When it comes to having a burger, most people think about fast-food joints like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s or Jack in the Box. Others favor chains known for having some of the best hamburgers in the country, like Corpus Christi-based Whataburger and In-and-Out Burgers of Irvine, Calif.
Some people might say that all beef patties placed inside a bun or roll are basically the same, but three of the oldest and most popular burger joints in Brownsville prove that is a misguided view of the almighty burger. In fact, one of them is nearly as old as the first hamburger sold commercially in the United States, reportedly dished up in 1900 from a lunch wagon owned by a Danish immigrant named Louis Lassen in New Haven, Conn.
That is Rutledge Hamburgers. Located in downtown Brownsville, the eatery has been cooking and selling its trademark little burgers since 1922. Yes, that’s 96 years and thousands upon thousands of burgers. In fact, a Texas Historical Trail plaque outside the business gives a brief history on when it opened, its original owners John and Hilda Rutledge as well as the current owner Gloria Perez.
The establishment of yesteryear still operates from its original location on East Washington Street. It hasn’t changed much and still cooks up the burgers using the original recipe. Known by people on both sides of the Rio Grande as a hole-in-the-wall eatery or as the pasillo, or little aisle, due to its long, narrow sitting area where patrons sit almost facing each other.
Generation upon generation of people in Brownsville have gobbled up Rutledge burgers and some still do today. Ken Lieck, a Brownsville city manager during the early 1980s, said he been going to Rutledge for more than 60 years and calls the sandwiches among the best burgers he has ever had. “My dad and mom used to take me there. I have vivid memories of Mrs. Rutledge and her son Martin. I remember them behind the stove flipping burgers.”
Yolanda Guillen and Amelia Sanchez, both from Matamoros, said they have also been going to Rutledge for decades. “My first stop here was about 30 years ago,” Guillen said. “To me, these are the best burgers anywhere around.”
Sanchez said she knows of entire families stopping by essentially to have these same burgers the eatery has been cooking for many, many years.
Several blocks away on East Elizabeth Street is The Palm Lounge, a bar and grill also known for having one of the best burgers in town. Some said the lounge opened in the 1960s but finding the exact date has been elusive. But throughout the years, its hamburgers have been compared to Ruitledge’s.
Some claim a greasy burger from Palm Lounge is hard to beat. Others swear Rutledge’s little burgers can’t be beaten. Just ask Mike Sanchez, who has been eating both since 1960 and still can’t decide which is the better of the two burgers.
And a little farther to the west is another, more recent, burger joint that has gained a reputation for its burgers that rivals both Rutledge and The Palm Lounge. Named after one of the characters of the old television comedy “The Little Rascals,” Spanky’s Burgers on Palm Boulevard is owned and run by Ronnie and Sandra Saenz, who opened the place on July 4, 2001.
The Saenz’s said they always wanted to have a business of their own, and little did they know that 17 years later Spanky’s would be thriving despite the ups and downs of the gastronomic industry.
Although their restaurant sells a variety of foods like Mexican-style meals, the burgers are the key to their success. “We have made changes to our menu,” Ronnie Saenz said. “But it’s our burgers that make people come to Spanky’s.”
Beside the typical hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the business offers a lamburger, a cabrito, or baby goat, burger and the SpaceX burger, a behemoth five-pound sandwich named after the rocket launch site under development Boca Chica Beach.
So even though National Hamburger Day is celebrated every May 28 , having one or more of these ground beef patties on a bun is as common as grabbing a hot dog and a slice of apple pie this month of July.