Classic Fast Food-Style Burgers at Fran's Hamburgers in Austin, Texas

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

Fran's Hamburgers

1822 South Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704; map); 512-444-5738
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Classic fast food burger in the best sense of the phrase
Want Fries with That? Go for the onion rings or the fried mushrooms (or both)
Price: Cheeseburger, 6-ounces, $4.05; 1/4-pound, $3.55, small, $2.45

The story goes that at one time Fran and Dan were married. It didn't last though, and when they split asunder they did the same thing to the hamburger stand they owned. The divorce spawned two restaurants named Dan's and Fran's—names so perfect for an internecine rivalry that cynics might have thought it a publicity stunt. That was back in the 1970s, so time has debunked that theory.

The divorce may have been tragic in the personal lives of Dan and Fran, but it was beneficial to the burger loving public of Austin. The two restaurants have become institutions, each camp attracting legions of fans.

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Fran's is a classic-looking burger stand outside and in. Although the aesthetic is 1950s garage / rock 'n' roll, the restaurant only dates back to 1973, making it retro even back then.

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The food is cooked to order, so while it might not be quite as fast as fast food from the big chains, the extra wait time is rewarded. It's food that's fast enough.

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Fran's serves a classic fast food-style hamburger. The svelte patties come in three sizes: small, 1/4-pound, and 6 ounces. They're aggressively seasoned with a "secret" spice blend (it tastes like adobo), cooked on the griddle, and a spatula is used to cut slash marks in the patty, probably to speed its cooking. This coupled with the thinness of the patties means that they are invariably cooked through. I suspect that the mottling of char on the patty is more the result of the "secret" seasoning caramelizing rather than than the beef itself.

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I tried a Fran's burger plain—just bun and beef—and it was not especially compelling. I loved the squishy white bun that received a nice toasting and came out hot, but the beef, even with the heavy dusting of spice, didn't have much in the way of beefy flavor. Texturally it was fine; while not especially juicy, it avoided mealiness and the beef had some sponginess, even though it was cooked through.

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But once blanketed in cheese and loaded with lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles, the burger achieves a pleasing synergy. The freshness of the ingredients (I would call them toppings except they're placed under the beef) is key here—unlike the wilted, polystyrene-like veggies of typical fast food chains the ones at Fran's are crunchy and vibrant. They add both a textural and temperature contrast to the soft and warm beef and bun.

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I don't usually like jalapenos on burgers, but being in Texas it made contextual sense ("when in Rome..."). I have to admit that adding them upped the flavor quotient significantly by adding heat and a smoky sweetness.

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Add even more smoke and saltiness by ordering a bacon cheeseburger.

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Here's a double "small burger."

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The fries are good, but try the superior onion rings or, better yet, the fried mushrooms, an order of which is virtually a meal on its own.

How does Fran's stack up to Dan's? I have no idea; I only had time for one hamburger in Austin, but now I have another reason to return. If it is anything like Fran's it will be worth the trip.

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