"How's your dad?" asks a man stepping in front of the line to pick up a burger from the window. He called ahead; clearly he knows how this works. He's talking to the owner of Champ Burger, whose father used to be behind the window before he got too old and had to let his son take over.
When the man notices me looking at him, he addresses me: "I've been coming here for 25 years. These are great burgers, good people. You want a burger, you've come to the right place."
Of course, the 25 years that he's been visiting Champ Burger is only half of the hole-in-the-wall burger joint's life. It's been open since 1963, serving thin but sprawling, greasy patties on toasted buns with a sprinkle of shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped onions, pickles and a few slices of tomato. There's a smear of mayo on one bun and mustard on the other. If you want ketchup, cheese or anything else, you have to ask for it.
This is the Texas-style burger, the kind you used to get a drive-thrus and roadside stands before fast food empires took over the landscape, serving poor excuses for cheap burgers that eventually created backlash and led to the gourmet burger. In many cities, those are the only options available: Chain restaurant fast food burgers and gourmet monstrosities. Nostalgic burgers like the one at Champ Burger are hard to come by.
Not here in Houston, though, where we remain loyal to the modest burger joints that have been serving us for generations.
Mytiburger opened in 1967, just four years after Champ Burger and on the opposite side of town. Champ serves a motley crew of neighborhood folks, downtown business people and nostalgic foodies from its small building in East Downtown. Mytiburger serves a similar cross section of the population, only in Garden Oaks. The classic drive-thru has changed with the times, now offering turkey and veggie burgers, but it's the thin, greasy Mytiburger with cheese for only $3.90 that's best stood the test of time. Though the restaurant has changed hands from the original owners, it was purchased by a Mytiburger devotee, who's kept the old-school charm intact and even initiated classic car nights, where locals bring their vintage automobiles to the Mytiburger parking lot and admire the craftsmanship over a burger and chocolate malt.
One year later, Burger Park, originally Bonus Burger, opened in South Park, once a quiet suburban neighborhood that became crime-ridden and dangerous in the 1980s and '90s, before eventually turning into the veritable wasteland that it is today. Katharine Shilcutt profiled the rise and fall of this neighborhood--and how Burger Park has remained a constant through it all--in a cover story in 2011. It's now owned by a Korean family who hope to keep the place running in spite of the neighborhood's shortcomings. The Kim family introduced non-frozen patties and leaner beef, but other than that, the slightly scorched burgers topped with the usual lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle foursome haven't changed a bit.
Bellaire Broiler Burger joined the scene in 1972, serving a flattened, 1/3-pound patty that practically absorb the American cheese melted over it, obscuring the beef altogether until you take a massive bite. The official name is Pat and Joe's Bellaire Broiler Burger, indicating the spot was and is family-run. It's not fancy by any means--but then, that's part of the charm of a roadside burger joint, and this one looked dated even back when it opened more than 30 years ago. The french fries are crinkle cut, like the frozen logs that tumble out of an Ore-Ida bag, and the buns deflate quickly once the burger and veggie juice hit them. Still, the burgers themselves are classic: Moist, slightly charred on the outside, and totally weird-shaped, a sure sign they're hand-formed.
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What's a roadside burger without a glass of Kool-Aid to wash it down? At C&D Burger Shoppe, you can have the uber-American kids' drink with your skinny, Texas burger and a side of Frito pie, too. The burger shop, open since the early 1980s, used to be a Dairy Queen before Joe Craddock bought it and turned it into a neighborhood hotspot. As noted in our review of the place, many Houstonians recall eating at C&D nearly every night when they were in high school on the southeast side of town. Though the menu has options beyond burgers and Frito pie, those are the best bets here.
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There are a few other burger stands in town that, like the ones already mentioned, serve a mean roadside burger that makes you long to hop in the car and chow down as you head west toward some unknown destination. Places like Cream Burger, which has been open for "decades," though no one can say exactly how many. The burgers here taste half of beef and half of sinus-clearing vinegar, thanks to the heap of pickles and onions and generous smear of mustard that nestle between the patty and the top bun. And places like Shuttle Burgers & More, whose crumbly, hand-formed patties are served with a side of tacky, space-aged memorabilia like photos of shuttle launches and astronaut crews.
When I called to ask what year Shuttle Burgers opened, the person on the other end of the line laughed. "Ummm...no one really knows," she said, as if referring to something that was not a concrete event once upon a time, but a scientific mystery yet to be solved. "At least 30 years, I think. Probably. Yeah, no one knows."
That's the things about these historic burger shops. They survive when newer restaurants serving foie gras-topped burgers with artisan buns fail, but no one remembers the specifics. What's important are fleeting moments spent inhaling a burger while leaning against the building or in the car after a long, hard day at work. What's important are the families who still run the joints, and the way the thin, greasy patties haven't changed a lick since they made their debut so many years ago.
Here's to you, Texas-style, guilty pleasure burgers. May you never change.