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Utopia, Texas

A burger on the deck at Bubba's is the next best thing to visiting the Hill Country

"Buffalo witz cheese, medium rare," slurred the cute twentysomething girl who took my order. Her pierced tongue was decorated with a bluish metal stud, which made her talk funny. I pulled a bag of Zapp's "Hotter 'n Hot" jalapeño potato chips off the rack and threw it on the counter to add to my order.

I looked around the outdoor deck. Two guys were sitting at a picnic table talking and another guy sat alone reading. They were all drinking the same brand of beer.

"Somezhing to drink?" the girl asked.

Bubba's is an oasis of Texas eccentricity.
Troy Fields
Bubba's is an oasis of Texas eccentricity.

"Shiner Bock," I said, going along with the crowd.

Bubba's Texas Burger Shack is located on Westpark beside an elevated portion of the Southwest Freeway and across the street from a railroad right-of-way. It's at the end of a long corridor of high-voltage wires, right across the street from a huge sign that reads "WALD" (which is "forest" in German). In the middle of this urban wilderness, Bubba's is an oasis of Texas eccentricity.

The signs on the wall welcome you to Luckenbach. Eating a burger on Bubba's deck really does feel like a visit to that wacky hamlet in the Hill Country. There's a trying-hard-to-be-different spirit at work here. Every product sold represents some culinary road less traveled. There are the buffalo burgers and Zapp's potato chips (69 cents), of course, but there is also a bottle of the hard-to-find Trappey's Chef-Magic jalapeño hot sauce on every table. There's good old Shiner Bock ($2.25), from the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, named after its original brewmaster, Cosmos Spoetzl. Then there's Jones Sodas (75 cents), a line of soft drinks whose labels feature odd photos mailed in by customers. And to cap it all off, there are Bubba's employees. "One time when I was eating at Bubba's, the guy who was working there pulled out a guitar, sat down at our table and started singing Willie Nelson songs," one colleague told me over the phone.

Sitting on Bubba's deck, watching the river of traffic flow by, I can remember why I fell in love with Texas. Gary Graham's execution in Huntsville last week had made me wonder about my home state. The national press has posed a lot of hard-to-answer questions about Texas and Texans. Remember the Pace picante sauce commercial where the cowboys sitting around the campfire discovered their salsa was made in New York City? "Get a rope!" one yelled. The lynch-mob jokes don't seem so funny anymore.

That's why I feel so comforted by the Luckenbach signs and the Shiner Bock and the funky wooden furniture at Bubba's. They remind me of the ramshackle dives where I first developed my ever-growing conviction that this state has the widest and deepest streak of eccentricity ever known. The rest of the world thinks we're descendants of cowboys. But the truth is that Texas was founded by political and philosophical radicals. Some of them were European artists and intellectuals who came here to live in communes.

Take the Society of Forty, for instance, a bunch of wide-eyed idealists who drafted a utopian plan in Germany and then sailed across the Atlantic to live it out. They founded the communistic settlement of Bettina on the Llano River in 1847. They were followers of such socialist visionaries as Fourier and Cabet, and their society was organized around the principles of friendship, freedom and equality. The Forty included two musicians, an engineer, a theologian, an agriculturist, two architects, seven lawyers, four foresters and an army lieutenant. Unfortunately the group was long on intellectuals and short on butchers and bakers. In less than a year their settlement collapsed owing to incessant arguments over kitchen duties. When the commune broke up, some of these young Communists moved to Austin and became founding fathers of Texas. Others stayed in the Hill Country and became the patriarchs of free-thinking dynasties. Their legacy is still with us.

The girl with the pierced tongue stuck her head out of the little window to tell me my burger was done. The medium-rare buffalo cheeseburger ($4.25) had a nice char on the outside and was gloriously red and juicy in the middle. Burgers at Bubba's are served with lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo and mustard. To the heavy coat of mayonnaise Bubba's kitchen staff had administered to the griddle-toasted bun, I added several large splotches of Trappey's jalapeño sauce. The burger was outstanding.

I took my daughter, Katie, and her friend, Stefanie, both 14, on my second visit. They ordered a beef burger ($2.75) and a cheeseburger ($3.05). I ordered a double buffalo bacon cheeseburger ($4.85). Advocates of buffalo meat go on and on about its lower fat and cholesterol content, so I love the idea of adding cheese and bacon. I gave my daughter a bite of my buffalo cheeseburger, and I took a bite of her beef cheeseburger. We both agreed that you really can't taste any difference. "So why get buffalo?" my daughter asked. At first I contemplated telling her that it was the eccentric, free-thinking thing to do, but there is a more practical reason. You can order buffalo burgers rare without any fear or flak. Who ever heard of contaminated buffalo meat?

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