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?