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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?

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.

"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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