I‘ve tried. I really have, with all that my palate could muster, but I am unable to understand the cult that worships Whataburger. After numerous tastings (23) in various locations in Texas, I can’t agree with the countless acolytes who think that the chain produces the best fast-food burger in America.
Quite simply, they are wrong.
A little backstory: When I first moved to Houston, in June of 2013, I began hearing a lot about “the best fast-food burger in America.” Whataburger was its name, according to many people eager to ask if I had had one. I knew the name, of course, but never had I eaten in one of the chain’s 750 restaurants in the United States, so when I replied that, no, I have not had a Whataburger, I was invariably (gently) scolded and told that my life would change with one bite.
I was intrigued, of course, because I love a good hamburger, and make them often. I was driving down to Galveston one day in the summer of 2013, and decided to try one of the lauded burgers. It was around 12:30 in the afternoon, and I was hungry. I ordered the #1 (single pattie) with everything. I skipped the fries and soda, opting for water; I did not want to cover the taste of my burger with too much sugar or salt. I took a seat in a booth, and a few minutes later a courteous employee delivered my meal. (I will say that the chain has its customer service and hospitality humming at good levels … my experiences at Whataburger have always been pleasant in those areas.)
I unwrapped my burger, hoping it would be as good as I was assured it would be. First, it was hot, a necessity in my opinion. A lukewarm burger is not worth eating. (Unfortunately, I did receive lukewarm burgers on subsequent visits to Whataburger, but in every instance I was able to exchange them for hot ones, and never encountered anything but cheerful service during the swap.)
I was about to lose my Whataburger virginity, and I was excited. The bun was, to be frank, a disappointment, however. That initial hot touch was followed by limpness. Whataburger claims that it toasts its buns, but this one was as soft and white as a marshmallow. My first bite: not bad, but the lettuce was a bit chewy, and the tomato mealy. Fine, I thought, perhaps it is difficult for a chain of this size to maintain consistent quality in all of its ingredients. I added a bit of mayonnaise to the burger (I am a mayo and mustard man, no ketchup for me) and took a second bite.
OK, OK, perhaps I am missing something … best fast-food burger in the nation? What were these people thinking. The cheese was bland, the meat was overcooked. I finished two-thirds of the #1 and left the restaurant, looking forward to dinner.
I must admit that my expectations for that first Whataburger were very high, because, again, literally scores of individuals had told me personally that I must try one. When I asked how it could be any better than In-N-Out or Shake Shack, I heard one of two things in response: 1. “I’ve never had a burger from one of those places. 2. “Whataburger is the best, those places don’t know burgers.” To those owning the first statement, I would ask, “Then how do you know Whataburger is the best?” Most of them would tell me “Because Texas burgers are the best in the world.” I appreciated their love of their state, and left it at that. The second group I ignored.
Since that first time at Whataburger, I have eaten a good number of burgers, some made at home (I generally use a mix of short rib, which I cut by hand, and chuck, though sometimes I add a bit of pork or lamb and sear a piece of foie gras, which I place on top the finished patty), some at Whataburger and other chains, including Beck’s Prime, Wendy’s and Shake Shack. I have also dined on In-N-Out burgers (not to mention some very fine burgers I enjoyed at Tony’s and the now-closed 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, two examples that were decidedly not of the fast-food variety). Whataburger was not my favorite of the fast-food burgers I tried, not by a long shot. I kept the verdict to myself.
A few weeks ago I decided that it was time to put this burger thing to rest, to give Whataburger a final try. Perhaps I was judging the chain too harshly. The catalyst for my decision? A woman who told me that Blue Bell was the best ice cream in the world, and a man who stated that “Houston doesn’t need Yankee Shake Shack, we have Whataburger.” Enough was enough, I thought, I am going to be objective and end this once and for all.
It was on. About a week ago I visited the Whataburger nearest me, arriving at 10:45 am on purpose, so as to beat the lunch crowd and ensure that the employees were not slammed. This time, I ordered a the #2, the Double Meat Whataburger (I had alternated between the #1 and the #2 on earlier occasions). As before, customer service was exemplary. I was greeted with a genuine “good morning” and the smiles were abundant. I took my table tent to a booth and waited. My meat arrived, and I began my evaluation. Hot, check. Tomato? Not so great, slightly mealy. Lettuce? Fine, nothing to write home about, did not do anything to add to my enjoyment. Bun? Decidedly not toasted. Cheese? Reminded me of Velveeta (which is not bad with Rotel). Patties? Similar to the double burger I had had at Wendy’s the week before. This time, I finished the entire thing, and went on my way.
No more. It is done. Whataburger is not the best fast-food burger in America. I am well aware that taste and palate are subjective … just look at the long lines at Outback Steakhouse and Olive Garden if you need evidence of that; therefore, you might think Burger King is the best, and on a subjective level I would not quibble with you. But to all of you out there who continue to proclaim (loudly) that Whataburger is, hands down, the best burger in America, I must say that you are objectively wrong.
If you like bland cheese and soft, mushy buns, have at it, but as far as fast-food burgers go, I’ll stick to making my own at home … at least until Shake Shack arrives in Houston.