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Utopia, Texas

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

Katie got a Jones vanilla cola, which sported a photo of a dog wearing clothes and dancing on the label, and Stefanie got a Jones strawberry-lime, which featured a photo of an anthropomorphic-looking Volkswagen Beetle in the snow. (You can see these and other Jones Soda labels at www.jonessoda.com.) The vanilla cola was not very popular at our table, but the strawberry-lime was a big hit. It was better than Nehi.

The kids loved the deck, and Stefanie, who usually eats her burgers at McDonald's, was also impressed with the coarser grind of the meat and larger size of the burgers at Bubba's. But she was astonished at the absence of french fries. There are no chicken nuggets, milk shakes or Happy Meals here either. Besides hamburgers and cheeseburgers, Bubba's serves buffalo chili ($2.25 a cup; $4.25 a bowl; also available on a chili burger or Frito pie), chips, baked potatoes ($3.50), grilled cheese ($1.75), BLTs ($2.75) and chicken salad sandwiches ($2.49).

By my third visit to Bubba's, a new item had appeared: a Buffalo filet mignon steak dinner for $16.95. The signboard out front implored me to ask about the buffalo steak sandwiches, so I did.

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

"What do you want to know about them?" a beautiful freckled grillwoman named Donna Moss asked with her spatula poised in the air. "The sign says, 'Ask about our buffalo steak sandwiches,' " I said with a shrug.

She leaned out the window and looked at the sign. "Oh. They're $7.95," she said.

The steak was served with lettuce, tomato and mayo, and the meat was very tender. I pulled the sandwich apart and examined the steak. It appeared to have been tenderized. I asked Donna about it. She said that she had done the tenderizing with the point of a spatula, beating the steak during the entire cooking time. "If you don't beat them good, buffalo steaks are just too tough for a sandwich," she said.

There were only a few thousand buffalo left at the end of the 1800s. Today, there are hundreds of thousands. Buffalo are bred on ranches like cattle, particularly in Colorado and Montana, America's leading buffalo-producing states. Ted Turner is one of the country's biggest buffalo producers. Bison meat has 70 percent less fat than beef, half the calories, half the cholesterol and 30 percent more protein. These facts were provided by Bubba's owner, Richard Reed.

It was my intention to call the owner, learn a little about buffalo meat, get a couple of quotes and then end this review with a nice tribute to the tradition of Texas eccentricity. But reality doesn't always jibe with journalism.

Reed was distracted, and none too cooperative. I asked him about the atmosphere at Bubba's, and I was shocked to discover that Reed was, more or less, oblivious to it. "It does seem like a place out in the country" was all he said. And the Luckenbach signs? A customer hung them up, he said indifferently. Bubba's was founded in 1985 by Bubba Gilliam, whose family owns a ranch in the Hill Country near Austin, he told me, so maybe that's the source of the burger shack's atmosphere. Reed, a former oil company geologist, bought the place eight years ago and ran it as a hobby. Reed worked as a science adviser for Steve Stockman, until the U.S. congressman was defeated in 1996.

I couldn't very well thank a former Republican policy wonk for carrying on the tradition of Texas free-thinking weirdness, so I asked him about Gary Graham and capital punishment. "Stockman would have been in favor," Reed said. "I am theoretically opposed to capital punishment. Or at least I was until the Gary Graham circus. That man was no more innocent than Adolf Hitler. The national media were just using Gary Graham to make George Bush look bad. And I'm not even a Bush supporter."

"Aren't you a Republican?" I asked.

"I'm for Buchanan. I'm voting Reform Party this time."

So I was in a pickle. I started rewriting this review. The new ending went like this: Maybe the purchase of Bubba's by a former Steve Stockman adviser is a fitting metaphor for what happens to utopias in Texas…

But wait a minute, I thought. Bubba's really does serve Zapp's chips and Jones Sodas, and the girl behind the counter really does have a pierced tongue. How did a neo-¨ber-conservative, or whatever it is a Buchanan supporter calls himself, come up with these kooky ideas?

So I called Reed back. I asked him about Jones Sodas. "Oh, my daughter, Erin, ordered those without consulting me," he said. "She manages the place. I don't like the flavors; they're too strong. But the young people seem to like them."

"Aha," said a little voice in my head. "Does Erin have a pierced tongue?" I asked.

"Yes, and she didn't consult me about that either," Reed said. "She also has a tattoo."

And so there is a happy ending after all. And it goes like this: Maybe the purchase of Bubba's by a former Steve Stockman adviser is a fitting metaphor for what happens to utopias in Texas. But it is equally fitting that Reed's rebellious daughter with the pierced tongue and tattoo is actually in charge, and that she has managed to keep the place lovably kooky. Stop by Bubba's for a buffalo burger and a little slice of Texas utopia.

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