C&D & Nostalgia
Take a trip back in time with C&D Burger Shoppe in our slideshow.
Two cheeseburgers arrive at our table, each half-wrapped in white butcher paper and positioned above an avalanche of hot fries on a plastic, picnic-style plate. Behind me, the low rumble of Fox News murmurs from the small TV that's mounted in one corner of C&D Burger Shoppe. In front of me, a faded T-shirt hangs from a wood-paneled wall over a decades-old jukebox. "I Survived Alicia," reads the shirt's ironed-on bubble letters.
Like C&D, I survived Alicia. I slept through it, in fact. And both C&D Burger Shoppe and I are roughly the same age, 30 years old. C&D has been a mainstay here in South Houston, on a quiet stretch of Fuqua, for the better part of three decades, serving old-school Texas roadside burgers like the ones that my dining companion and I greedily tore into that sleepy night.
A classic Texas roadside burger has a thin patty, usually pre-formed, covered with tangles of lettuce and onions, a few tomato slices, cheese if you want it, and a generous slather of mustard. Mayonnaise might be featured on the opposite bun, but it's an afterthought in a burger of this design. You don't order a burger like this if you want something dripping with juice, or a sandwich that you can barely fit past your lips. You order a burger like this if you want a heavy dose of nostalgia, and that's exactly what C&D provides.
Here, you order your burger with grape Kool-Aid and a chocolate shake for dessert, whether you're five years old or 50. If you're still hungry after your burger and fries — a very real possibility if you order either the mini or the junior burger, which both come with correspondingly tiny price tags — you order a Frito pie. I prefer to plan ahead and order the Frito pie as an appetizer, then watch my dining companion's eyes light up as another Texas classic hits the table along with those burgers.
While some dishes here are lacking, to put it gently, the Frito pie is not. This is the kind of Frito pie that's sustained generations of Little League spectators and Friday-night football fans, corn chips piled high in a Styrofoam bowl and topped with raw white onions, meat-filled chili and nacho cheese from a pump.
"There is nothing good for you about this thing," my dining companion laughed that night as he tucked into the pie, spearing hunks of hamburger patty on his fork in between heaping bites of cheese-covered chips. It's the same neon-orange cheese that you see on C&D's nachos; you know it's faker than Dolly Parton's breasts, but you almost love it all the more because of its cheerful shamelessness.
"I feel like I just stepped out of Dazed and Confused," joked my dining companion as we left C&D that night, walking out into the humid evening air. "It'd be a lot cooler if we did," he added with a final chuckle.
There's something about C&D that calls to mind a certain very specific, quasi-rural Texas upbringing in the same way that Richard Linklater's seminal Austin-based film did. Like Dazed and Confused, there is a palpable sense of nostalgia at the burger stand, which was originally a Dairy Queen until Joe Craddock bought it 30 years ago and turned it into the neighborhood spot it is now. The nostalgia is in the little paper menus with advertisements in them for local realtors, beauty salons and insurance agents. It's in the shake-like wood that panels the walls, in the handpainted Butt Pot that greets smokers at the entrance under C&D's broad, wooden awning, in the Halloween decorations that look straight out of some mother's suburban home.
Nearly every Houstonian likely knows someone who grew up in this area, went to Dobie High School and — between tearing around South Houston and having keggers in vacant fields on the weekends — grabbed their burgers and shakes from C&D. I've reminisced about the place with my dentist, who lived off C&D burgers as a high schooler. And it was Greenway Coffee & Tea owner David Buehrer who first pointed me in C&D's direction, reminiscing over Twitter one night: "Mini burgers and grape Kool-aid got me through Mondays in high school when Pho Binh was closed."
There are traces of these kids, these generations of families and neighbors, covering every wall of the restaurant. Craddock and his burger stand have sponsored innumerable Little League teams and small-town organizations like the South Belt-Ellington Leader Touchdown Club Luncheon, which has its own table reserved in the middle of the linoleum-tiled restaurant. There are small, framed photos of Craddock reading to elementary school kids in libraries and his more memorable golf scorecards among heaps of other golf memorabilia mounted on shelves and walls.
Craddock is still at C&D every single night. He's stooped with age now, but still works the drive-through from a stool behind the counter. He and his team of employees — all women, mostly Hispanic — greet customers inside the time-worn place as if they were welcoming them home. And for them, C&D is home.
"I been here 17 years," one employee told me as I bought a chocolate shake one night for the road.
"That's a long time," I laughed back, impressed. "You must like it."
She chuckled and threw a glance at Craddock, saying, "That's cause I do what I want here." Craddock just smiled and turned back to his drive-through window to hand over a white paper sack to his next customer.
During the day, C&D isn't the sleepy semi-living room it is by night. At lunch, it's bustling and busy, with nearly every oil-clothed table filled, and a line of folks waiting to take their sack of burgers to go. On a recent afternoon, I counted four UPS trucks lined up next to C&D's parking lot sign that reads simply: "2 burgers 2 fries $7.49." Across the parking lot from them were two ambulances, an HPD cruiser and a fire department's Crown Vic.
Inside, a team of UPS drivers had taken over the Touchdown Club Luncheon table, where they were busy polishing off a table heaped high with burgers. Ditto the cops at the back, the volunteer firemen up front and nearly every other person in C&D. Burgers are the bread and butter here.
Despite this, I ordered a chicken-fried steak sandwich and a special sauce burger to deviate a little, seeing if I was missing something even more special than those thin, mustard-topped burgers. It turns out that the "special sauce" is just barbecue sauce from a bottle, so the answer was no. And the chicken-fried steak sandwich was an unappetizing gray color inside, with a gummy breading that tasted oddly of fish. So that was a resounding no, too.
I also ordered a strawberry shake and was reminded of why I always stick with chocolate. Here at C&D, the thick and creamy chocolate shakes taste like — to quote my dining companion — "someone got happy with the Hershey's chocolate syrup back there." The strawberry, sadly, tastes only of artificial sweetener and strawberry flavoring.
I wasn't unhappy with the tater tots and fries, at least. The fries have that soft yet mostly inoffensive taste of pureed potato; they're certainly not hand-cut, and they've clearly been frozen. Yet they reminded me of the old Catfish King hushpuppies with their fine, soft texture and slightly crisp exterior. The tater tots pack more potato punch, and are more fun to drag through a pool of ketchup, too.
Because my lunch had been fairly substandard, I went back to C&D with a friend that night to try to revive the affection I'd felt for it on previous visits. A junior cheeseburger put everything right again, and my affections were further bolstered by a chopped barbecue sandwich heaped high with sweet shreds of beef under a chase of pickles and onions.
"This reminds me of the barbecue sandwiches we used to make at family reunions," I beamed across the table at my dining companion. And there was that old rush of nostalgia again, which I'm willing to admit might be primarily responsible for my affinity for C&D Burger Shoppe. But as we left later that night and got into the car, I was relieved to find I wasn't alone.
"I feel like we should be turning on the AM radio," sighed my friend. "That was an awesome meal."
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