Food Fight

Food Fight: Battle Milkshake

When putting out the request earlier this week for the best milkshake in town, we were confronted with a curious question from commenter Dr. Ricky: "Forgive me, but what constitutes a milkshake? Versus say a smoothie? Do we count licuados or sinh in this?" An interesting question, for sure, as the term "milkshake" generally denotes a dessert-type beverage made primarily with ice cream.

But research (i.e., Wikipedia) shows that milkshakes weren't always so straightforward, nor were they always made with ice cream. The original milkshake, dating back to 1885, was an alcoholic beverage out of your worst eggnog-induced nightmare made with eggs and whiskey. It wasn't until the early 1900s that milkshakes were made with ice cream. And the traditional, blended, frothy milkshakes that we know today weren't popular until the 1930s, after the invention of the electric blender.

These days, when someone says "milkshake" instead of -- as Dr. Ricky commented -- a smoothie, you know that you're in for a thick, frosty beverage filled with more ice cream than you should probably eat in one sitting and that's not the least bit healthy for you. And when we said "milkshake" on Monday, your top choice for milkshakes in Houston was Beck's Prime by a long shot. The distant second was a tie between Avalon Diner, Pappas Burger, Yale St. Pharmacy, Amy's Ice Cream and 59 Diner. With so many to choose from, it only made sense to choose the place that has a giant neon milkshake as its sign.

59 Diner

In a place that nearly epitomizes the classic 1950s soda fountain environment -- right down to the sassy (albeit male) servers and shiny vinyl booths -- you'd expect the milkshakes to be top-notch. And you wouldn't be wrong.

59 Diner gets massive points for presentation: Your milkshake is served in a traditional glass with fresh whipped cream on top, alongside the icy metal canister in which your shake was handmade. It may seem as if you're getting extra shake in the metal canister -- and you can look at it that way if you really want to -- but the truth is simply that the glass doesn't hold all that much shake to begin with. Pros eat the shake in the metal first, scooping it out with a spoon before it all melts and then attacking the glass, whipped cream first.

The milkshake itself (chocolate, natch) was richly flavored with chocolate, without a hint of overly saccharine sweetness. It was somewhat on the thin side and therefore easily drinkable with a straw. If thick, turn-the-glass-over-and-watch-it-stick shakes are your bag, the 59 Diner shake will disappoint you. However, if you're one of those who likes to idly sip on your shake in between bites of a patty melt and curly fries, you're in for a treat.

Beck's Prime

Between being chosen 3.5-to-1 (or something like that; fractions aren't our strong point) by our commenters and being named recently as one of Texas Monthly's best burgers, Beck's Prime is riding high lately. Despite its many locations, Beck's Prime seems to have carved out a unique niche for itself with staunch defenders who would never normally defend a corporate chain but harbor deep affection for Beck's burgers and shakes.

The shakes at Beck's are drawn from a no-nonsense-looking, stainless steel machine that looks as if it could easily dispense frozen yogurt or margaritas. The manager noticed us eyeing it warily and chuckled: "I know, I know. But I make them fresh myself every day." But the thick stream of chocolate milkshake coming from the nozzle like a certain internet horror video (we recommend not clicking on that link...) didn't necessarily allay our fears.

The shake was heavy, dense and incredibly thick. We immediately understood why people order the smaller, 8-ounce dessert size instead of the whole shebang. It was redolent with the taste of Hershey's chocolate syrup in every bite. In fact, it tasted as if someone had pureed equal amounts vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup together, then poured the result into a cup. As tasty as the first few bites were, it quickly became evident that no normal person could finish an entire shake. The sweetness became cloying, the thick buttercream became mouth-coating and gunky, the shake became garbage can fodder after eating less than half.


Battle Milkshake -- like Battle Pizza -- seems like one of those unfair fights where people are expecting entirely different things out of the contenders. As commenter Andrea pointed out earlier this week, "There should be two categories -- shakes you can drink with a straw, and shakes you must eat with a spoon." We realize that now, Andrea. But we must move forward.

For the purposes of this battle, the winner is 59 Diner. This is a classic milkshake in every sense of the word, from its simple creation to its elegant presentation. It can be eaten with a spoon if desired, but also drunk through a straw. And -- most importantly -- no one is going to give up on a 59 Diner chocolate milkshake halfway through and throw it in the garbage.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt