Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lankford Grocery

At the risk of sounding like a moral relativist, the "best hamburger" is genuinely a personal choice. Some people prefer their patties thin, while others like a well-crusted hunk of beef; Texans generally seek out a traditional complement of mustard, onions, lettuce and tomato, while some prefer their burgers tarted up with silliness like barbecue sauce or guacamole.

But everyone, I think, will agree that a great hamburger must taste distinctively beefy. There are lots of things to complain about McDonalds, but the biggest must be that their hamburgers taste nothing like cow. They're kind of cheesey and greasy, which is fine; but there's little to suggest that any part of them ever mooed or milked.

It's the beefiness factor (BF) that ultimately elevates Lankford Grocery, purveyor of Houston's finest hamburgers, above its competition. Lankford Grocery, a dumpy and well-loved shack hidden away in what used to be known as the Fourth Ward (now a yuppie ghetto on the outskirts of Midtown), serves a variety of startling good food, but none better or more justly renowned than their burgers.

Lankford offers burgers in three sizes (single, double, and, humorously, a triple-patty version -- over a pound and a half of meat). Each burger is beautifully made, which is to say they're course-ground, crudely-shapen, and cooked over high heat to give them a nice blackening. No efforts have been made to avoid the grease inherent in good ground chuck, and it soaks through the wax paper on which the burger is served, and leaves an enticing sheen on the bun. The meat is well-flavored, beefy and tender. The default toppings are the usual mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomato and onion, and there's nothing else you'd need to improve it. The cheeseburger comes with a patriotic slice of yellow cheddar thoroughly melted over the patty.

(What -- what -- is up with burger joints that can't be bothered to melt the cheese on their cheeseburgers? A cold slice of cheese can ruin an otherwise outstanding burger, and there's just no reason for it. The secret? Put the cheese on the burger before it's done cooking. Voila! Why is that so hard? I was in Austin the other day and grabbed a quick bite at Posse East, a perfectly respectable beer joint and burger bar on campus. The cheeseburger was -- or would have been -- delicious, but for the two slices of refrigerator-cold and gummy Kraft Singles that conspired to ruin each bite until I removed the nasty things and flung them back in the basket. Seriously, people. Brain surgery it ain't.)

There's a good argument to be made for the double burger at Lankford. The sight of the poor, struggling bun vainly trying to contain both patties leaves no doubt that this burger, more than any other, is about the meat. Yes, it's certainly bad for you. We're talking about a solid pound of greasy hamburger that sets up a permanent refugee camp in your colon within minutes of eating it. But you can rationalize it by saying, "Yes, this is a bad thing. But it is also genuinely delicious and hedonistic. I do not smoke opium. I do not spend my days in silk pajamas, reclining in Hef's grotto. This is my only opportunity to revel in a purely aesthetic experience at lunch today, and I will not regret this decision at the end of my life, however much sooner that day may now arrive."

The sides, if you care, are also delicious. The onion rings are thick-cut but not (overly) greasy, and the "Tex-Mex" -- batter-fried onions and jalapenos -- is also outstanding. Regulars go for the pleasingly crunchy tater tots. There is also a small variety of burger toppings available, beyond the usual mustard, lettuce, etc. The Firehouse burger, for instance, is made with hot peppers in the meat, habanero salsa, and hot mustard. Which is fine, if you're into cheap thrills. But that's like visiting the Grand Canyon and insisting on bungee-jumping off the side. Surely the sublimity of the main attraction is enough?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Best Bayou City Gumbo

Just a short post, more of a question than an opinion: Who makes the best bowl of gumbo in town? Houston has long-standing cultural and demographic ties to Louisiana which have greatly benefited our local cuisine, one benefit being a relative abundance of good gumbo. Treebeard's, the dependable downtown lunch joint, serves a creditable chicken and andouille version with a strong celery flavor. Soul on the Bayeaux (3717 Dowling, at Alabama) has a mean, chocolate-brown seafood gumbo complete with crab legs and the kind of depth that comes from an expert roux. Ragin' Cajun does a lot of things very well, but, sadly, gumbo ain't one of 'em. Where else should a gumbo-eater go? IRWET wants to know.

"Telephone Thai"

Why is it somehow preferable to be abused than ignored? Or is that just me? Well, it can't just be me, judging by the dozens of people who crowd into Kanomwan -- known to those who love it as "Telephone Thai" -- every day for lunch. These are people with jobs, cars, and plenty lunch options; why would they drive out of their way to be abused by a scowling Thai fellow in a sleeveless dress shirt?

In a word: S1. That's why. Kanomwan's tom yum goong (or "S1" to aficianados) is worth significant mistreatment. The first tom yum goong I'd ever had was at a little Vietnamese/Thai restaurant on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn called The Lemongrass. It was (I thought) spicy, intense, and intensely hot, with exactly two shrimp and a heady fish-sauce reek. I thought it was one of the best soups I'd ever tasted. I hadn't had S1 yet, obviously. Telephone Thai's version puts all others -- in America, at least -- to shame. S1 is garnet-red with pepper flakes and riddled with inedible aromatics like kaffir lime leaf, galangal root, and something strongly resembling tree bark. Shove past all of that to get the fresh, impeccably-cooked shrimp and the tiny mushrooms that have absorbed the broth. Fresh rice is served (and consumed) with the S1 as a matter of necessity; whereas weaker tom yum goongs, like those at Nit Noi and Morningside Thai, are served without rice, S1 is barely edible without it. (It's like ordering cafe at Cafe de Monde without the au lait -- it might well kill you.) S1 is a, if not the, Platonic Thai dish in Houston. It's particularly good if you get there for the second lunch seating (i.e., after 12:30), when it's been simmering and reducing steadily and achieves a ragu-like thickness and intensity. We arrived at 1:15 once, and my boss began to sweat so profusely that he had to stand up and walk around the restaurant in mid-S1, as the other customers mocked him.

The rest of the menu is nearly as good. Gai pad prik, or H6, is a spicy stir-fry of chicken with cashews in a sweet chili paste. A little sweet for some tastes, H6 is a much-loved standard at Telephone Thai and, with S1, probably constitutes 50% of the dishes ordered at lunch. The curries are very good, particularly S10, the green chicken curry with bamboo shoots, which has a slow-building but intense burn that leaves your lips tingling. For the geuninely brave, H1 -- available with beef, chicken, or pork -- offers an adulterated chili experience: simply ground meat, Thai basil, fish sauce and chilis (as many as you can stand). Order it "Thai-hot" if you want to make Ute, the owner, crack a smile. Please note it isn't a particularly friendly smile.

There are a couple of missteps. The pad thai is bland, colorless, and unloved -- the Governor Perry of Thai food. The spring rolls and egg rolls are just okay, and the tom khai gai (chicken and coconut milk soup) needs more zing (i.e., more lime juice and fish sauce). But overall, Kanomwan stands tall among Houston Thai restaurants for its bright, vibrant flavors.

So why does the owner apparently hate it so much? Why is he so grouchy all the time, despite hundreds of lawyers, businessmen, judges, and engineers trekking out into Eastwood every day to buy his food? Is it just a shtick? Maybe so.

(Aside: On the old Comedy Central show, "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist," there was a Catskills-type comic who complained that every time he auditioned for a TV pilot, the studio execs told him that his routine was "too shticky." "You know what I hear, when someone says my routine is 'too shticky'?" he said. "I hear, 'We hate the Jews.'")

To be fair, the owner is borderline polite to most women, and downright friendly to children. But those of us who know and love him recognize that that's just an act designed to make the rest of us feel even worse, as though he were specifically scorning us. And we love it.

Kanomwan: 736 Telephone Road, Houston, Texas 77023.