All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Things are easy-going at Dairy-Ette. On a wintery weekday, I’m sitting on one of their old stools as the heater rattles off and on. An older woman waits for her to-go paper sack, and another customer’s on a barstool filling in a crossword puzzle. Through the kitchen window, the flat-top sizzles, and one waiter makes a buzzy spin sound with a metallic cup. A chocolate milkshake is run out to a customer in the drive-in. Dairy-Ette is a true-blue drive-in, the last of a dying breed, but the real joy is inside the restaurant. That’s where you feel the magic.
My ice-frosted mug is filled to the brim with root beer that’s got a head of luscious bubbles. Dairy-Ette makes a couple gallons of the stuff daily using Imperial cane sugar and a root beer flavor made just for them. The joy and texture is somewhere between slurping melted vanilla ice cream and floating in an Epsom salt tank. With slivers of ice, this is the martini of root beers.
Sitting at the drive-in, you miss things. You miss lemons being pressed for lemonade and the crackle of fat on the flat top, the metallic buzz of milkshakes in their big cups. You definitely miss the comforting feeling, rare these days, of a menu — and decor — untouched by the flames of time.
“A lot’s not changed,” says owner Robert (everyone calls him Bob) Prikryl, who's about as laid back as you can get for a guy running a Dallas treasure. “That fountain over there? That came out of the H.L. Green drug store in Downtown Dallas.” A Google search lands me at a five-and-dime store chain that had a location in the Wilson Building in the early ’60s.
Dairy-Ette’s been in the Prikryl family since it opened in ’56. Bob drew his first paycheck from the burger joint at 15 years old. Prikryl’s father ran the place, partnered with Bob’s uncle, and Bob plans to pass it onto his own son.
“My son’s going to be taking over,” he says. “You know, I’m 66 years old. It’s time for me to move on and him to take over. It’ll be his decision in the future what to do.”
Let’s hope he doesn’t change anything: Their burgers — simple 80/20 patties sizzled on the flat top and topped with American cheese, chopped lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle and yellow mustard between gently steamed bun — are American classics. There’s no farm-to-table anything here: Just food, served fast and cheap. They don’t even season the burgers unless you ask.
This is true Dallas fast food, no more, no less. I’m eating a lightning-hot steak sandwich, a core of heat inside breaded and fried tenderized steak with mayo, pickle, lettuce, onion and tomato. Dark gold tater tots glow and crunch.
I nearly lick the glass of root beer clean. It’s a quintessential meal in a city with a disconcerting restaurant bubble, and Prikryl’s running the joint with an ease that’s something to behold. When I prod him for more about what makes the burgers good, he doesn’t say much.
“It’s nothing real special,” he says. “The grill may have something to do with it. Nothing fancy. We try to steam the buns a little bit.” In the ’60s, they tried to serve fried chicken. “That was just a nightmare,” he says, shaking his head. So, back to the simple stuff.
“You’re not going to get rich in this place,” he says. “Really. It’s a living. Lot of people think: Oh you’ve got a gold mine. Well, you know what? If this thing was really making that much money, would I really be here now at 66 years old? I don’t know. You know, I’m proud of the legacy.”
As I leave, Prikryl heads back into the kitchen and gives a wave, and everything else seems to chug along.
Dairy-Ette, 9785 Ferguson Road