BrainDead Brewing chef David Peña’s powers of food deductions are acute, preserved after years of shellacking his mind with Whataburger cheeseburgers and hot, salty french fries. In order to reconstruct the A1 Thick and Hearty Burger from the ground up — he recently rebuilt it like a fallen monument to bygone Texas heroes — finding the same salt that Whataburger uses was a moral imperative.
It took roughly two weeks, the chef hurtling through hoops and sleuthy Google searches, but he discovered Atlantis. The french fries at Braindead Brewing Pub are seasoned with the same damn finger-sticking salt that Whataburger uses.
It began like a low-budget Sherlock Holmes episode. Peña, taking one for the team, ordered and tasted fries at several Whataburgers in the area to entomb the exact flavor profile in his mind. His BrainDead fries are cut in house, which makes mimicking a frozen fry complicated. There’s something about frozen fries that will always outplay the fresh, real stuff. To get the taste right, he tested Whataburger's secret fry oil against his housemade version: a seething cauldron of lard and beef tallow blend (fat back, beef fat and bacon fat).
“They are as close as I could figure out,” Peña says.
“Think about it: When you go to any fast food place and eat a french fry, what happens? That salt sticks to your fingers, and it makes you lick your fingers and go back for another one. That’s that salt." — Braindead Brewing chef David Peña
BrainDead’s version of the fast food chain’s fries are cut into quarter-inch batons. Once he nailed the potato part, a new challenge emerged: finding the right salt.
One of the reasons fast food french fries are addictive: The hot salt that sticks to the crispy potatoes rarely dissolves. It remains nearly crunchy, coating your fingers and turning your brain into an extra Dawn of the Dead, a DNA-challenging craving for more and more crunchy salt.
Using the powers of a web search, Peña unearthed that Whataburger uses flour salt, a super-refined, nearly powder-like blend. “It has the texture of rice flour,” he says.
OK, so flour salt, he said to himself. What is that? What makes it special? The vital ingredient is yellow prussiate of soda, an anti-caking agent. The anti-caking agent prevents the salt from clumping and lets that beautiful, hot salt stick to your finger. It’s what makes fries taste like a summer day at the fair or a ballgame’s finest.
Simple logic also told Peña that there are two salt companies that could handle Whataburger’s salt needs: Morton’s and Cargill. Morton’s had salt with two anti-caking ingredients. Cargill had just one, yellow prussiate soda. So, using a sort of food version of Occam’s razor, he determined Cargill is the right answer, the source of Whataburger’s lip-smacking salt.
He had to go through four companies to get it. Once it was in his hands, like the idol that Indiana Jones finds after those super uncomfortable booby traps, he shipped 150 pounds of it home.
“It’s kind of a little secret that nobody knows. It’s crack salt,” Peña says, excitement bubbling over. “Think about it: When you go to any fast food place and eat a french fry, what happens? That salt sticks to your fingers, and it makes you lick your fingers and go back for another one. That’s that salt.”
When the Thick and Morty arrives at BrainDead Brewing, the double cheeseburger caped in the slow-simmered, thick A1 sauce, the carton of french fries unlocks an instant smile. Crunching into a fry, and then another, lights up memories in the brain. You’ll think of reaching into the paper bag, spattered by grease, on late nights with Whataburger. You’ll remember all of those weird times you ate a bundle of fries at once, like sticks for fire, at 3 in the morning. Swiped through homemade ketchup, they become the best fast food fries you’ve ever had.
The fries are an homage that arrives with no bullshit, crafted after a lot of work. In other words, it’s a chef enjoying the act of crafting bar food. The best part is that the fries have something that gets buried in this intensely serious food culture: smart and good fun.
BrainDead Brewing Pub, 2625 Main St. (Deep Ellum)