Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Poppa Burger
I forgot the opening line.
There is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene in Brewster McCloud -- the movie set in Houston that wasn't Reality Bites or Terms of Endearment -- in which you can spot a multicolored billboard on the side of Main Street for Poppa Burger. The building on the other side of the street is the M&M Building, which now houses the University of Houston-Downtown. Bet you didn't recognize it above, did you?
While the M&M Building has undergone some drastic changes in its 83-year history, the 50-year-old Poppa Burger looks remarkably the same as it always has, if the old black-and-white photos hanging near the ordering window are anything to judge by. The burger stand is located just a few blocks north of UHD on Main Street, now in the shadow of the light-rail overpass that's nearly completed after years of construction.
This has not deterred Poppa Burger's loyal patrons, who turn out like clockwork at lunch and dinner every day. The main reason it has remained successful for this long isn't necessarily its food, though. It's the fact that Poppa Burger is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even on holidays. Even on Christmas.
Poppa Burger will always be there for you.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Not only can Poppa Burger be counted on to feed you at any hour of the day or night, it will also feed you just about anything you can think of. The menu is a nimbly woven tapestry of American and Tex-Mex favorites, all of which are ordered with equal frequency in what is now a heavily Hispanic neighborhood.
You can get hamburgers, french fries and chicken strips, but you can also get breakfast tacos, tacos suaves (decidedly Americanized soft tacos with lettuce and tomatoes) and tortas. You can get orange juice and milk here, and a piece of buttered toast (or a buttered and toasted bolillo) for dessert. Frito pies, burritos, salads, nachos, apple turnovers, ice cream cones -- you name it.
You can also get a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos topped with nacho cheese. It is this disgustingly delicious creation that is truly Poppa Burger's claim to fame (and likely its most popular menu item between the hours of 1 and 3 a.m.).
"Listen to me and understand," I warned my boyfriend between bites. "This is important. The next time I get drunk, you are going to have to physically restrain me from coming here and ordering ten bags of these." One is all you need in a lifetime, really -- although the same could be said for Frito pies, which are far worse for you. Maybe in two generations' time, the Flaming Hot cheese bag will be the new Frito pie and I'll be yelling at kids' robots to get off my artificial lawn.
The burgers themselves at Poppa Burger are sort of a foregone conclusion. They're the classic Texas roadside style you'd expect to find at a restaurant that once had carhops, but with the very Northside addition of pickled jalapeños. (Everyone orders their burgers with jalapeños here.) They're good and gooey and I imagine taste even better late at night.
Day or night, though, Poppa Burger affords the diners under its broad awning one of the most pleasant skyline views of downtown. From the camp-green picnic tables, through the frame of the light rail's concrete bridge, you can see a portion of a skyline that didn't even exist when Brewster McCloud was filmed up the street. It would be another year after filming wrapped that our first real skyscraper -- One Shell Plaza -- was built in 1971.
And throughout it all, Poppa Burger has been there. For you.
See also: - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Blake's BBQ & Burgers - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Stomp's vs. Tookie's - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Taqueria Taconmadre - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Chief's Cajun Snack Shack
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.