Thursday, August 20, 2009

The recipe, the beef, and the Fred's mystique make it No. 1

The recipe, the beef, and the Fred's mystique make it No. 1

At Fred’s they know that the secret to making a great burger is to not mess with it

Angel Mota is in command of the sizzling flattop grill at Fred’s Texas Cafe, brandishing his magic spatula — the only one he’ll use to cook with. In the small, steaming kitchen, he reaches for the burger’s secret ingredient. All part of the mystique that envelops the burgers at Fred’s.

Something as glorious as a Fredburger must have some intricate formula, some special ingredient that imbues this seemingly unfussy burger with such meaty majesty.

"My wife and I have had philosophical discussions about what makes it so good," says Marcus Johnson, a Fort Worth lawyer. There must be something, Johnson muses. Whether it’s the fried-not-grilled style or something unique in the seasoning. . . . "It’s good but not overpowering to where it’s just stupid," he says.

Would you believe salt and pepper?

Back at the grill, we study as Mota, one of the cooks at Fred’s, assembles the famous Diablo Burger — the Fredburger’s cocky, spotlight-hogging brother. Underneath the flattop is a refrigerated drawer laden with cheese slices and balled-up beef. Mota grabs a beef ball, smacks it into a patty, lays it onto the grill, and sprinkles the top with a dash of pre-mixed salt and pepper. That’s it.

They do use a great ground beef at Fred’s — never frozen, always fresh, and always from Taylor Dressed Beef in Fort Worth, says general manager Quincy Wallace, the longhaired, cowboy-hatted gent who says his title is "general manager and head whipping post."

"We’ve been using Taylor Beef since Fred’s was Fred’s," Wallace says. (Fred’s opened in 1978.)

And it has served them well. The burgers at Terry Chandler’s funky little Fort Worth joint have snagged armloads of awards and even earned national attention, most recently from the Food Network and Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Not to mention local kudos: After a gut-busting six-week odyssey, we have proclaimed Fred’s the Best Burger in D-FW.

Mota’s next move is to flatten the patty onto the grill with a press. Then he pulls out a Mrs Baird’s bun, brushes the flattop with melted butter, places the bun face down on the grill, and brushes the bun top with the golden nectar.

Mota lets the burger fry for about two minutes on one side then flips it, letting it cook for another minute before he adds the good stuff.

And that’s another secret to a good burger, says Fred’s cook William Bryan Massey III — better known around Fred’s as Lizard. "Don’t mess with it," Massey says. "Cook it medium, and don’t handle it too much. Frying it on the flatiron sears the outside a little bit and keeps the juice in the meat, where it needs to be." (So later, it can drizzle down your chin.)

Several inches from the sizzling patty, Mota lays down a handful of grilled onions and tosses in a smattering of San Marcos chipotles in adobo sauce. Magic spatula, chop-chop, mix-mix.

He spatulas that smoky pile on top of the patty (still on the grill), then pulls out two slices of Swiss cheese — first making sure to run them over the flattop so they can suck up some chipotle residue. Then the cheese is laid on top of the chipotles.

He paints the bun with a smear of mustard, a toss of raw white onion, pickles, a healthy handful of lettuce, and two tomato slices. Then he sits the burger on top, and, voilà! One mouthwatering Diablo Burger.

It was headed straight for the belly of Jim Marzolf of Rowlett, a Fred’s virgin who was lured in by the Food Network publicity. Marzolf clamped his jaws around it, and his eyes popped in surprise. "Ohh . . . this is great," he said, his voice oozing blissful surrender.

"It’s spicy, but not to where it’s gagging you," he said, shaking his head. "There’s nothing like this."

In a way, customers agree, the burger is consistent with its hometown. "Like Fort Worth, Fred’s defies trends and doesn’t try to be anything it’s not," Johnson said. "It’s always been classic in its . . . well . . . not in its approach — it doesn’t have an approach, it just has an existence."

It’s a place where the owner wears flip-flops, shorts and a cowboy hat, where practical jokes and crusty humor abound, and where one of the chefs is a published author whose books have titles such as Corn Fed Neck: Tales From Hardcore Texas.

"You could sit here," Fort Worth firefighter Frank Babic says, "and there’ll be an attorney sitting next to you, and on the other side there’s an alcoholic poet. Or a painter, a construction worker. Republican, Democrat, Independent, or someone in a Che Guevara T-shirt. It’s a really eclectic little group. That’s Fort Worth."

And that’s Fred’s.


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