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Texas Burger Tour: Short Stop of Austin

Saturday, 18 June, 2011

Some refer to this establishment as Short Stop Deluxe Burgers. The signs do not use the word “deluxe”. Despite the name the chain does not use a baseball theme.

The history of Austin’s mid-eighties, double drive-thru, 99¢ burger chain is mysterious. The company has no web site, no customer service number, and I cannot find information on their headquarters. I understand the chain never expanded beyond the San Antonio and Austin MSAs, but cannot confirm this. They may operate the one, unrelated to the Hardees conquest, Sandy’s on Barton Springs Road. They are pretty much doing the same business they were doing in 1984, and at the same inflation-adjusted same price point. That is, the essential 4-to-1 burger with cheese is $2.74, add $2.50 for a drink and fries. 

For the fifteen years I’ve been in Austin, these yellow-with-red-trim double drive-though units have merely existed. A few have closed. One or two were actually moved, that is the very building was picked up and moved to another location. This is the chain who moved their restaurant on S. Lamar Blvd, leaving the space where the first P. Terry’s put up a tribute to them. I can recall no advertising or other promotions for the company since 1996. They just have a bunch of restaurants.

If you want to know what the locals think of Short Stop, you would be well advised to visit between 10:30 AM, when they open and about 1 PM when the lunch rush finally subsides. The drive-thrus are steadily busy. The walk-up window has a line even in parts of Austin where pedestrians shall meet a certain and unpleasant death. In the tradition of the double drive-thrus of old they get ‘em in and feed ‘em fast. Back when the “Bag O’ Burgers” (four burgers, four fries in their only size) was $8, Short Stop was a regular haunt around my lunchtime. The BOB is now $12 and until recently I didn’t go to Short Stop because I was seldom in the vicinity of one. From time to time I considered making a special trip, they were remembered so fondly, but always passed Whataburger or some such place on the way and used quick-service as it is intended.

Several of these entries have involved a special trip, but this Short Stop is along the way to work. Your humble narrator merely popped in for a No. 1 combo on his way to the plant, Monday June 13. The menu board offers a much expanded menu from the fundamental one I recall. It is a standard hot dog, burger, chicken sandwich quick service menu. The only surprise is the addition of “Frozen Slush” in two flavors of the day. Chili isn’t on the menu, but may be added for 50¢. No shakes or onion rings and the fundamental Coca-Cola offerings. The board itself uses hand-applied vinyl lettering, which cannot be applied well by design. I could be disparaging about it, but the overall feel is very home town or neighborhood guys. Two cars were ahead and I wasn’t on the premises five minutes.

Moments later, I am in the parking lot of the plant with a bag of Short Stop. I am left to contemplate neither my surroundings with which I am overly familiar nor the vision some advertising and design firm from Dallas or Los Angeles is imposing upon me, but merely the food in the sack. I could have gone into the plant, but was having a classic NPR “driveway moment”.

Only the sandwich wrap is logoed. Not even the bag or receipt reads “Short Stop”. They have really gotten down to the fundamentals here. Within my bag I find a Sysco-logoed packet of salt. Short Stop does not salt their fries, which are utterly standard shoestrings. These fries have a different texture, which almost certainly is a quality of the oil they use. The flavor is richer, deeper than that to which I am accustomed. Not overwhelming, but a more satisfying take on the generic shoestring.

Sometimes I wonder what quick-service was like in, say, the fifties or sixties before I was around. Often enough I wonder if my memories of the eighties Hamburger is accurate. Food itself, the entire category, is so different today. Processing techniques, organisms raised to fit the process, GMOs, HFCS in everything …

I do not know whether my memories are accurate, and not just about food. However, I very strongly suspect if you went back to 1984 and procured a quick-service Burger it would be very much like the classic 4-to-1 Burger contemplated here. Flatter bun with 20-25% caramelisation, cool, recently chopped veg including shredded not chopped, not-iceburg lettuce, a smattering of condiments and salt-and-peppered, unquestionably actual beef. This beef has a bold, dominant flavor. With the Short Stop burger, which has no nickname, the primary flavor is rich beef. I concede this isn’t a $50 steak, or smoked brisket or anything. For just under six bucks, you can do a whole lot worse. I certainly have.

Short Stop is a bit raw and fundamental. I suspect a few readers would shy away from the resolutely unslick look of the place. The people who know, and clearly this is no secret, enjoy this authentic classic experience. This is not a recreation of pre-HFCS “fast food”, it is the real thing. When in Austin, spend a few, very few, minutes at a Short Stop.

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