On a list of the stalest phrases in the history of food language, “guilty pleasure” must rank somewhere near two-week-old bagel. It’s stone-dead. In 2018, “indulging in guilty pleasures” sounds more like something Bobby Flay announces with a creepy smile before flame-grilling an eclair. It sounds like something TGI Fridays trademarks before they drop chicken-and-waffle egg rolls before your “foodie” exhausted eyes. When confronted with simple joy, why in the name of sweet burnt ends should we experience guilt?
At Central Market, holiday-themed everything creeps into the aisles. There is a towering wall of candy in the coffee section that should, hopefully, deter White Walkers. There is a small, freestanding freezer in the dairy section for Italian Surrender Sticks, which translate as “cannoli dip” in the modern tongue.
Above it all is the fire-grilled cheeseburger. It’s a beacon of joy in a bustling market, modestly tucked away behind the cacophonous ticket line for macaroni and cheese to-go.
Central Market employee Nestor Orellana is behind the counter. He’s been with the Market for about six years, and he knows the heat of the grill. Ask him for “medium rare” to get the right level of charred juices. He flips a beef patty, and the fire licks the sides. Orellana plucks a slice of cheddar, slides it on and readies the lettuce, tomato and pickle in a neat pile. Into biodegradable cardboard, he avalanches french fries. He rests the smoky, charred patty between the griddled buns, tops it with the LTOP, closes the lid and hands it over.
This is simple joy inside a stressful holiday-seasoned shopping marathon. The cheeseburger at Central Market is no grocery store guilty pleasure. It’s just good. It’s better eaten right there at the Central Market tables, or fast and insane in the parking lot. It’s a jolt better if you ask for medium rare.
Is the cheeseburger an anomaly within Central Market? Food writer and HEB enthusiast Paula Forbes — her cookbook on Austin cuisine is essential and should be all the gifts — journeyed to her local Central Market on North Lamar in Austin to find out.
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“My burger was not great, but I can see where it could be great,” Forbes says. “They did not ask me how I wanted it to done, and it was pretty overcooked. But the meat was still pretty juicy and had a good char flavor, the bun was nice, and the cheese was good.”
So we might have a point on you, Austin: Dallas’ Lovers Lane Central Market's cheeseburger is glinting with charred flavor, a blush pink in the center. It’s a two-hander. My wrists glistened with the juices after a few bites.
Cresting into the end of a long year, why should we feel any sense of guilt over a thing that’s happy?
Central Market, 5750 E. Lovers Lane