Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tales of Excess: Chicken fried prime ribeye burger

We fry everything in this country nowadays, especially in the South. Eating head shaking fried food has become the new test of a peculiar brand of manhood. Go to any county or state fair, and you have a litany of preposterous fried items: Snickers bars, bacon, Moon Pies, Twinkies, macaroni and cheese, and Coca Cola all get a batter bath and take their place next to your side of fries. In that spirit, the recently convened Burger Court of Houston, Texas, held its usual private conference to discuss petitions for oral argument. On the menu? Burgers, naturally.

From Meatfest of the Burger Court

When the Burger Court convenes, even for a simple conference, the usual fare is a steakburger made out of ground, USDA prime strip steak or ribeye. In the grinder also goes a bit of bacon or pancetta for added fat and moisture. At the most recent meeting, however, a motion came before the Court that the Justices consider a chicken fried burger. Flour, Kosher salt, and a bottle of Shiner Smokehaus being on hand, the Court -- unanimously, sua sponte, and without written opinion -- elected to engage in open-minded judicial activism and hear the writ of mandamus from a fourth burger patty at risk of being orphaned after three were placed on the grill.

From Meatfest of the Burger Court

The batter consisted of approximately one cup of flour, a fair bit of salt, and the twelve-ounce beer missing two small sips. After a brief coating, the patty went into an iron skillet filled with one-and-a-half inches of grapeseed oil heated to just below the smoke point. Ten minutes and a brief drain on paper towels later? A golden, juicy, gorgeous indulgence. The crust was light and very crisp, adding a nice textural element to the bacon-tinged steak. It retained natural juices well, without being too greasy. It may have been less greasy than many burgers cooked on a griddle. No condiments necessary. But this is probably a burger best split three ways.

Due next on the Burger Court docket: Lankford Grocery.

From Meatfest of the Burger Court

From Meatfest of the Burger Court

From Meatfest of the Burger Court

Monday, July 20, 2009

Wine of the Moment: Remoriquet Bourgogne Haut Cotes de Nuits 2006

They say that, in wine, all roads eventually lead to Burgundy. One might take that as a metaphor for life, since all roads in life eventually lead to death. For the wine-crazy among us, Burgundy can spell the beginning of the end. Perhaps one day you are lucky and ill-fated enough to find your Burgundy epiphany -- a luscious, perfumed, cherry-laden wine that heightens the senses and haunts you. Your first great Burgundy is like reading the Russian masters for the first time; afterward you'll be chasing the high, never to be equaled, for the rest of your life. Love of Burgundy can also be financially perilous. While there is value to be had, prices range from spendy to astronomical. (The current release of Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Romanee Conti, for example, is in the $3,500 to $4,000 range per bottle.)

Still, even the threats of bankruptcy and alienating friends and family seem not to deter someone awestruck by Burgundy. There are options, however, that allow you to feed your Burgundy habit without ruining your life. It's like True Blood for wine drinkers. Most recently, I found Remoriquet's Bourgogne Haut Cotes de Nuits 2006. It's $22.49 at the downtown Spec's. A terrific red Burgundy (read: 100% Pinot Noir) that delivers a touch of funk, loads of sour cherry fruit, bright acidity, and a juicy finish on a refreshing frame. This is just the kind of wine that goes beautifully with the heavy food Houstonians prefer, even in summer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In re Mel's Country Cafe

EDITOR'S NOTE: Burger Ipsa Loquitur, d/b/a The Burger Court of Houston, Texas, will be a recurring feature on the blog. Sitting by special designation, it brings together three deeply passionate and experienced burger lovers who are driven to find the best burger in Houston. An open-minded attitude drives these Judges, allowing them to focus on the Burger Due Process: strict scrutiny of the patty, bun, and condiments, while considering areas such as side dishes and restaurant atmosphere under a rational basis standard. Enjoy and, as always, comments are welcome.

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas

Docket No. 1


HEARD JUNE 14, 2009



Opinion for the court filed by LAHAD, J, in which JJ. GUTTING and BRINKMANN join.

LAHAD, J. Before the court is the submission of Mel’s Country Café of Tomball, Texas (“Mel’s”). After dismissing Mel’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction,* this court proceeded to taste oral argument regarding the hamburgers at this “family owned and operated” establishment located in the more bucolic part of Tomball. We hold that Mel’s provides an average to above-average hamburger. That is, Mel’s burger warrants a B+ rating.


Set in a wood and tin roofed structure across the railroad tracks on Stanolind Road is Mel’s Country Café. Touting homestyle cooking (read: fried) and weighty burgers, Mel’s serves up everything from bacon hamburgers to Cajun grilled chicken breast. Mel’s legend, however, was built on the Mega Mel Burger: 1.5 lbs of ground beef, 1 lb of bacon, 1/4 lb American cheese and “lots, lots of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles.” If you can finish the $20 Mega Mel in less than two hours, your name and finishing time will be inscribed upon the wall-of-fame along with countless other gluttons, including one allegedly human man who, it is written, finished this abomination of ground beef in 9 minutes. Yes, nine. Presumably, he watches other contenders try to beat his record – from heaven. The Mel burger, the Mega Mel’s younger and of course more attractive sibling, consists of 1 lb of beef, 1/4 lb of bacon, some cheese if you wish, and the condiments. The bottom-line is that at Mel’s, burgers talk, and everything else walks, or is fried.

From Mel's Country Cafe

The panel tasted three hamburgers: 1) a double cheese burger with all of the trimmings; 2) a Mel burger with cheese; and 3) a Mel burger without cheese or mayonnaise.

The Hamburger

If the burgers were judged on looks alone, the Mel burger would win the beauty contest. The Mel appeared with 3 1/3 lb patties between what looked like substantive buns. The bacon did not overwhelm the burgers appearance, nor did the vegetables hiding under the lowest patty. A large toothpick ran reassuringly through the middle to keep everything in place. But in the end, the Mel’s beauty turned out to be only bun deep.

The Mel’s patties do not appear to be hand-formed. If they are, then great skill goes into making each patty a clone of the preceding patty. The patties were well seasoned and had a nice crust on the perimeter. A nice char or crust on meat is an under-appreciated quality in burgers. Mel’s burgers succeed where many burgers fail: seasoning. Eating some of the ground beef on its own demonstrates that some care goes into seasoning the patty before cooking. Whatever the seasoning – probably nothing more than salt and pepper – it is applied in just the right proportion and preserved during the cooking process. Frankly, it was refreshing.

From Mel's Country Cafe

Speaking of cooking, Mel’s cooks its burgers to medium well. While this may be good for food-borne illness and even cooking time, in this court’s opinion, it dried the patties out. The Mel had three patties that were each too dry for their own good. This synergistic backfire resulted in a burger that was significantly drier than what one wants or expects from a place like Mel’s. This dry patty problem was common to all three burgers indicating a systemic issue, not just an isolated incident caused by a distracted cook. Reducing the cooking to only medium could remedy this.

Of course, one holds a hamburger by the bun. The bun was toasted and appeared ready to survive the meal, but in the end it couldn’t cut the mustard. Half-way into eating the burgers, the lower bun’s structural integrity began to fail. By the end, the lower bun had disintegrated into a soggy mess, probably from the vegetables. The patties were too dry, in this court’s opinion, to do that serious of damage to the bun.


While the appetizers and sides do not factor into the final calculus, a word should be said about Mel’s. First, they were all fried of course: Onion rings and stuffed jalapeño’s to start and French fries, tater tots, hush puppies, and fried okra to ride shotgun. Cheers to the onion rings – hand-battered and made from noticeably sweet onions. Jeers to the jalapeño’s – nearly expired fare from the nearest Sam’s Club. However, the real disappointed came in a small red basket lined with wax paper: the French fries. The fries appeared so synthetic and overdone as to be unappetizing. Mel’s would come dangerously close to a fair or merely average rating if the fries were a factor. They offended traditional notions of French fries and substantial sides. At some places, the fries are an afterthought. At Mel’s, there was no thought given at all.

From Mel's Country Cafe

Fortunately, the remaining three sides came to the rescue. The fried okra was fantastic as were the tater tots and hush puppies. In sum, I would join Alison Cook in lambasting Mel’s fries. That is how bad the court found them.


At $7.95, the Mel burger is a value. The other burgers and each of the sides were also quite competitively priced. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to call the food at Mel’s ‘cheap’. However, if time is money, then Mel’s burgers could be classified alongside Kobe beef burgers from a downtown bistro. Mel’s takes time. It takes time to get there. Once you arrive, you have to wait: wait to be seated; wait to get a server; wait to get your food (again, it would take less time to cook it to medium). Not surprising that one could finish a several sodas or glasses of white zinfandel while waiting for the main event.


In sum, the court finds that while well seasoned, the argument proffered by Mel’s Country Café does not provide sufficient evidence to meet the standard of clear and convincing deliciousness to be rated an A or A- burger. Mel’s dry patties and lackluster bun cannot carry its burden, no matter how pleasing the proportion of pepper (alliteration intended). Accordingly, Mel’s burgers are given a B+ rating.



* Mel’s moved to dismiss on grounds that it did not have sufficient minimum contacts with Houston to be within the reach of this court’s personal jurisdiction. The Motion was denied based on substantial evidence of at least minimal, if not significant, contacts with Houston, Texas including but not limited to: advertising, serving several Houstonians, and purchasing raw goods from Houston merchants.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Amuse bouche: The finest ingredients

Beluga caviar. Saffron. White truffles. La Bonnotte potatoes. Domaine de la Romanee Conti. The best comes at a price. Sometimes the best is worth it; sometimes the best is more about hype or scarcity. In rare cases, however, the best can be quite readily within reach. That's the case with the best steak in the U.S. This might come as a shock from someone living in Texas, but the best steak comes from a butcher outside of San Francisco named Bryan Flannery. At Bryan's Fine Foods in Corte Madera, California, you can renew your appreciation for beef. The prices are quite reasonable -- it's better to call and order over the phone than place it online -- and the quality is unmatched. Pictures don't lie:

From Assorted Flannery

From Assorted Flannery

From Assorted Flannery

From Assorted Flannery

Steaks ship fresh on ice packs; even in the peak of summer, second-day FedEx has the meat arrive at your door refrigerator cold.