Inside the shady dining room at Shuttle Burgers, inflatable space shuttles and cartoonishly fat airplanes twirl slowly at the end of fishing wire suspended from the mottled ceiling tiles. In one corner, a crackling television set's handwritten paper sign implores guests: "Don't change the channel! This is the only one that works!" A framed picture of the ill-fated astronauts from the 1986 Challenger mission hangs on one wall, faded by years of sunlight.
"That picture used to make me cry," my friend noted with fond regard. "I used to look at it when I was a little kid and think how sad it was." I am barely old enough to remember the Challenge disaster, but I do remember the cutaway diagram of the space shuttle that's hanging on another wall; it was in my 5th grade classroom and I would stare at it intently during Mrs. Misamore's droning lessons.
Even the neighborhood that Shuttle Burgers is situated in here in south Houston is removed slightly from time: A splintering wooden sign in the grassy median by Shuttle Burger's crumbling strip center announces that you're now entering Skyscraper Shadows. You can barely see the skyline of downtown from here, let alone its shadows. But you can sense a time when this stretch of Almeda-Genoa held much more promise than it currently does, a sense that's reflected in the space program memorabilia coating nearly every surface at Shuttle Burgers.
Just south of Hobby Airport, Shuttle Burgers is still serving some of the city's best Texas-style roadside burgers and hand-cut fries, however, undeterred by the march of time outside. Never mind that nearby Braniff Street is named for an airline that no longer exists, or that the spinning Continental Airlines jetliner which dangles from Shuttle Burgers' ceiling was absorbed by United in an ugly blow to Houston's economy and identity in 2010.
The time it takes to get your burger at Shuttle Burgers will give you ample time to reflect on these things, especially if you're a native Houstonian. To reflect on how much this maddening city has changed, and yet -- when your burger and basket of hot french fries is delivered to your table -- how some things are still comfortingly the same.
Back in 2009, Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook noted that the true triumph of Shuttle Burgers was those fries. "'Burgers Out of this World,' reads the slogan at Shuttle Burgers, which is tucked into a sleepy, semi-industrial pocket south of Hobby Airport," she wrote. "What the slogan really should say is this: 'Hand-cut French Fries Out of this World.'" Those fries are as good as ever, I'm happy to say, and still hand-cut and fried to order.
The burgers shouldn't be given short-shrift though, especially the restaurant's signature Shuttle Burger. A well-worn sign by the register explains that the Shuttle Burger is simply a burger with a slice of pineapple on top, but that fat ring of fruit makes all the difference. You see, the patties at Shuttle Burgers -- while hand-formed and also, like the fries, cooked to order -- can be a little dry. The ring of pineapple on top gives the well-done patty that much-needed juicy boost to send it into orbit.
Shuttle Burgers offers more than just a great burger, however. Through its sun-parched and time-worn decor, it also offers a reminder that our space program has been similarly neglected for far too long. What was once the pride of our city now operates on less than half of its former budget -- $18.4 billion in 2011, which is only roughly 0.48 percent of the total federal budget and down from 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966 when the space program was at its peak with the Apollo missions.
Of the ever-decreasing federal budget for NASA, astrophysicist and best-person-in-the-world-to-follow-on-Twitter Neil deGrasse Tyson said in March 2012: "Right now, NASA's annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that -- a penny on a dollar -- we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow."
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I'd count on that as much as I'd count on Braniff coming back from the dead, but it's nice to dream.
See also: - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Tornado Burger - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Speedy Burger - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: The Hideaway - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Watson's House of Ales - Burgers Off the Beaten Path: Poppa Burger - 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