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Hamburger Diaries: Whataburger

Thursday, 3 June, 2010

When I want a classic burger, and I don’t want it in two hours among phone-addicted, self-appointed hipsters for double-digit sums of money, I find my way to Whataburger. My initial research reveals Austin proper hosts a mere nine Whataburgers, fewer stores than Short Stop. I feel like I don’t see Short Stop anymore, but happen to notice Whataburger.

Since its establishment in Corpus Christi in 1955, Whataburger has spread throughout several states. It remains a Texas icon to the extent of being used as the default fast-food joint on television’s King of the Hill, without parody or paid placement. Its place in the heart of Texans is somewhere between Dell Computer and The Alamo. Modern, up to date, yet respectful of both its own history and entire quick-service industry. Several original A-frame Whataburgers are still standing even in Austin, despite the elimination of the drive-ins which occurred long before I arrived.

The attitude expressed in its advertising and website is conspicuous throughout every location, the graphics on cups, bags and wrappers and even the ketchup “buckets”. Quick service, entirely plausible ingredients including items not typically available, such as A1 sauce [see update below] or grilled jalapeños and/or onions, readily customized, and menu as full as you will find without having anything designed to be microwaved.

While you explore that menu, know everything is available constantly. You want the legendary breakfast taquitos or a Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit at 3 PM? They’ll set you up. You want a Double Meat Whataburger with bacon and cheese on Texas Toast at 5 AM? They won’t even bat an eye. Believe me. How about that chicken-strip sandwich with swiss cheese on Texas Toast only on the menu in Autumn? It’s the same price and button as the 3-piece chicken strips + swiss. [Ed.: I’m pretty sure] Would you like gravy with that? All sandwiches are served on a five-inch bun, whole-wheat bun, Texas Toast or four-inch white bun. Deep-fried pies in Apple, Peach and Strawberry. Whatachick’n (boneless breast) and Whatacatch (minced fish) are available. You’re damn right they have onion rings. If you want something humbly dressed not unlike McDonald’s signature Hamburger, you may order a Justaburger.

If you are in Texas and meeting someone at an airport, bring them Whataburger’s sausage and egg with cheese breakfast taquitos. Be certain to have plenty of picante sauce. They’ll love you for it. It sure beats flowers.

Whataburger serves Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper products, including Fanta Orange and Strawberry with Ace-K-sweetened Coca-Cola Zero at select locations. Unsweetened iced tea is available. The iced tea is brewed on-premises, bold and served with plenty of ice. Pretty good machine shakes are on offer in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Milk and orange juice are available.

Whatameals (combos), which you may upgrade to Whatasize, and Whatakids meal are available. As silly as this sounds it’s all part of the experience. I don’t blush when I find myself ordering my No. 2 Whatameal Whatasize. For those of you out in the world, Whataburger is to Texas as In-N-Out is to California. Like In-N-Out, all stores are held and operated by Whataburger Restaurants, LP. They do not franchise.

Whataburger is not here to save the world. Whataburger is not here to make modest claims about keeping you healthy. Whataburger is here to feed you classic quick-service fare with a subtle Southern twist. They do this very well and in ample portions. The only inconsistency is the layout of the several generations of restaurants which co-exist within the same town. This is far from insurmountable and helps establish the company’s reputation as a strong, long-standing presence.

What may as well be my standing order, from which I deviate frequently, is the No. 2 Whatameal (Double Meat Whataburger) plus cheese and bacon (American unless you specify otherwise, swiss and “jack” are available, double cheese is added to the Double Meat) on Texas Toast, Whatasize. As of this year that comes to $9.46 (in Austin, other markets will vary) just south of the psychological double-digit-dollar barrier. My drink of choice is Coke Zero, or unsweetened iced tea if Diet Coke for Boys is not available. Before you freak out, I only do this every couple of weeks. For this money I receive an intimidating quantity of food.

I have never weighed my favorite Whataburger variation but it’s easily over a pound, and comes with a batch of always hot fries, sometimes hot enough to warrant a warning, in a collapsible cup just a little larger than a 20 oz. cold cup with a quart of iced beverage. This meal approaches irresponsibly large. I almost always avail the drive-thru service.

For the purposes of this review, I traveled on a painfully sunny Texas afternoon to the friendly neighborhood Whataburger on the other side of my neighborhood from the Whataburger I typically find myself. (601 Barton Springs Road, although it faces S. First St.) I initially intended to travel to a recently built unit of the type going up in growth markets such as Mississippi and the Florida panhandle, but after a day of running errands and failing to find the camera I’ve decided to buy in no small part to provide illustrations for the Hamburger Diaries I simply could not be bothered. It was rush hour and I was hungry.

My order: Whatameal No. 1 (Whataburger) with cheese, Whatasize.

Service: Mild conversation. (“It sure is hot”, &c.) Only one station open. I was the second customer from the moment I arrived and it took a while for the fellow in front of me to work out what he wanted. This took about six minutes. Just long enough to be uncomfortable. As always, the staff is gracious and downright friendly. I strongly suspect WR, LP takes good care of their people. The server was a woman in her mid-twenties, not in a manager’s uniform, who knew exactly what she was doing. I am issued a tray with a marker, like in the commercial, and my cup.

I’m not keen on self-serve beverages, but I may be alone in this. I choose Coke Zero, light ice.

Quite literally as I sit down, my server approaches with another tray featuring my meal. I am accustomed to returning to the counter once my number is called. Either because of the rush hour, or in spite of it, business appeared quite slow. I was served in under three minutes. I barely remembered to check the time. The fellow who ordered ahead of me is still waiting. His order didn’t seem all that special, but he was served at the table in a concerning eleven minutes.

Traffic outside the restaurant was rather busy. Mostly folks traveling through Downtown making their way south in cars. The four nearby transit stops were also busy. Pedestrian traffic was untypical of Texas, and mostly people wearing clothing which suggests they had recent departed Barton Springs. The phenomenon of the girl in the almost inappropriate bikini who clearly acts as though she doesn’t know why her friends are uncomfortable because she isn’t covering up more, seeing that they are now in, say, 7-eleven, a grocery store or Whataburger, never, ever gets old. I relish being a dirty old man at times.

The bun is a standard seedless five-incher with 30-40% caramelization, a bit too done. The sandwich is fully dressed including rehydrated onions and standard condiments. The lettuce is crisp and very green. This quality of lettuce is not common in my experience with the chain. The fried patty is modestly yet nicely flavored with only a touch of seasoning. I detect no MSG but a touch of salt, just maybe pepper. Typical American cheese, not sharp, but what you expect on a Cheeseburger. As I prefer, the toppings are merely cool and the animal-based elements are hot.

Fries are fresh and hot. Standard shoestrings with just enough salt and excellent tooth. As always they have a rich potato flavor with a welcome hint of oil. I am served three buckets of ketchup despite a condiment stand adjacent to the fountain. I do not use condiments on fries, even with ample quantities of ketchup served in clever packaging.

Despite the slow pace of business, three other parties ordered in the twenty-seven minutes I was there. The dining room could have used a sweep, although the hard plastic tables and seats were all quite clean. While I was present a group of four men drinking [Ed: I presume] coffee and sharing single orders of onion rings and fries departed and their table was bused within three minutes.

I certainly was not the only one closely watching she of the inappropriate bikini. Her repeated trips to the condiment stand and fountain reminded me of the refill policy which I subsequently abused due to the temperature outside. Were I still a dirty young man the refill policy would not have occurred to me.

A Whataburger, even in its non-customized form, provides a humble pleasure. It is a solid, consistent, reliable experience. Whataburger is satisfying on every metric of quick service. Even the grounds are sufficiently spacious you may maneuver yourself or your vehicle around the building and ample parking with impunity. I shall confess that I did not notice the specific elements of decor present in this 1984 building. Typically, professional photographs of novel Whataburger restaurants and landmark locations are on the walls, alongside that month or quarter’s special deal or limited-time menu items. Unlike many chains they do not make a point of shoving this month’s deal down your throat. The impression is more along the lines of “How ’bout a patty melt?”

Whataburger is pricier than the superficially similar Burger King, and price competitive with Sonic. Yet it is a superior sandwich, served by more gracious people in an environment which doesn’t feel like its been focus grouped. It is almost certain this San Antonio-based enterprise does more than a little market research, but it feels like Roy and Bubbie are working up stuff in that location’s kitchen.

Cost: $6.26 including tax

Update 04 June: Burger King offers since February the “A1 Steakhouse XT”. Clearly A1 is at least a little more common than I realized. I do not know whether A1 is available as a condiment.

  1. Graeme permalink
    Thursday, 3 June, 2010 21:06

    Nice. This fits with my experience eating there. I was always surprised that it was good, despite a full menu. For some reason I was prepared not to like it, but I always make a point of it when I’m in Texas, and it’s been consistently solid.

    Sonic, on the other hand… Ugh. Then again, I don’t know if I’ve had a Sonic Burger. Thinking about it, my choices there have seemed likely to be the failures they turned out to be.

    Burger King has pleasantly surprised me recently with their chicken sandwiches, but their breakfast fare has left me disappointed. Sheesh… Last time I was there I was in San Diego for work, and that was probably 4 years ago, now. Perhaps they’ve improved?


    • Thursday, 3 June, 2010 22:07

      I will tell you now that I have to go out of my way to patronize Burger King. I don’t know how it happened, and a BK is not quite two miles from my house, but it doesn’t occur to me to go there. The last visit I had the then-controversial breakfast sandwich ca. 2005 the name of which I cannot recall. It was actually quite good.

      In the late 90s BKs sausage & egg biscuits were an item for which I would stop and with some frequency. I couldn’t tell you how long its been since I’ve been served a Whopper. It was a staple of my teenage years and I assume it hasn’t changed dramatically from the grilled then microwaved sandwich it was at that time.

      Perhaps Sonic should go on my list. Oddly, I have spent a lot of time living in such proximity to a Sonic that actually eating in the car, the natural Sonic experience, would require the additional effort of driving there. Also, the staff in this area tend to be intensely cute gals, no doubt hired for that reason, under 20 or so. This makes me uncomfortable. I admire the audacity of offering “tots” in lieu of fries and the old-school fountain. The local Steak’N’Shake franchiser will not offer cherry Root Beer, but Sonic does.

      Yep. Sonic, despite its growth, is going on the list. I’m pretty sure I’ve visited the Sonic up the street exactly once in nine years.


  2. Graeme permalink
    Sunday, 6 June, 2010 10:24

    That’s the thing. The idea of Sonic has real appeal, in that it’s such an interesting blend of modern & traditional fast food experiences. You get the tots & the car hops, but you also have an overwhelming number of (corn based) items to choose from.

    When you go to an In ‘n’ Out, a Dick’s (in Seattle), or an Underdog (in Chicago) you see the limited, traditional menus. The first two on the list always have me imagining what McDonald’s must have been like before the Happy Meals I grew up with.

    BTW, it fascinates me that the McNugget had such an impact on the amount of chicken consumed by Americans. The industry was nothing until Tyson came up with that idea. It’s shocking, really.

    I did try that huge BK breakfast sandwich which sparked all that controversy, and I thought it was bland. The tastes just weren’t tied together well, in my opinion. A large part of the issue for me was the bun/roll. I do recall enjoying a Crissandwich (sp?) or two in my day, though it’s been years since I had one of those.

    I’m a big fan of McDonald’s Steak & Egg bagel breakfast sandwich, but it’s not always available. I remain a grudging fan of the McGriddle, despite their position as an obvious triumph of food science. As much as I love fast food, I haven’t been able to eat there since I finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m sure that won’t last, but I may as well admit it.

    I will admit the Subway breakfast fare has piqued my interest. I’m sure I’ll be giving them a try on the road this summer.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work.


  3. Jennifer Dillon permalink
    Saturday, 12 June, 2010 9:20

    Stan, I hate to be one of those yeah-but-how-much-money-are-you-getting-for-it folks, but I have to tell you that your writing is absolutely of professional quality. Actually, to avoid ambiguity, let me amend this to specify that it is of exceptionally GOOD quality.

    Your descriptions leave nothing to the imagination, yet are a pleasure to read. Your thoughts are well-sequenced and logically organized. Your personal asides (which one would expect to see in a blog) are entertaining and would be a welcomed addition to many published reviews which are often only partially informative and very dry to read.

    I know you’ve been doing reviews of the car industry for quite some time, and although I have always been astonished by their level of detail and historical insight, I haven’t been able to finish a whole one. I’m a girl. I don’t care THAT much about cars.

    But, burgers- there’s a topic that anyone can, excuse the pun- sink their teeth into (even an aspiring vegetarian such as myself). When you’re addressing universally (OK- Americaniverally) appealing topics such as this, your writing could be (yes, I hate to say it) very marketable and would fit in well in publications such as Texas Monthly. (Hopefully you don’t find that to be an insult. I find their articles to be very entertaining while I’m waiting to get my tires rotated or teeth cleaned*.)

    Anyway, profit-oriented concerns aside, your articles are very enjoyable to read and I feel lucky to know where to find them at! Bravo!

    *Interestingly, my dentist’s office has a magazine called “Garden and Gun” which is dripping with topics presumably only perfectly applicable to the appetites of Old South aristocracy. This is only slightly more interesting considering my dentist is a female of Persian descent.


  4. Scott permalink
    Sunday, 14 November, 2010 19:46

    Try having a Whataburger within 1/2 mile of your house. Eventually, the smell of one will make you barf. When my wife somehow manages to force one down our bedroom smells like a Whataburger grill the next morning. Disgusting.


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