My first journalism job was as a copy-desk clerk, assisting overworked El Paso Times copy editors who doubled as page designers. One of my duties was the food run — yes, I was that guy, the one annoying the restaurant staff and customers with more than a half-dozen very specific food orders for people too busy to leave their desks.
One of the most popular places to order from was Big Bun, a downtown El Paso institution that, like my journalism career, still exists against some pretty strong odds. Big Bun specializes in big, inexpensive burgers, the kind where to-go orders make your car smell like burger for a couple of days afterward. I sometimes think that if I still had the car I drove back then, it would still smell like Big Bun.
These memories came flooding back the moment I got out of my car at Hookers Grill, a new burger joint in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The aroma hits you in the parking lot, before you make your short trek to the walk-up window to order your burger, which comes with onions — grilled or fried — mashed into the beef.
The Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy wrote about Hookers Grill — Hooker is the name of the family that runs the place, but they’re not above using a double-entendre to get your attention — in a recent Eats Beat column. The burger style, he wrote, comes from El Reno, a town on Route 66 about a half-hour west of Oklahoma City. Cooks use a bricklayer’s trowel, which has more force than a typical spatula.
Some other Fort Worth burger joints, most notably M&O Station Grill, have been known to mix onions into their patties. But in El Reno, the style is such a big deal that there’s an annual Fried Onion Burger Day.
The event’s website cites food writer John T. Edge’s “Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story,” which tells the story of Ross Davis, who owned a Route 66 restaurant in El Reno called the Hamburger Inn. During the Depression, Davis began to add half a shredded onion (which was cheap) into the meat patty (which wasn’t) and mashing it all together to make the patties look bigger. The extra flavor turned out to be a bonus: The onions enhance the beef, which in turn tones down some of the onions’ more aggressive characteristics.
Fried Onion Burger Day is the first Saturday in May, so we missed the chance for a road trip this year, but hey, the El Reno-style patties are in the Stockyards now.
A regular burger ($5.25) comes with basic toppings, and it almost seems a shame to sully the onion-studded Hereford beef patties with bacon and cheese — but I’m not a purist, so I paid the extra 50 cents for cheese and extra dollar for bacon. And all worth it: Once again, American cheese reminds you that its primary purpose is to be melted atop something else, and the bacon was crispy, salty, smoky and laid on with a hand that found the balance between overly subtle and overwhelming.
The oniony flavor of the patty came through, even with the additional toppings, and mustard and pickles added some additional bite. My only regret: Ordering a single, which was a little on the small side for me, or maybe I just wanted more of that beef.
A half-order of fries, on the other hand, was plenty: A healthy (but probably not healthful) serving of just-crisp-enough thin fries, flecked with bits of salt and pepper, for $2. It’s probably a good thing for my heart that I didn’t get the full $4 order, because these were the kind of fries that had me searching for remnant crumbs after all their container was empty.
The menu at Hookers is on the small side — there are a handful of other sandwiches, as well as a hamburger steak (at $9, the most expensive thing on the menu, and it comes with fries, toast and a side salad), Frito pie and straight chili, and a few hot dogs, including an Oklahoma City-style Coney ($3.90) that comes generously topped with chili and a slaw that’s closer in taste and appearance to relish. Messy — a fork isn’t a bad idea — but filling, with a slightly dusky chili that’s mild on the heat level but plays well off the sharpness of the slaw.
Right now, there’s no dessert — there’s talk of it sometime in the future, but right now the Hookers want to focus on the burgers and the Coneys. All seating is outside, in a two-story patio set up with picnic tables with views of other businesses on this Stockyards side street, including Grady Spears’ chicken-fried-steak palace Horseshoe Hill. The patio can get a little toasty on a hot day, but there are plans to add some fans and misters.
The whole place feels like a throwback, and in a good way, right down to its prices and the friendly family that runs the joint. It’s the kind of spot where one whiff will take you back, maybe to El Reno, or maybe to some other burger joint from your past where the aromas lingered long after you’d finished your meal.