Houston: Leonard's Famous Burgers

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Leonard's Famous Burgers

1913 West Little York Road, Houston TX 77091‎ (map); 713-686-3555
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: About as old-fashioned a burger experience as you can hope for. Crisp, juicy, salty, greasy burgers with the works.
Want Fries With That? Fresh cut, but greasy and limp. No thanks.
Price: Cheeseburger, $3.75, fries, $2

"Are you some kind of a school boy?" the counterman asked me, as I stood in the parking lot at Leonard's Famous Burgers, the hot Houston sun pounding down on me with no shade in sight. I was wearing a shoulder-slung camera bag and a softball league T-shirt, so the assumption was understandable. Likewise, it seemed fair for me to assume that he was Leonard himself—he had that old-timey look and feel about him.

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There's an old-timey look and feel about the whole joint, in fact. There's no seating, no counter, indeed, no indoor space at all. You place your order through a screen window—a cheeseburger, fries, fried fish, ribs, and smoked sausage links are your main options—and pick it up a few minutes later through another one.

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The famous burger starts with a fresh patty of non-descript ground beef that gets slapped onto a hot griddle that looks as if it's seen its share of grease. There's no smashing, no custom beef blends, no secret ingredients, just that familiar sizzle and a heavy hand with the salt and pepper. Once flipped, it's topped with a square of bright orange American cheese, and comes served on a buttered bun that's griddled until crisp, a light sheen of grease coating its outer surface.

Shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, pickles, onions, and a slather of mustard and mayo come by default, though you can request it otherwise. This burger is as old school as it gets, and a near perfect example of the style.

It's not overtly beefy, but there is a torrent of greasy juice that comes streaming out when you bite into it. It can be a bit of a shocker. The patty looks and feels like a generic fast-food burger—and with no seating, you basically have no choice but to eat in or on top of your car—but it eats like it's homemade.

This is the burger that Whataburger wants to be.

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Despite Leonard's hearty recommendation (it is Leonard, isn't it?)—"You've gotta have some fries—they're fresh cut!"—the thick-cut steak fries were flaccid and greasy. A second trip to the fryer may have crisped them up a bit better.

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Sausage links are also not as successful as the burger—they come in a cardboard tray overflowing with an oily red barbecue sauce and a handful of pickles. I'm glad I opted to eat over my hood or the car would have been permanently stained with sausage grease.

But seriously, who cares about the fries and sausage? The burger is what to get, and it delivers. I meant to ask the counterman if he really was Leonard, but I got so distracted in the crisp bun and peppery beef that I completely forgot about it. That's a good kind of amnesia.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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