Beloved Texas-Based Chain Whataburger Makes a Fine Fast Food Burger
401 Highway 71 W, Bastrop TX 78602; map); 512-321-0722; multiple locations listed at whataburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A fine example of a fast food burger.
Want Fries with That? Yes, they are also a fine example of a fast food fry.
Price: Whataburger, $2.69
Like Richard and Maurice McDonald of McDonald's fame and Harry Snyder of In-N-Out Burger before him, Harmon Dobson's American Dream was griddle seared, blanketed in yellow cheese, and stuffed into a soft white bun.
In 1950, Dobson opened his first Whataburger location in Corpus Christi, Texas, and sold 1/4-pound burgers for a quarter. It was an instant hit—perfectly satisfying the zeitgeist of the era. It was the postwar boom when America was flush with cheap steel and cheaper beef, a time when the rationalization of food production pioneered by White Castle in the 1920s found higher expression in the hands entrepreneurs like Dobson who granted his first Whataburger franchise in 1952. By 1960 the chain had expanded to 17 restaurants in three states and by 1972, despite the death of Dobson in 1967, the chain opened its 100th location under the directions of Dobson's widow Grace. 60 years on, Whataburger has remained family owned and has grown to over 700 locations.
The design for the company's distinctive "A" frame building structure was, literally, scrawled on the back of a napkin by Dobson himself and has become as beloved by the burger-loving denizens of Texas as the twin palms of In-N-Out are in the Golden State. The similarities between the chains are not restricted to the iconography—both chains seem to cultivate a passionate following bordering on cultish devotion. To be sure, they are both far superior to the Big Three (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's), although in the case of Whataburger I think that parochialism and nostalgia plays as much a role in the chain's popularity as the taste of the burgers themselves, which are good but not remarkable.
There is something satisfying and familiar about their namesake Whataburger: a single patty with mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions. It's a classic architecture and the combination works because of the synergy created by the individual components. The bun is a thing of aesthetic perfection—pillow-soft and nicely toasted, it does a good job of holding the svelte patty and required toppings.
I say "required" because the beef is rather bland on its own. It's juicy enough, at least in the world of fast food, but the texture isn't the most pleasing and it needs the cheese and mustard to coax some life out of it. The rabbit food adds textural contrast, although not much in the way of flavor. But combined, the disparate ingredients make for a fine example of a fast food hamburger.
The comparison between In-N-Out and Whataburger is inevitable, but considering they only compete in a single state (Arizona) it's essentially a moot point. Either one is preferable to the offerings of the Big Three burger makers. Although I think In-N-Out compares favorably to the new breed of burger chains that are sweeping the land—Smashburger and Five Guys—Whataburger is not quite in the same league.