It was the only burger on his mind. It was also the most important stop on regular trips to his parents' house from college in Norman, Oklahoma, and in a way, a beacon that indicated he was home: the bright Whataburger sign that punctuated the highway outside Lewisville, a 20-minute detour off his journey.
For BrainDead Brewing chef David Peña, it was worth every drop of gas to find an A1 Thick and Hearty Burger. He pulled off the road off for Whataburger, there and back, because, for young Peña, it was Earth’s great burger. Nothing came close.
“My favorite burger of all time was from Whataburger,” he says.
Whataburger delayed face time with his folks, and the A1 Thick and Hearty rarely, if ever, made it home intact. It was the same for the journey back to Norman because that’s what good cheeseburgers can do: They can stick to the memory center of your brain like fry salt to fingers. And in the days before 15-buck burgers existed outside steakhouses, Whataburger was gold-dipped, heavy-in-your-hands treasure.
About four months ago, Peña deployed his nostalgia for something good and launched a new cheeseburger that is unabashedly inspired by those home detours. Peña has painstakingly recreated Whataburger’s beloved A1 Thick and Hearty burger from bottom to top at BrainDead; it’s even wrapped it in the same sunrise yellow wrapping paper.
For the uninitiated, the A1 Thick and Hearty was (Whataburger retired the sandwich years ago, like a Dallas Cowboys hall-of-famer) two patties, each curtained with American cheese, bacon, diced and grilled onions, and a cap of A1 sauce.
Late one weekday in Deep Ellum, an icy wind clears the patio of customers but the inside of BrainDead is warm and bustling. Peña’s Thick and Morty is Texas Akaushi beef, run through the grinder twice for texture and packability, then shaped into spheres for the flat grill. The burger ball is placed on the smoking-hot grill, and then, catalyzing one of life’s great burger attributes, BrainDead smashes the hell out of patties. The hard smash into the hot, flat grill gives the beef a beautiful crust.
“Then we top them with four slices of American cheese,” Peña says, laughing, “like, straight-up Kraft American cheese. It was necessary.”
Once the Thick and Morty arrives, you’ll feel nostalgia launch up in your mind like a road flare. The burger’s half-wrapped in Whataburger-yellow paper, and the fries come in a fast food carton. The flavor is an unmistakable, drop-dead fun nod to the fast food Texans grew up on. Peña built his version of A1 sauce, all tang and sweet heat, from the ground up.
“It’s got everything from golden raisins to balsamic vinegar, to Worcestershire, to garlic, tomatoes — it’s insane,” Peña says. It simmers for 24 hours down to a rich, chili-velvet color.
BrainDead’s bacon is a crisp pane of dry-cured and smoked Duroc pork belly, sliced thin and deep-fried just for the Thick and Morty. White onions get a touch on the grill for texture and sweetness, and the bun is unapologetic, soft-squishy Mrs. Baird’s jumbo rolls.
One bite in, and you’ll remember things. You’ll remember your veer-off-your-road-trip-for-fast-food memory, and you’ll imagine the crackling drive-thru speaker telling you your order. You’ll think of how many times your grease-spattered french fries didn’t exactly make it home. The only thing that’s missing from BrainDead’s burger memory? There’s no sticker sealed on the yellow wrapper that indicates the burger’s specialty toppings, but that’s fine — everything else on this BrainDead burger is worth pulling off the highway.
BrainDead Brewing, 2625 Main St.