"I've had a terrible day," my friend grumbled. "Terrible! I need meat."
"Burger or steak?" I asked.
"Burger," she quickly replied, a scowl still on her face. "Definitely burger." And so we were off to Cream Burger (3481 Elgin).
The little burger shack in the Third Ward, just on the edge of the University of Houston campus, has been serving cheeseburgers and shakes made with real ice cream for dozens of years. In fact, the name "Cream Burger" comes from the two most perennially popular items at the shack: ice cream and burgers.
My friend had never been to the little burger place before, and was visibly disturbed by all the "rules" stuck up around the ordering window. "SPEAK LOUDER" exhorts one sign, while countless others basically warn you -- on pain of death -- to get the hell off your cell phone while ordering. And if you think they're kidding, just test the woman behind the counter. She'll slam the mesh screen shut on you so fast it'll make your head spin.
Needless to say, I love it there.
Cream Burger's prices are throwbacks to a different era. A "small" cheeseburger will only run you a little over a dollar, and it's all the burger you need. Frito pies start at $1.25, and shakes are only $1.40. Our entire order last night -- two small cheeseburgers, two Frito pies and two chocolate shakes -- came to only $8.40. And remember to bring cash; no credit cards are accepted here.
The burgers here can most accurately be described as the kind of stuff that Whataburger would make if it were still a one-restaurant operation in Corpus Christi. The buns and patties are thin and slightly crispy. The cheese is gooey and melty. And the burger is slathered with healthy amounts of onions, shredded lettuce and mustard. This is a true Texas burger.
I've never tasted the fries at Cream Burger because I inevitably get swayed by the promise of excellent Frito pies. I'm told the fries aren't that good anyway, so I choose not to disappoint myself and instead go with Old Faithful: a cardboard boat filled with Fritos, thick chili with beans, shredded cheese and plenty of raw white onions on top. The perfect ratio of Fritos to chili to cheese is a difficult one to accomplish -- and perhaps one of the reasons we Texans pine over the dish as if it were a state treasure. Cream Burger has that ratio down to a science.
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Shakes are also expertly spun here, with nothing but ice cream and a little milk to loosen the mixture up. Feeling adventurous? Cream Burger also serves pineapple shakes, which are particularly good in the hot summer months.
"Feeling better?" I asked my friend after we'd demolished the spread, wholesale, in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room (Cream Burger only has outdoor dining on a few little picnic tables, which is why so many people take the food to go).
"Yes. This is just what I needed," she smiled back.
They say that music soothes the savage beast. I think that Cream Burger's shakes and Frito pies would do the trick, too.