Health Camp: The World's Most Ironically Named Restaurant
When I was in school at Baylor University in Waco, our dining options -- both on- and off-campus -- were sadly limited. I hear they've built a Hooters there now, though, so good for them. (Not on the campus, obviously. Hell, the Chili's they built on campus a few years ago isn't even allowed to serve beer.)
Instead, when I was a poor college student, my meals were restricted to a few basic food groups: coastal Mexican at El Siete Mares, Thai at the Clay Pot, a Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance from campus, veggie sandwiches at Terry & Jo's Food for Thought and burgers at Dubl-R or Health Camp. These are the restaurants I still recommend to visitors today -- always and especially Health Camp.
It always frustrated me that visitors to Waco would end up at the overpriced Elite Cafe, located on the "famous" Waco Circle (a giant traffic circle that no one knows how to navigate, despite being located in the same place for 50-some-odd years) next door to Health Camp. Sure, the Elite Cafe was supposedly a favorite of one Private Elvis Presley while the King was stationed at Fort Hood in nearby Killeen, but the quality of the food has suffered greatly in passing years.
Besides offering a superior dining experience to the Elite Cafe for far less money, I always thought Health Camp to have the greatest claim to fame of the two iconic Waco restaurants: the most ironic name in the world.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
There is absolutely nothing healthy to be found at Health Camp.
The restaurant specializes, in fact, in everything terrible for you in one meal: crispy puffs of homemade tater tots, fat rounds of battered onion rings, classic roadside-style Texas burgers slathered with mustard and melting cheese, foot-long hot dogs covered in chili, Frito Pies topped with more of the same and a near-endless selection of milkshakes and malts. Choosing just one off the long list of flavors is guaranteed to make your mind boggle. Peanut butter? Pineapple? Cherry? Hot fudge? Peach? Butterscotch? Dreamsicle? Toasted marshmallow? S'Mores? Chocolate cheesecake? (I'm leaving off at least a dozen more flavors for the sake of space.)
And this is no mere fast food, you see. Your food is always cooked to order, as it's been since Health Camp first opened in 1948. The prices barely seem to have moved since then, either; my favorite combo at the restaurant -- a cheeseburger with tots and a shake -- is only $8.48. A Frito pie? $3.29. A majestic grilled cheese on thick, buttered slices of Texas toast -- with double cheese, of course, to stand up to all that bread? $3.61.
In the evenings, you can see people pulling in off the highway and ordering at Health Camp's walk-up window, as if over half a century hadn't even passed. Kids fidget at their parents' knees, waiting as patiently as they can for that child-sized shake to get handed down to them. Inside the warm, cozy dining room are booths filled with young college students -- some on dates, some just there with friends -- and older couples enjoying their routine burger fix at a place which has remained nearly unchanged for decades.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
During the mad rush of the holidays, I made time to drive through Waco with my boyfriend, who'd never experienced the bliss of a creamy Health Camp shake nor its perfectly fried onion rings. As we drove through the center of town, I was chagrined to find that although Waco's dining options have increased greatly since I left more than ten years ago, those new options had wrought terrible things on the town's simple landscape: one chain restaurant after another, a road named "Cheddars" after the Cheddars that loomed over the busy intersection.
It was with relief that I pulled up to Health Camp and found it as resolutely the same as ever. I ordered a peanut butter malt, taking comfort in the crunchy bits of peanuts that laced the sweet ice cream and played up the nutty flavor of the malt, and sat back to watch my boyfriend's eyes light up at his first taste of a Super Health Burger. With double meat and double cheese, naturally, for super health.
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