The Best Thing at Whataburger Is Not the Burger
Someday, the truth will come out—the truth about the secret bargain Whataburger has made with all of Texas, something about loving, honoring and being blind to each other's faults as long as they both shall live. But until then, Whataburger and the superiority thereof is a subject best not debated at any Texas dinner table. Like politics, religion, or another man's wife, keep your mouth shut, and we'll all get along just fine.
Personally, I'm a fan of Whataburger, the chain restaurant that inspires as much loyalty in Texas as, say, In-N-Out does in California—no intra-Lone Star road trip should ever be undertaken without a styrofoam urn of icy cold Dr. Pepper in the cup holder at all times, assuming the cup even fits in the cup holder, which may be an issue, depending on how far away from Texas your car was made. The food can be good, or at least some of the food, particularly their occasional specials, like the Chop House Cheddar Burger, which tops two patties with crispy bacon, grilled onions and a mess of cheddar, not to mention some very good, creamy kind of steak sauce that should be studied, for science.
But that's not on the menu, usually, when I come to Texas—I always seem to have just missed it. Ditto their green chile burger, another thing you will occasionally be lucky enough to catch: once again two patties, this time with Monterey Jack and American, and a pile of roasted Anaheim chiles. The American doesn't really go, but on the whole, it's a taste of the Southwest, which is to say it tastes really good.
Then there are the onion rings, fairly superb for a fast food restaurant—crispy, battered, not boringly bread-crumbed—and the sauces, goodness gracious. Typically taken in with an order of their chicken strips or chicken bites, Whataburger produces an entire range of them, from a simple and potent spicy ketchup to a creamy pepper. But one taste of their heat-packed Jalapeno ranch (the flavorful hot, not the merely gratuitous kind) and you'll be ready to move into your nearest Whataburger, which these days can be found all throughout the Sun Belt, from Georgia on over to Arizona.
However—record scratch!—no discussion of Whataburger can be considered complete without a closer look at the actual Whataburger burger. Thin, often depressingly pallid, and generally tasteless, even if they're proudly 100 percent beef, these utterly American patties of relative sadness simply aren't essential eating anymore, not, anyway, for anyone (and this is very important) without a nostalgic connection to the brand, a thing that appears to make impartiality impossible.
Asking questions about this burger has been done before; with the entry of brands like In-N-Out and Shake Shack into the Texas market, the inevitable comparisons have been done, and a lot of column inches have been spent asking, "Just how do the burgers stack up?" Most of the time, it's been Texans asking and answering the question, and not to be that guy, but most of the time, everyone's wrong. The meat Whataburger is using, particularly at the increasingly steep prices that are now being asked—it just doesn't add up. The buns themselves are big, boring, and floppy, while we're getting into it, and as is too frequently the case with American fast food, you could eat one of these giant-sized things with a side of French fries, and still be hungry three and a half hours later.
Yes, the Whataburger burger, if we're honest, is a callback to a time when Whoppers and Big Macs were the law of the land elsewhere, except that so much of America has lost their emotional attachment to these Plan B (or C or D) burgers, and Texas is still hauling water for an artifact that was exciting in the 1980's, or maybe the early 1990's, and so much less so now. Statement of fact: In any Texas city, of any size, there are probably many other burgers you should be eating, long before you resort to the offerings at the nearest Whataburger.
Still, Texas is a big place, and it is often a very empty place, and when I'm waking up in a small town in Texas—there are a lot of these, and I have found myself in a lot of them—or when I'm driving down a particularly lonely stretch of road, somewhere west of the part of the state where you will find most of the people, Whataburger can be a lifeline. It might even be the only place open, depending on when you come through.
On those mornings, or on any morning in Texas, really, breakfast at Whataburger can be a godsend, and the star of the show is quite easily the chicken.
A chicken strip, plucked from the all-day menu, an avalanche (not an exaggeration) of Whataburger's famous Honey Butter drizzle, helpfully sold in squeeze bottles at fine grocery stores all across Texas, if you're looking for the perfect souvenir, and a warm biscuit—for a couple of bucks, it's something like heaven.
If you miss breakfast, that's completely cool, because all you need to do in order to approximate the experience is order some of the chicken strips, with a side of honey butter. Right there, that's just about the best reason to stop at a Whataburger—the chicken, preferably with the honey butter, but really, you can't go wrong—there's excellent gravy too, for dipping, there's that Jalapeno ranch, there's the spicy ketchup, and on and on it goes. As the patient cashier at the last Whataburger I visited (for the strips, obviously) reminded me, before launching into a recitation of the complete list, "We have a lot of really good sauces." Truer words, never spoken.