I hadn't felt it before, not truly, until last night.
I'm twisting in the counter chairs in anticipation, ice-blasted mug full of root beer, old central air unit rattling above and it really struck me: Dairy-Ette is a Dallas treasure. I’ve been to the burger joint before. I’ve sat at the Dairy-Ette drive-thru during an absolutely fiery summer, car's air-conditioning wheeled to "max," waiting for paper-wrapped cheeseburgers and BLTs, but I haven’t truly let Dairy-Ette into my head.
Inside the White Rock-area spot, established in 1956, the flat-top hisses. One young employee presses lemons, one after another, fresh juice trickling into a huge Styrofoam cup. I’m enjoying the ice-cold root beer, which tastes like it was just scooped out of some sort of naturally gurgling root beer river. It tastes like the vanilla ice cream that hasn't even been scooped into it yet.
There’s a calendar hanging on the wall in front of me — cute pets-themed — and the days have been filled out in pen with birthdays. There’s the Coca-Cola clock, bright as the sun, glowing from the wood-panel wall. Families wait for their meals around me. There are gumball machines by the front windows, facing the drive-through.
My lady friend and I are waiting for two cheeseburgers ($4 a piece), tater tots and onions rings. When they arrive in the basket, they’re inside folded white paper, pinned by a toothpick above hot onion rings and tater tots. My burger does not care that it’s not photogenic. The bun’s smashed and American cheese, most of it perfectly melted, juts out like an under bite. Delicious, murky-colored burger grease finds its way into the top of the smashed bun.
This burger isn't Instagram-ready, and it doesn't care. It woke up like this.
It’s fantastic, too. It’s melted, meaty and loaded with a crisp medley of white onions and pickles. This is America’s burger. Actually, this is Dallas’ burger. A photo of this burger should be at customs as you arrive at DFW. We do this burger — simple, unpretentious and comforting — correctly here in Dallas. My date took a bite and immediately recalled childhood memories of eating drive-through burgers in Louisiana with her dad. This is a burger that reaches deep into memories and swirls them around.
It makes sense; we’re not talking unique-to-Dallas ingredients here. What makes these roadside, drive-through burgers special is the flat-top, the beef and the cook. Great, old-fashioned, no-bullshit burgers, from a place as real as your heartbeat, reach into our fond memories because we’ve tasted the flavors (American cheese, store-bought pickles) before. Cooked right, a seared beef patty on a flat-top with lava-flow American cheese, chopped onions and lettuce and pickle is a collect call to our souls. Dairy-Ette does it very, very right.
The menu above the counter at Dairy-Ette, which notes that it’s “20 cents” for “drink flavoring,” is fading. The bright white outdoor lights snap on when the sun goes down, and there’s a few cars left in the drive-through. My tab was about 18 bucks.
I hope Dairy-Ette never leaves us. I hope it stands there in East Dallas as long as it can muster, an icon of food at its simplest and most fun.
Dairy-Ette, 9785 Ferguson Road