The Nickel Burger
The TV is blaring, although the picture is mostly snow. While I wait for my order to be called, I slip into a ripped vinyl chair and stare at the fuzzy soap opera. I'm the only white guy in the worn-out dining room of Adrian's Burger Bar on Sonora Street near Phillis Wheatley High School. It's not easy to be anonymous.
To order a burger at Adrian's Burger Bar, you have to stand in front of a steam table loaded with soul food. Chicken and dumplings, smothered steak, meat loaf and oxtails are among the usual entrées. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, greens, string beans and corn casserole are the sides. After you order, you sit down and wait to be called.
A black teenager in a tan and yellow argyle sweater and matching knit cap sits across from me and avoids my glance. The hat and sweater are both decorated with the cartoon logo of a gambler throwing dice. The boy wears a heavy silver necklace and bracelet, and with his wispy mustache he gives off the vibe of a tough guy. Is he a rising rapper? His stewed oxtails in gravy are spooned over a huge pile of rice. Before he digs into this hearty lunch, he stops and closes his eyes in a moment of silent prayer -- not at all what I expected.
The first time I got a burger at Adrian's I couldn't figure out how to eat it. The patty is made from a solid pound of fresh ground beef. It's the biggest burger in the city, as far as I can tell. The menu on the wall also lists a mushroom burger, a bacon burger and a mushroom-bacon combination called an Adrian burger. And proprietor Adrian Cooper would be happy to make any one of them with double meat if you want. I find it hard to believe that anybody could eat a two-pound hamburger. "We sell them every day," shrugs Cooper.
The hand-formed meat patty is griddle-fried then served on a toasted bun. The toppings form a sloppy mountain of chopped lettuce, tomato slices, raw onion rings and dill pickle chips. When I picked up that first hamburger, the entire sandwich fell apart and cascaded down my shirt. Since then, I've learned to ask that it be cut in half for easier handling.
There is a looseness and a juiciness to this handmade ground beef patty that makes the burger fragile, but also gives it an incredible flavor. Having sampled three of them over the course of a few months, my curiosity about Adrian's is piqued. There must be something more going on here. How can a Fifth Ward joint with a burned-out TV and a falling-apart dining room be so busy all the time? And how is it producing the best damn hamburgers in the city?
As it turns out, this isn't really Adrian Cooper's hamburger. It's his grandmother Vivian Wilson's hamburger. And they've been eating them in the Nickel, as the locals refer to the Fifth Ward, for more than 40 years.
Vivian Wilson had a bar and restaurant called Vivian's Lounge on Market Street not far from Wheatley. "I had to pass there to get home," remembers 57-year-old Horace Roberts, who now works as a security guard at the school. "She wouldn't let any teenagers hang out in the bar, but you could come in and get a hamburger. And her hamburgers were the best in the Fifth Ward. They were huge; they were just like Adrian's. She served fish and shrimp dinners and soul food, too." Vivian's was a hangout for Wheatley graduates, remembers Roberts, many of whom were famous musicians.
Over one of Adrian's massive cheeseburgers, Houston Press music critic John Lomax explained Wheatley's musical legacy one afternoon. Every musician who came out of Wheatley was drenched in the blues, Lomax told me. B.B. King sidemen Eugene Carrier and Calvin Owens went to Wheatley. So did Clarence Hollimon, one of Bobby Bland's best guitarists, along with Tom Archia, Richie Dell and Joe Sample. The Texas Tenors, saxophone players Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, learned to play at Wheatley High School, too. Their wild solos on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" are often cited as one of the earliest examples of rock and roll in the big-band era.
It was an innovative teacher named Percy McDavid who was largely responsible for Wheatley's musical excellence in the 1930s. At the time, he was one of the only music educators in the country who taught jazz in his orchestra classes along with classical music. The heyday of the Wheatley music program came in 1935 when Duke Ellington visited the school to hear the orchestra play his works.
Back then, Phillis Wheatley High School was one of the largest black high schools in the United States, and the Fifth Ward was one of the proudest black neighborhoods in the country. There were more than 40 black-owned businesses on Lyons Avenue, including photography studios, Peacock Records and Club Matinee, the Cotton Club of the South.
But in the 1960s, as integration changed the face of the city, successful Fifth Ward residents left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. The Fifth Ward's outstanding black-owned restaurants were a casualty of the desegregation era. Of the many famous barbecue joints that once thrived there, only the Kozy Kitchen on Lockwood survives (see "The Barbecue Ward," June 13). By the 1970s, the area had lost much of its population and was blighted with boarded-up homes, vacant businesses and overgrown empty lots.
Today, the neighborhood where Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland grew up is in much better shape. It's hardly a garden spot, but the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation is doing what it can. The organization has helped low-income borrowers find loans, encouraged leading architects to provide innovative designs for affordable housing and brought new commercial building projects to the old neighborhood. And now, the lure of cheap real estate inside the Loop is causing young home buyers of all races to reconsider the Nickel.
Phillis Wheatley grads returning to the Fifth Ward for a visit used to drop by Vivian's Lounge to hook up with old friends. Today, they stop in for lunch at Adrian's Burger Bar. Run by Vivian's direct descendants, this is one of the last businesses that still remembers the neighborhood's better days. And it's the last hangout left for Wheatley High School students.
"Here, taste this," says Val Cooper, Adrian's mom and business partner, as she hands me a Styrofoam container full of chicken and dumplings. The big thick noodles are chewy but softened around the edges by the hot chicken gravy. A little salty, but all in all, a fine rendition of chicken and dumplings. "Adrian says it's burnt on the bottom and you ought to pick something else." I don't detect any burned taste, but I figure I might as well change my order so I can taste another entrée.
"Okay, give me the meat loaf, then," I tell her. I get yams and spinach cooked with bacon on the side. The meat loaf has little in the way of filler, but it's studded with chunks of onions, green peppers and tomatoes and has a surprisingly spicy afterburn. I crumble my corn bread into the rich, unthickened gravy. The meat loaf is also a little too salty, but if you eat it with the sweet yams and soggy spinach, it all evens out.
I've tried the oxtails as well, which are cooked in a dark gravy until they're falling-apart tender and served over rice. The day I tried the oxtails, Adrian's had collard greens instead of spinach, and I much preferred the greens. I also tried the corn and okra casserole, which may be my favorite use of canned corn. The string beans weren't cooked to mush. And the homemade mashed potatoes with gravy were outstanding.
But the star of the steam table wasn't the spicy Creole meat loaf or the soft but chewy chicken and dumplings, it was a pepper-flecked, slow-cooked smothered steak served in gravy over mashed potatoes. You don't need a knife to cut it; it falls apart under the flimsy force of a plastic fork. Of course, these steam table rankings assume that you're not going to order the city's most extraordinary hamburger.
I'm willing to bet that if you try a couple of burgers, your impression of the place will change. The first time I went to Adrian's Burger Bar, I saw a potholed parking lot, a shabby dining room and a marginal business that appeared to be on its last legs. Now I see Adrian Cooper carrying on a third-generation restaurant tradition in a richly historic African-American neighborhood -- not at all what I expected.
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