Occasionally, as I pursue my doctorate in Burgerology, I feel compelled to revisit the scene of a crime.
That impulse pulled me into the driveway of the new Tornado Burger in Spring Branch, the offshoot of the original Tornado in Stafford. I loved that first Tornado when it opened in 2007 — indeed, a quote from my write-up — “has prototype written all over it” — has followed me around ever since on Tornado’s signage, but a revisit the year before last found the burger changed for the worse.
Well, at least there was a grain of truth in the prototype thing, since a second luridly red-and-yellow burger shack has now sprouted on Long Point at Campbell Road. The new restaurant features a semi-enclosed dining porch (no inside seating) and a drive-through, and it incorporates lots of breakfast tacos from the owner’s successful Tornado Tacos concept, his second store in Stafford.
Yet the burgers at Tornado continue to confound me.
It’s a textural thing, an oft-overlooked key to burger greatness. Tornado’s owner has always prided himself on fresh-grinding never-frozen chuck for his burgers. Five years ago, the regular patties seemed like paragons of the fast-food, thin-patty genre to me. I preferred them to What-a-Burger or the West Coast icon, In-N-Out. Back then, I noted the patty’s “pleasing, wavy-topped irregularity” and noted that “they’re cooked through but not so much as to leach all the juices.”
But when I returned in 2011 after a four-year absence, the burger was different. “The well-done patty on my regular cheeseburger had a disagreeably dense, smooth texture,” I wrote then, “as if the meat had been pulped rather than coarsely ground.” I remember wondering if the patty had been compressed too much, as well; the patty was anything but loosely packed, the way you might form one in your own kitchen.
The owner apologized in the comments section of my blog and said that his grinder had broken the day of my visit, and the chuck had been through a single grind rather than two. That puzzled me, because the more you grind meat, the smoother and pulpier the texture, and the less the results will have a separate-but-meshed-strands-of-beef feel.
That coarse, grabby feel was exactly what I was missing in the regular patty, although Tornado’s inimitable spicy patty — in which jalapeños, garlic and onions are ground into the mix — had a looser, more agreeable consistency. Although it was made from the same beef, it even seemed juicier than the regular patty. It was superior in every way.
I gave the regular cheeseburger a D-plus grade and the spicy cheeseburger a good solid B. I still doted on the fresh-cut fries, which had a hot, crisp, cooked-to-order appeal so often lacking in our warming-pan age.
So curiosity drew me back to the new Spring Branch store to see what 17 months and new grinders had wrought.
Alas, the regular patty was exactly as I had described it in 2011: dense, smooth, juiceless. When I lifted the bun to inspect it, I discovered that the patty bent instead of broke. This is not a good sign. Despite the fresh effect of the accoutrements (crunchy coarse cut iceberg, thin-sliced onions, nice fat toasted bun) I was not tempted to eat the whole thing.
I couldn’t stop wondering what had happened, so I decided to go back and try the spicy version. It was so much better than the regular version I couldn’t believe it: juicy and far less compacted than the regular version, breakable instead of bendy and alive with heat and allium savor. I figured it for a B-plus.
Just to make sure I had better data with which to draw conclusions, I returned last week for another round. Same result: dense, juiceless, over-compacted regular patty; far better spicy version. My working theory is that grinding the vegetable ingredients into the beef keeps the texture lighter and allows the juices to collect in the tiny air pockets. (I’m pretty sure Tornado’s owner would offer competing theories, but that’s mine.)
My takeaway is that grind and compaction can make or break a patty as much as beef quality or seasoning. That part of burger construction was always in the back of my mind, but now it’s in the forefront.
Tornado’s owner is a great tinkerer with his menu, always adding new burger toppings and menu items, kicking out the milkshakes here (a tragedy, in my opinion) and adding a wild-sounding cheesesteak or a quirky gyro there. I wish he’d tinker more with his meat grind and restore his regular burger to its former glory.
His new place on Long Point is a useful neighborhood amenity, though. The spicy burger still appeals, the breakfast tacos are good and the surroundings surprisingly chipper, loud red-and-yellow color scheme definitely included. I love the tropical plants housed in lipstick-red planters, and the informality of the picnic tables on the front porch, where you line up at the window to place your order.
A vivid mix of patrons comes and goes, which makes it fun to eat in rather than taking your food away. One noon, as I dispatched an order of fries (still good, with real potato texture, although prone to occasional limpness), a young man in khakis and a logo shirt started singing along lustily to the oldies soundtrack. As I drove off from my parking spot in front of the VFW bingo hall, I could still hear him bellowing, “Who’ll stop the rain?”
(Tornado Burger Spring Branch, 9101 Long Point, 713-984-2000. 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays)