fell for here, and I declared that everyone should eat one immediately. John Tesar’s Commissary (also long gone) plated another chef-driven burger that moved me. So did the behemoth served at The Grape. I think I was drawn to these burgers because they reminded me of experiences I wrote about while covering food back in Washington, D.C. They were like an antidote for homesickness.
I was having a harder time appreciating what I’ll forever refer to as Texas burgers. At some point during my first few months, I asked readers where I could find burgers worthy of worship. Maple and Motor, Angry Dog, Jake’s and other longstanding burger restaurants came my way. I tried them all and hated them all. The patties were often skimpy and always overcooked, and they rarely had a solid, crusty sear or any depth of flavor. They tasted cheap, and they always had mustard — a strange and foreign condiment — slathered all over their processed white bread buns. My reaction was the same when I first tried the burger at Lakewood Landing, another place highly recommended by local burger freaks.
But it was the Lakewood burger that would eventually wear me down and convert me. After a year, I moved within walking distance of the East Dallas dive, and when a deadline was looming and I wanted to procrastinate by consumption, I’d almost always end up at the Landing with a red plastic burger basket in front of me. If I wanted to meet a friend for a beer and didn’t want to drink on an empty stomach, I’d ask to meet at the Landing and start with a draft and a burger. The best first date I’ve ever had ended with two burger baskets there, and somehow over the past four-and-a-half years the Lakewood burger became the single thing I ate most in Dallas. I’ve downed scores of them. I inhale each one with the same ravenous enthusiasm I had tackling those foie gras-topped, coddled creations made from dry-aged beef and served on linen-clad tables.
I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s some sort of beef-induced Stockholm syndrome that binds me — an illness based in proximity, familiarity and maybe my own laziness. After spending so much time looking for food to review, I often need something close to home that I can order without spending my few remaining brain cycles.
“Give me a burger with everything, no cheese, and onion rings.”
For this I receive: a burger patty cooked somewhere between medium and well done that is sometimes juicy and always just greasy enough; a soft, white bread bun with a heavy slathering of mayonnaise and a restrained squirt from a mustard bottle; pickles, green leaf lettuce and a sad, sad tomato slice. The onion rings are always crisp, oily and perfectly salty.
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SHOW ME HOW
Lakewood Landing helped me understand why the burgers at Keller’s, Club Schmitz and countless other dive bars have such rabid fans. They’re bound by habit, either by proximity, lifelong memories with family and friends, bonds with the characters who work behind the bar or countless other circumstances. A good story is worth a lot of savory. A lasting tradition brings its own sort of deliciousness.
So, oddly, it’s the burgers that aggravated me the most when I first got to Dallas that will stick with me the longest. Honestly, I never would have remembered the burgers I ate at the Commissary and NHS Tavern if I hadn’t researched every burger article I’ve written for this farewell. I’d completely forgotten about them. I’ll remember those nice ladies at Keller’s with dollar bills fan-folded between their fingers for a long time to come, though. I’ll remember how Club Schmitz was the only dive bar I’ve encountered that was located under the train tracks instead of on the wrong side, and the nickel-thin burger patties that lured me there for the first time.
And I’ll remember the burger at Lakewood forever. Even as the characters who worked the bar fade into fuzzy memories, I’ll remember the way that soft, frumpy bun seemed to wilt in my hands, and the salty bite that flirted with but never seemed to cross into over-seasoning.
Lately, I’m down to just a few burgers a month, which is still probably a few more than a person my age should consume. Maybe in this next chapter I’ll exercise a little more caution when deciding when and where I indulge my habit. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I’ll retain this new perspective I’ve attained after more than four years of Texas burger gluttony. And I’ll never order another burger again without requesting mustard.