A few weeks ago, the first-ever Dallas Shake Shack opened with all the fanfare of a royal coronation. The lawn in front of the Crescent Hotel, where the first North Texas Shack is housed, is crisp green and manicured. Inside, there’s 1930s shiplap as cladding, and a light trellis that uses reclaimed wood straight from rivers in the south. One Shack burger is hugged by American cheese, nestling with a hunk of spicy jalapeño-cheese sausage from Deep Ellum barbecue favorite Pecan Lodge. The burgers at Shake Shack are, as they’ve always been, delicious. They’re smart, polished, and surprisingly good sandwiches from a fast-food company.
However, there is no menu item from Shake Shake (or In-N-Out, or Five Guys), not one, that will replace what I love about Whataburger. No matter how many times the fast-food industry is reinvented or how many contrarian arguments are made attempting to debunk the joy of eating Whataburger late at night, I will always feel a great wave of warmth in my heart for Texas’ cleverest fast-food chain. Whataburger is tied into the unpretentious, friendly, and good-natured feeling of what it means to live in Texas.
Whataburger feels the same to me as a Willie Nelson song; as the taste of pool water after a 100-degree Dallas day, or an ice-cold dip in Austin’s Barton Springs. It’s the official food of 2am in Texas -- long before you could get craft anything at 2am.
When I was a kid growing up in Plano, my parents would bring home Whataburger, always late, after they went out with friends. They’d bring back handfuls of freshly wrapped cheeseburgers and those tall, striped cartons of onion rings. You’d know it was a good Friday night in our house if my brother, my mom, my dad, and I were all curling French fries into ketchup, slicing cheeseburgers down the center, and eating sheaths of fried onion rings together into the wee hours. Because Whataburger has always, always tasted better under moonlight.
My mom could never finish her burger, so she’d leave half of one wrapped in plastic wrap in the fridge. I’d swoop by the next day, like a Texas bat, and devour the remaining burger, dipping the corner into a tub of ketchup. I used to eat Whataburger before -- and after --football games.
One of the reasons why late-night food can be so delicious is that it comes with an abandonment: You toss off the shackles of good sense and calorie-counting and give in to the urge. A great late-night dish can solidify itself in your mind. In other words, late-night foods become a memory. The taste of Whataburger always sends a wave of memories rushing through my body.
Who knows how many unnecessary, unhealthy, aorta-clogging meat patties have passed through my bloodstream, long past the hour of night that I should have been eating? Should I regret it? Maybe I would if Whataburger’s taquitos weren’t so fondly bonded in my head with sneaking pre-21 beers with friends. Maybe I’d regret it more if those late, hangover-curing conversations with my family weren’t so strong of a memory. I don’t care how bad for me it was to eat Whataburger -- when my mom called the house to ask me what I wanted from drive-through at one in the morning, I always got a beam of excitement.
It’s one of the reasons I write about cheeseburgers now as a human adult. I’ve eaten some of the best burgers in the country, from LA’s infamous Office burger, with blue cheese and caramelized onions, to the stunning cheeseburger at the Breslin in New York. Yet I still crave Whataburger bacon cheeseburgers with jalapeños. Every now and then, I still need to have a double cheeseburger topped with a boatload of green chilies. Yearly, a stash of Whataburger ketchup (spicy, please) always finds its way back into my house. Then, there’s the jalapeño cheddar biscuit, which is stupidly delicious with a slice of American cheese. I still like to smash the Whataburger burger buns down with my palm because that’s something we used to do to burgers. No idea why.
It’s hard not to love it because Whataburger has kept focused over the years. Most fast-food chains are releasing challenge dishes, practically threatening you to near-dystopian concoctions like a Hell in a Cell cage match. Whataburger is like the really great baseball player who’s played for a lifetime and you’d bet your life has never even considered performance-enhancing drugs. They’re not replacing their buns with circular hot dog patties, or inserting a full pizza, somehow, into the center of a meat patty, or deep frying a cheeseburger in a batter of Doritos (though that doesn’t sound like the worst thing) -- they’re keeping things simple and late-night delicious.
There’s no item on the menu that looks like it was created by a Marvel villain to destroy us slowly through food. There’s no quadruple-baconated menu item named after an unstoppable cybernetic organism who will stop at nothing to kill you.
I know what you’re thinking: What about In-N-Out? Yes, Texas has In-N-Out burger now. We’re home to the ultimate polygon of fast-food eating (Whataburger + Shake Shack + In-N-Out + Del Taco). I lived in Los Angeles for a few years, and I love me a good double-double cheeseburger, of course, Animal Style. I love the white onion disc, freshly cut, and a freshly griddled double cheeseburger doused in that pupil-dilating sauce. I get the fries well-done at In-N-Out, so they’re crispy and so that they don’t suck.
An In-N-Out burger is great, but it will never feel like Whataburger. It will never taste like bats exploding from the bridge in Austin, or drinking with friends, late, in Deep Ellum. It will never beat a jalapeño and cheese cheeseburger, sometimes with bacon, with a spicy ketchup tub for the fries.
I grew up in Texas, hosting myself in Los Angeles for a while, and this, what I’ll call “the Whataburger feeling,” has been a constant for as long as I can remember.
Who in the hell can deny the power of the honey butter chicken biscuit? Recently, a genius Reddit user discovered something beautiful: By speaking a few simple words (asking to swap your bun with a biscuit), you can customize your order in a way that lands you a honey butter chicken biscuit at any time of day. Well played, sir. This idea perfectly encapsulates the steady brilliance of our fast-food chain: Whataburger is as laid-back and approachable as Texas’ reputation. They’re even funny, actually funny on Twitter.
Don’t mess with it. In fact, I hope nothing messes with Whataburger. I hope they don’t feel the need to encrust anything with Doritos or replace their buns with oily fried chicken. Those are, as Patton Oswalt might call them, sadness piles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a miserable soul eating Whataburger. It’s always smiles and devouring and giant soda buckets. I don’t ever feel the McDonald’s-window-one regret (which is when you quickly regret that you’re getting McDonald’s between window one and window two) driving through Whataburger. Whataburger is, somehow, more fun.
Where else can you get a little satisfying sticker that indicates you’ve loaded your sandwich up with green chiles? Where else can you substitute something with a honey butter biscuit?
No matter how many Shake Shack burgers melt my brain, or how many In-N-Out double-doubles taste like a slice of California sunshine, Whataburger will always bring me home, with a biscuit on the side.
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