Another Time

Memory lane: a shake and a chili dog.
Troy Fields

For more photos from the soda fountain and Another Time's kitchen, check out our slideshow.

From my perch at the long wooden bar, I watched with childlike glee as a soda jerk at Another Time Soda Fountain built a one-pound banana split that could have rivaled the enormous Ziggy Pig sundae from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Each scoop of ice cream was roughly the size of a grown man's fist: first vanilla on the bananas below, then strawberry, then chocolate. All Blue Bell, naturally.

On went Hershey's chocolate syrup, then strawberry syrup, then crushed pineapples. By the time the whipped cream, chopped nuts and cherries were being placed on top of the creation, the smiling soda jerk had nearly the entire bar's attention. People around me — myself included — oohed and aahed as it was placed in front of a boy to my right who was grinning like a cat eating bees, spoon at the ready. All in a day's work at Another Time, the little soda fountain in downtown Rosenberg that strives to recapture simple pleasures of times past.

Banana splits are just one of the old-timey offerings here, where the menu also includes items like Coke shakes (not floats!), lime coolers and phosphates — drinks I've never seen anywhere else in Houston, even at similarly retro places like 59 Diner. Phosphates are the precursors to modern soft drinks, where phosphoric acid was added into the water to give it a tangy fizz. After the water was carbonated in this way, flavored syrups like orange and cherry (two of the more popular phosphate flavors) were added and voilà! Instant soft drink.

Although no one uses phosphoric acid anymore at soda fountains (it's very difficult to get your hands on, and not terribly good for you), that doesn't mean drinks called phosphates aren't still made: They're simply made with citric acid instead now. My dining companion on my first visit to Another Time was so shocked to see them on the menu, she insisted on ordering one right away. At Another Time, the syrup is introduced to the pre-fizzed water (which is room temperature), with ice stirred in afterward — the old-fashioned way.

The resulting drink — a grape phosphate, in my case — is the purest, cleanest-tasting soft drink I'd ever had. It's enough to turn you off canned soft drinks for good. The lemonade and limeade are made in a similar fashion: hand-squeezing fresh fruits into a glass, then topping with room-temperature water and a generous helping of Imperial sugar, before finally stirring ice in after the sugar has dissolved.

Arriving shortly after our drinks were our equally old-fashioned entrées: mine, a patty melt on rye. My dining companion's, a basket full of steak fingers. While my patty melt was severely lacking in the character and flavor departments — a weary, overcooked hamburger patty on dry bread with very little cheese or sautéed onions — the steak fingers were as tremendous as the patty melt was underwhelming. Each finger of steak had been pounded thin, tender and soft in the extra crunchy batter that coated them. As my friend blissfully polished them off one by one, she exclaimed, "I haven't had steak fingers since I was a little kid."

That's the entire theme of Another Time, it seems. A theme I heartily endorse.

The building that houses Another Time was built in downtown Rosenberg in 1910 as the Meyer-Foster-Mulcahy building. It originally held a pharmacy with a soda fountain, and although the pharmacy is long gone, owner Renee Butler has ensured that the soda fountain remains.

Butler opened Another Time in February 2003 and has spent a considerable bit of effort dressing the place up in trappings of a bygone era: Old Carnation malted milk canisters sit on the high shelves behind the bar next to antique soda glasses and ice cream sundae bowls. Vintage signs hang on the walls. A bright yellow Dr Pepper clock from the early 1950s hangs on one wall, the period after the "Dr" attesting to its age. On the tall ceilings, pressed tin reflects the boisterous sounds of little kids digging into bowls of ice cream, of families having leisurely weekend lunches before heading to the Railroad Museum or one of Rosenberg's many antique stores.

In this way, it reminds me of La King's on Galveston's historic Strand, but with one notable difference: the food. Although that patty melt on my first visit was off-putting, it was happily not reflective of the rest of the meals I enjoyed here.

Though you can order a salad here, there's not much point — you're going to be washing it down with a butterscotch malt, after all, if you're anything like me. You may as well go whole hog and order one of Another Time's burgers or, better yet, a plate of chili dogs. Salads are no good for trips down memory lane, while chili dogs serve that purpose quite nicely.

Covered with homemade chili and shredded cheese — plus chopped onions and mustard if you so desire (I do) — each plump hot dog is nestled in a grilled bun, the dogs themselves all-beef and verging on bursting out of their skins. It's a challenge to eat two of them, but I almost managed to make my way through a plate before my dining partner heroically took over. Eating them with a knife and fork may have been an awfully affected way of going about it, but it allowed me to get perfectly balanced bites of hot dog, chili, cheese and onion with each forkful, and I was happier for it.

Meanwhile, my dining companion was eating his bacon cheeseburger so quickly, I had to stop and remind him to save me at least a few bites. I was almost surprised to find that although the patty itself was cooked much more thoroughly than I would have preferred — almost well done — it managed to remain appropriately oozy throughout, the complete opposite of the patty melt I'd had a week earlier. The juices from the half-pound, hand-formed patty saturated the thick bun, which happily stood up to the tremendous amount of cheese and meat that was straining to get out. Perhaps there's hope for the patty melt after all (with help from some cheese and onions, of course).

Afterward, I idly dipped one salty French fry after another into my Coke float — godfather of those Coke floats, a classic Coke float contains Coca-Cola syrup mixed with ice cream — and watched the soda jerks at work, mixing up one shake after another in the three-slotted Hamilton Beach machine on the counter. It was a fancy new machine, but another one — colored a gleaming sea-foam green that looked as if it dated from the 1950s — was still being put to use further down the counter. Everything old is new again.

On my last visit to Another Time, I didn't want to leave. Part of that stemmed from the fact that I'd eaten so much I didn't want to hop off my barstool at the soda fountain. But an equally large part was the calm, comforting embrace of the place: older ladies behind the soda fountain who treat you like their own kids, the warm vibe emanating from tables filled with happy diners, the homespun look of the place that made it seem as if time had never passed.

Only our clothes and chirping cell phones were anachronisms in this place. That and the canisters of whipped cream the soda jerks were whizzing onto sundaes — for a place that makes everything itself, it was odd and jarring to see canned whipped cream in use when it's so easy to make yourself (even Starbucks does it, after all).

It was raining softly that afternoon and freight trains were rumbling steadily by outside. If you sit at the soda fountain, you can watch them on the railroad tracks less than a block away. "They should offer train specials," my dining companion joked. "Free scoops of ice cream to the first person who calls out 'Train!'" I laughed, thinking of the bingo hall atmosphere this might bring to the otherwise tranquil restaurant, with its simple blue plate specials and homemade phosphates.

While we sat and took it all in, we saw another of the enormous banana splits being made and delivered to an excited little boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, at the bar. His mother had been busily explaining to him beforehand what a soda fountain was, what it did, what things used to be like in the decades before soda fountains went the way of tailfinned cars. I don't think the little boy cared; all he could concentrate on was that banana split.

As it was finally placed in front of him — a knife and fork in both hands like a soldier in a mess hall — he hesitated for a moment, throwing a glance at his little brother. He took a cherry off the banana split and put it on top of his little brother's single scoop of ice cream. The tiny boy grinned, while his big brother looked bashful for a second before tearing into his banana split with abandon.

And therein lies the appeal of Another Time Soda Fountain: You might just walk away with a little bit of its good-natured attitude in addition to a belly full of burgers and shakes.

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