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.
You don’t walk into Milo Butterfingers hoping for change. You come for the kind of sensation that can only radiate from a carpeted, decades-old tavern. There’s something about the feel of Milo’s: The ceiling hangs low, the booths are the color of hula grass, the men’s bathroom light is seizing, John Fogerty is laboring through some heady lyrics. There's familiarity in the air; this is a no-bullshit bar that you know deep down in your bones. Milo Butterfingers is the kind of place where anyone sitting at the bar could be a ghost that only you are able to see.
Scotty, or Raymond Scott, one of Butterfingers’ cooks, who’s been working the grill for decades, rests his elbows on the counter. There’s a pile of bacon behind him, and he’s ready to throw some meat on the flat-top.
As I plop down at the bar, the solace instantly washes over me. Mindy Portman, who’s also worked at Milo’s longer than personal computers have existed, asks my name. Above the liquor shelf, a small sign reads, “You can’t fix stupid.”
“That’s not a good name, Nick,” she says, cracking a wry smile.
The guy to my right is drinking a Coke mixed with something strong and mumbling disconcertingly to himself. The plastic pitchers, piled high behind the bar, are cleaned and ready for Shiner Bock. Those pitchers are a reminder: Too many of those is exactly how I celebrated my 21st birthday, because you can’t fix stupid.
So, here is Milo Butterfingers, a nearly 50-year-old bar that’s gone through location moves and name changes, but has never lost the feeling you get when you take a seat.
Owner Ned Smith founded the joint in 1971 on Abrams and Skillman. There was live comedy, music and hot wings. In 1982, Smith took over a club, headlined by a comedy band that used to perform at Milo’s, retrofitted into a 1940s-era home. No wonder there’s a supernatural feeling in the air. When I ask Portman why people come back to Milo’s, she jokes.
“Maybe it’s because they can throw things on the floor, and puke and pee or whatever," she says.
I order the patty melt, because that’s what I used to order, and why mess with a good memory? I don’t throw it on the floor. It’s a third-pound of ground chuck – Scotty sizzles it on the flat-top with melted Swiss and griddled onions – in between buttered rye. It’s $6.99, and it comes with a half-basket’s worth of industrial ruffled potato chips. This isn’t food that gives a damn about James Beard.
“I put two kids through college on this job; I’m a single mom and I love my job,” Portman says. “I come in every day and I don’t dread it. I think that helps.”
Yeah, I think that it does. That, and the only thing that seems to have changed, Portman says, is new carpeting installed about 10 years ago. How can you not fall in love? The cigarette machine and the pool tables in the back, adorned with a crown of hanging Christmas lights, concur. In other words, this is a real, true Dallas tavern. Oliver Stone knew it too: He filmed scenes from Born on the Fourth of July at the bar in the late ‘80s.
“When we got computers, we all cried and we fought,” Portman says. You can’t help but smile at the charm.
My patty melt arrives, a hefty chuck sandwich, halved and budding with softened onions and jalapeños. It gets the job done – no more, no less – and begs for a cold beer. Thick-cut steak fries could stand to be crisped more; a bottle of jalapeño-spiked ketchup helps. Everything tastes about 100 miles away from farm-to-table, but it's welcome as hell in this setting.
“It just all works,” Portman says, which is all that needs to be said on the success of a bar being open for just under half a century. I finish half the patty melt, plucking out jalapeño slices (for snacking), and sit back at the bar that’s like a long, deep breath.
Milo Butterfingers, 5645 SMU Blvd.