The byproduct of the everyday cross-cultural exchange that is life on the southern border is controversial and addictive.
Nothing is perhaps as emblematic of the cross-cultural exchange that occurs at the U.S.-Mexico border as the food. We can thank the border for the creation of Tex-Mex. Getting more specific, we can also thank the border for regional dishes such as the Sonoran hot dog (aka dogo), the use of shredded Muenster cheese on tacos in El Paso, Texas, and fried bacon-wrapped burritos stuffed with carne asada and, if requested, slathered with Philadelphia brand cream cheese (aka queso Philly or “Philly cheese”). Most recently, though, is the concha burger.
“We were bored,” says chef Adrian Cruz, who along with his brother, Bobby, concocted the concha burger in 2016 because they had downtime while working at the Orchard Lounge in McAllen, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
As Adrian Cruz tells it the brothers had downtime at the restaurant and decided to experiment with what was on hand. One of those items was a Mexican pastry known as a concha for the sweet, colored cookie stencil topping that resembles a seashell, from the restaurant’s off-site bakery. Another was beef. Bobby suggested making a burger. Adrian agreed and recommended adding “chorizo and this and that and a little more.” The result was a bacon cheeseburger with Mexican chorizo with a soft and squishy concha bun substantial enough to absorb the juiciness of its filling. “He created it. I upgraded it,” he says.
They weren’t working from zero. Conchas are a familiar breakfast food across Texas and a pastry Adrian grew up eating. As a kid, he would drop a concha into his coffee. “It soaked up all the coffee and I would eat it like that. It never fell apart,” he says. Fresh conchas don’t fall apart. Old ones, however, can disintegrate.
The Cruz brothers weren’t done yet, though. They wanted a stronger bun and worked with the Orchard Lounge’s bakery to create a concha recipe that could withstand unrestrained creativity.
They submitted a gussied-up version of the concha burger — one with their custom bun, smears of strawberry-fig jam and chipotle aioli, and a patty topped with shiitake mushrooms, pickles, chorizo, a fried egg, and more — to the James Beard Foundation Blended Burger competition in New York, and they won. You can see the recipe here.
The winning recipe is not without controversy, though. Texas media coverage of the concha burger has probed readers and viewers for their opinions. Is it an abomination committed against Mexican food, a trashing of a treasured traditional pastry? Or is it a natural development, like barbacoa to barbecue. Major national Latino media sites like Remezcla joined the debate citing social media reaction.
Professional baseball, which has a love of placing unexpected foods in stadium concession lineups, got involved, when the El Paso Chihuahuas minor league baseball team made a concha burger available last year.
And, it turned out, there was even some controversy about the origin of the concha burger. It was reported that the now-shuttered Old Main Assoc. in San Antonio had a concha burger on its menu back in 2015. (The Orchard Lounge has also since closed.) Nevertheless, the dominant narrative remained that the Cruz brothers were the godfathers of the concha burger. They are, after all, responsible for its spike in popularity. “We didn't know there was one in San Antonio at the time that we made our concha burger, but we think ours is unique. It feels good to see it take off like it has.”
My first encounter with the concha burger was through social media. I didn’t get my eager hands on one until October 2017, when Daniel Pittman, executive chef of LUCK, a Dallas restaurant that uses locally made craft beer in all its dishes, offered one at the grand opening party for the new home of Four Corners Brewing Company, also in Dallas. He did so at the behest of brewery co-owner George Esquivel, who had heard of stories of the border dish.
“I just said, ‘Hey man, have you guys ever done a concha burger?’” Esquivel recounts during a phone interview. Daniel had never heard of it. “I gave them a kind of a sense of what we had seen down in the [Rio Grande] Valley and then in San Antonio. But I’d never seen this done in Dallas. I could tell there was some apprehension about it.”
Pittman looked into the burger and wasn't too keen on trying it out. “I had seen posts online about people commenting on other ones and I was like, aw man, I don’t want to upset people.” But Pittman did it anyway. “I wanted it to go the more Mexican route. I was thinking more along the lines of a torta though without the refried beans spread. So, pico de gallo, queso fresco, lettuce, pickled onions, and a jalapeño salsa.”
Esquivel remembers Pittman saying, “ ‘We’ll do a hundred of them. Maybe that’s probably too much.’ But they brought the game. They sold out of them in an hour and a half.”
“It went really well,” Pittman agrees.
I was first in line that day.
The pink pastry bun was spongy. The patty was juicy and hefty (weighing in at 8 ounces). The cheese added a creamy saltiness and the green salsa imparted a boost of spice that was smoothened by the lettuce. Combined, the elements balanced the concha’s sweetness. Both major components held up long enough for me to devour the delightful sweet-savory mash-up.
Imagine my excitement when in fall 2018, Four Corners announced that LUCK would be taking over their kitchen space on weekends, and the concha burger would be available Thursdays through Sundays.
Since then I’ve enjoyed the burger several times, always with one of my favorite beers, the Four Corners El Chingon, a resiny IPA with a citrus aroma and a label that, like all the brewery’s branding, evokes a loteria card.
Each burger has left me swooning not only for its composition but also for its significance. I geek out and pig out.
When I ask Pittman if there is an off-menu customization option, that I was unaware of, he says, “We didn’t want people to put whatever cheese they wanted on the burger, so we stuck with queso fresco, but we’ll add chili.”
Chili or no chili, where else but a border state like Texas could the big, beautiful concha burger have been created? Thankfully, it’s here to stay. And I, for one, am indebted to Adrian and Bobby Cruz for that.
Four Corners Brewing Company, 1311 South Ervay St., Dallas, 214.748.2739, fcbrewing.com.
For more information on Four Corners Brewing Company and kitchen hours, visit the brewery’s main Facebook page and the brewery’s taproom kitchen Facebook page. For more information on LUCK, visit the restaurant’s website.
Photography: Cristi Brinkman/Courtesy Four Corners Brewing Company, (middle photo) José R. Ralat