You won’t make it more than a block before the smell of fried chicken and rolls finds you.
It clings to the upholstery and hugs the molecules of your car seats and your hands. You will catch a waft, like a passing cloud in a blue sky, when you discard your jeans into the laundry bin. Everyone experiences this fast food phenomena: It’s the sticky aroma of honey, yeast and the sun-gold oil of fried chicken that's from a local joint's drive-thru.
Every fast food drive-thru has its own sappy smell that bonds to your car for a couple of days, and it’s instantly present as you pull in to the cramped pathway at Bubba’s. Cars snake around the building. Brake lights mean you’ll need to be patient. The speaker crackles awake. Once they pass you the food, a countdown starts: It will be seconds until you jab your hand into the crackling bag, tear off a piece of a cloud-soft roll and, without looking, winnow off a fried squiggle of the chicken batter. It’s a driver’s rite of passage.
Which is why Dallas’ longest-standing — and best — drive-thrus are like miniature fabled journeys. There are spells and smells along the road, and there is always a prize at the end.
Bubba’s Cooks Country
617 Hillcrest Ave. (Park Cities)
Steam chuffs from an unseen vent. It’s morning, and the line of cars moves quickly. It’s not going to be a light meal, but the bacon, egg and cheese biscuit is an exactly Texas way to start the day. Bubba’s opened in winter of 1981. The drive-thru was grandfathered in from the building's history as a Texaco station. Sometime after that, it found its way as a fish and vegetable market. Bubba’s knows exactly what it is now. Order fried chicken, extra gravy and extra rolls. The rolls recipe is as old-fashioned as an oil painting: They're made 24 hours in advance using loads of Crisco and sugar. Ditch the Tupperware of sad salmon in the trash, man. Fried okra saves lives.
Great American Hero
4001 Lemmon Ave. (Oak Lawn)
Half of the window shoots open. “The Italian with everything, babe?” asks a sandwich hero. It’s a beautiful question, isn’t it? A minute or two later, a box-lid loaded up with napkins, a paper-wrapped sub-sandwich and Zapp’s potato chips passes through the window. They thought of everything. This is the breathless, speedy, and kind service of Great American Hero—a drive-thru deli gem. It's the last owned by original owner Dominick Oliverie, who's been serving sandwiches in the city since 1976. The menu is vast — even the pickiest eaters will stammer around the choices — but there are a couple of ironclad staples. The Heroletta — a careful stack of ham, turkey, Monterey Jack cheese, salami, capicola, provolone lashed with oil, dry spices, mushrooms, pepperoncinis and olives — is a Roman column of a sandwich. Even better: All you’ll need for a meal at this joint is a $10 bill.
Rudy’s Fried Chicken
3115 S. Lancaster Road (South Dallas)
Inside every car in line, the drivers wait patiently. They're on their phone or rumbling the radio. Precisely no one is boiling with impatience. Why? When you're in line at Rudy's, a South Dallas beacon since 1992, you know what waits for you on the flip side. This year, we crowned it Best Fried Chicken for a reason. Chicken, jailed in crunchy armor and dripping in hot oil like a scene in Alien and just as mind-bending, comes crackling with an impressive amount of salt. The oil follows you around, in your clothes, embedded into the steering wheel of your car. Streak some under your eyes to absorb sunlight for the drive home. Get chicken thighs, extra pepper to punch the salt back and skip the soggy fries. Bread slices underneath are more of a utensil than food. The chicken tenders will ruin you on every other chicken tender in DFW — if you can get them before they run out.
9785 Ferguson Road (East Dallas)
Sitting at the drive-in, you miss a few things about this decades-old burger joint. You miss lemons being pressed for lemonade and the loud crackle of fat on the grill, the buzz of milkshakes in their metallic cups. You’ll have to just trust that inside is an authentic, frill-free menu, one that’s yellowing with time, where the letter “f” in “fish basket” is missing. Dairy-Ette has been open since 1956, and owner Robert Prikryl hasn't changed much. He plans to pass it down the family line, after all. Root beer is still as chilly and fresh as the vanilla ice cream that hasn't yet been scooped. A cheeseburger and onion rings could use a dash of seasoning but come accompanied by the emotional gravity pull on your insides that can only come from nostalgia.
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Chicken House Plus
909 N. Fitzhugh Ave. (East Dallas)
The road is barely wide enough for the Lexus that’s winding through. On this recent visit, owner Chan Park is working the phone, the register and the drive-thru window at once. “Tender basket? About 10 minutes, please,” Park says. He hangs up and yanks a basket of chicken out of the fryer, which sends a puff of his secret seasoned salt, a bright maroon powder speckled with pepper, sprinkling into the air. He upends a fry basket into a tray. His fried chicken has patterns, undulating swirls of golden batter, stamped on each piece like a fingerprint. Two cars are in the drive-thru queue, and Park shuts the window and does it all again.
“We’ve been here about 38 years?” Park says rhetorically, pondering if it’s true that he’s been in Dallas that long. Chicken House Plus is the kind of fast food joint with zero interest in chef-created options. It’s just juicy chicken. Between a store-bought bun, it bests any numbed-out, tortured chain out there. Dive into a plate of fried chicken tenders, swiping them through white gravy, and you’ll wonder why you ever went to see the Colonel.
The paper surrounding the BLT is almost see-through from mayonnaise and bacon grease. It’s art. It’s an instant joy-maker as you prop your feet up on your dashboard. The car keys are out of the ignition because you’re pulled in and hunkered down. At Keller’s Drive-In, which clocks in at 53 years running, you’ll find comfort. It’s a cheeseburger retreat where tater tots, in their signature paper boat, stay put on the dash. The seeded bun pops around. The onion crunches, a jolt of rawness under melted American cheese. Every sandwich is hot, delicious and can be paid for in the quarters you didn’t use at the arcade. The griddled burgers are just cheese and seared beef. Pull in, crack a beer and remember why you love a Dallas drive-in.