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.
The line moves fast at Bubba’s Cooks Country. Right in the middle of lunch rush, I’m waiting to place my favorite order, the number five with green beans and black-eyed peas. The kitchen’s working quickly through orders, and the guy behind me says: “Damn, the chicken smells good, doesn’t it?” He’s right. It’s one of the many reasons to love Bubba’s. Here are 10 of them.
10. The buttery coma. One fall day over a decade ago, as a student at SMU, I nearly slipped into a permanent food sleep. It was our “reading days” — the few, mercifully class-free weekdays before the big semester-ending tests. I’d been studying for weeks, and had skipped a couple of meals and downed two extra large Red Bulls. My hands were shaking and felt cold and sweaty. Two Red Bulls on an empty stomach feels like influenza. I quivered through my test, filling one-and-a-half blue books, and then went to reward myself, as you should, at Bubba’s. I drove-through for a fried chicken strips meal with okra, mashed potatoes and gravy, and — my favorite — extra, soft rolls.
This would be my Valhalla feast. I ate everything — and I mean everything. Following this indulgence, I slipped into the most buttery of food comas. It was like someone had wrapped me in four bear-skinned rugs in an icy log cabin, crackling fire nearby. I slept for nearly 12 hours straight. I slept so hard that I’m pretty sure I teetered into that paranormal world Patrick Swayze inhabited in Ghost. Bubba’s Cooks Country eases you into a peaceful, sun-stroked food nap.
9. The biscuit sandwich with bacon. If one of New York’s iconic breakfast foods is bacon, egg and cheese on an everything bagel, then Dallas’ must be the bacon, egg and cheese on a buttery, steamy biscuit. It’s the essential combination of Texas guilty pleasure and hangover cure. Texas owns this breakfast sandwich, and Bubba’s is a top producer: A plank of crisp bacon, a fold of egg and an unmelted slice of American cheese. The biscuit will melt the cheese for you. It costs less than $3.
8. The drive-thru. Bubba’s opens everyday at 6:30 a.m. Most fast food drive-thrus, especially if there’s a line, will cause insta-regret. You'll idle, staring at the menu, and wonder: “Why am I doing this to myself?” Not at Bubba’s. Pulling up to the drive-thru menu at Bubba’s is like stargazing. The speaker crackles on and you’re all smiles. The drive-thru was grandfathered in from Bubba's history as a Texaco station, and later a fish and vegetable market.
7. Bubba’s opened December 1981 and has been an institution ever since. Harold Cox has been working at Bubba's for 30 years. Their goal, he tells me, is to be a "necessity to the community, as opposed to a luxury." Things are kept easy-going and true to recipes from Mary Beth and Paul Vinyard, who founded the spot (Mary Beth has since passed). The Vinyards brought the food they love from West Texas, in Abilene, and kept things simple and straightforward.
"It's all simple salt and pepper," Cox says. "That's the way Paul and Mary were brought up." Seasoned, battered chicken is dropped in bubbling hot canola oil, and it's as straight-forward as that. They have a rule that Cox lovingly refers to as "the hot chicken concept," which requires Bubba's to bring you chicken that releases beautiful steam when sliced open. Rest assured: The hot chicken concept is always honored. They don't leave chicken out for more than thirty minutes, at the most, before tossing it. The rolls are old-school and tedious. They're made 24 hours in advance using lots of Crisco and sugar.
"We've probably added two menu items in 30 years," Cox says. Both of them were desserts.
6. The speedy, exuberant service. On a recent visit, there was a line bending into the main dining room. Bubba’s servers blazed through it, plating chicken fingers, green beans and mashed potatoes in steamy speed. The line dissipated, and minutes later the employees were laughing and relaxed.
5. The art deco decor. It’s hard not to love a place that mixes cherry red diner chairs with iconic pre-World War I designs. In the main dining area, there’s a box labeled “Comment Cards” in a deco font, and paintings on the wall of elegant ladies on chaise lounges. Meanwhile, there’s sweet tea and baskets of fried chicken under orange-hot lamps in the front room.
4. The kitchen. The kitchen area is a step or two below the main floor, which makes you feel like a heroic giant, towering over your fried order.
3. The silky gravy. You'd best order extra gravy at Bubba’s. Once you do, you’ll find yourself tasting the fresh flour and warming black pepper in the smooth, milky white gravy. You may wind up eating it by the spoonful, and that's OK.
2. The #5. The chicken fingers are not your classic columns of breaded chicken. They’re wild, almost artistic squiggles of fried batter that house juicy white meat chicken. They’re always burn-your-mouth hot, and the chicken holds tightly onto that salty, peppery fried casing. When you dream of chicken fingers, these are the ones floating through your mind in 3-D. Don’t make a rookie mistake and order barbecue sauce or honey mustard. Go with gravy.
1. The chicken livers. “Order of livers!” shouts the kitchen when I place my order. You can get these crispy beauties a la carte for less than $7. They come, as all dishes should, in the main quadrant of the plate with two sides: gravy and gravy. They’re steaming because they were fried seconds ago. The crunch is unbelievable, and there’s a soft, foie-gras consistency to the livers. Run them through the gravy and repeat. This is the food of the gods.
Bubba's Cooks Country, 6617 Hillcrest Ave.