It was just after noon and the mercury was well into its death march upward as I walked up to Maple and Motor, looking for a cheap and decent meal that was close to the office. Out front under an overhang that produced a scant 12-inch strip of shade, those late to lunch were men on a ledge, literally clinging to the side of the building and trying to avoid falling out into a searing sun. Owner Jack Perkins worked the door, basking in the heat while telling golf stories and fishing tales and metering the flow of hungry to prevent overcrowding inside.
Through the door the line continued, and patrons bathed in the sweet stench of Maillard reactions that were browning perfect crusts around fatty patties of ground meat. A bowl of bastardized whoopee pies tempted from the order counter, so stuffed with butter cream they were round as softballs.
I sat with the Mayberry family. They asked me to join their table, proving that Southern hospitality is more than an empty phrase. Travis and I sipped Schlitz between bites of burgers laced with relish, shredded lettuce and mustard, while his mother, Suzan, rattled off restaurant recommendations. I learned to sit on the first base side of Rangers Ballpark and drink boatloads of beer if I stand any chance of beating the heat while watching a game. We talked of recently lost loved ones.
At a table next to ours, women adorned fries, already topped with chili and cheese, with a viscous ranch dressing before daintily sawing their burgers in half with a plastic knife. Across the room, a diminutive woman unhinged her jaw, a serpentine attempt to manage a massive buttery bun. "Stairway to Heaven" played on the juke, and I wondered if it was an omen as I wipe the grease from my fingers with a paper napkin. My basket was filled with more oil than burger juice and Suzan made a Lipitor joke.
That brown crust I thought I smelled when walking through the door was sadly missing from my burger. There was no char, an element commonly missing when burgers are rushed, and it was a little dry, but I ate it in a cramped building surrounded by walls that exuded soul, and paid a mere $5 for the meal (not including beer). At this price point, it was easily the best burger I've had in years.
The woman working the register pushed Maple and Motors fries as the best ever, but I declined. When Suzan wasn't looking, I nabbed one from her basket. They aren't bad.