By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Few combinations of smells are as evocative as the scent of hamburgers sputtering on a hot grill intermingled with aromas of liniment and cologne. To that salubrious bouquet add the racket of a milkshake mixer and of fizzy soda spritzing into chocolate syrup at the bottom of a tall tulip glass. We love drugstore lunch counters not only for their sensory mise-en-scène and skinny grilled cheese sandwiches with potato chips and pickle slices, but also because they are so sociable. People walk in to get medicine and knickknacks, to have a meal or a snack, to read the paper, and to kibitz. Such places were once common in small towns and city neighborhoods, but because they are an inefficient use of retail space, most have disappeared. Driving through Texas from San Antonio to Houston, we paid visits to three of the still-standing greats.
North of the Alamo, in San Antonio, at the corner of McCullough and Hildebrand, milkshakes were first mixed and prescriptions compounded in 1934; the Olmos Pharmacy has worn nice and smooth since then. The pattern has been rubbed off the Formica on the tables and counter by countless plates and elbows, and the unchanging lunch menu is built around hamburgers so thin that degree of doneness is not an issue. What we like best are the soda-fountain drinks, mixed by professionals who have the ability to carry on multiple conversations with customers in both English and Spanish at the same time. From the green-upholstered swivel chairs you have a view—and smell—of lemons being squeezed for lemonade. Because only a minimal amount of simple syrup is used, if you like yours sweet, request a scoop of sherbet on top. As for malts and milkshakes, when you order one you will be asked if you want whipped cream, which means the glass into which the drink is poured will be presented with a big swirl of whipped cream at the bottom. However it comes, it is ridiculously thick, so dense that when Jane takes the can to pour out a second glassful (the first was doled out by the waitress), a pint of the semisolid liquid falls out, filling the glass and piling up all around it on the counter. “You are not the first to do that,” the waitress reassures her, scooping away the overload with a thick towel. Having lost track of her spoon, Jane eats the remainder with a fork. Straws are useless, and drinking from the glass risks another major malt flood.
Texas food fans know Route 183 as an essential detour off I-10 between San Antonio and Houston into the town of Lockhart, which is to Lone Star barbecue what Kansas City is to fried chicken: source of the best. Of Lockhart’s world-class smoke pits, which include Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market, and Black’s Barbecue, only Black’s offers meaningful dessert (hot cobbler), so we recommend travelers save their sweet tooth for a half-hour drive northeast to Bastrop and Lock Drug. In this 1905-vintage drugstore, which still displays its remedies in exquisite carved-wood fixtures, the marble counter up front is strictly for soda-fountain fare; there are no sandwiches or hot foods. The menu warns that “malts and shakes cannot be made with ice cream that has nuts, as it will break our machine,” but that’s fine with us, because we’re ordering a magnificent black-and-white soda (topped with crunchy fresh-chopped peanuts) and an item we’ve seen nowhere else, a frosted Coke. The latter is built just like a milkshake, with an ice cream of your choice (smooth, please) and flavored syrup, but it is blended with Coca-Cola instead of milk. The result isn’t as thick as a regular shake, but it is rich and effervescent and candyland sweet—essence of soda fountain.
One morning at Houston’s Avalon Drug Company & Diner, as members of the ad hoc breakfast club start to spin around on their stools, we get into a conversation with Don Compton, a seven-days-a-week regular who tells us that in his profession as jury consultant, this is the best possible place to be. “Here, people say what they really think,” he explains. “If you’re curious about what’s on people’s minds, sit at this counter a few days and there is nothing you will not know.”
Although it borders the deluxe neighborhood of River Oaks, and extravagantly manicured, big-haired ladies come to lunch, the Avalon is categorically plebeian. A single inconspicuous door near the kitchen leads from the pharmacy to a dining area where the lunchtime din is like a party. The lunch counter dates back to 1938, and although this new location is in a modern strip of stores around the corner from the original, the inside looks ancient, especially the booths upholstered in out-of-date white-piped green leather. While there is a full menu that includes the likes of smothered pork chops, chicken-fried steak, mustard greens, and candied yams (as well as the Dixie favorite, pimento cheese sandwiches), the Avalon is known for consummate lunch-counter hamburgers. They are just thick enough that a hint of pink remains in the center, and their crusty outsides glisten with oil from the griddle. The configuration is deluxe, meaning fully dressed with tomato, lettuce, pickle, onion, mustard, and mayonnaise; the bun has been grilled to a crisp in butter on the inside but is ineffably soft where you grab it. Possible companions include French fries, chili fries, chili cheese fries, wet fries (topped with brown or cream gravy), and onion rings.
It is when ordering a cup of chili to accompany a hamburger and fries that we get acquainted with Debra Young. “Cheese and onions?” she asks.
“On the fries?” we wonder stupidly. It’s been a long day in the car and we are not paying close attention.
“What are you, crazy?” Young laughs with glee and corrects us loudly enough for everyone around to hear. “On the chili, of course.” This is real Texas chili all right, made from coarse-ground beef, slightly hot, and without a bean in sight.
Young knows every customer in the dining room, and she duels with them all. Recognizing a very old guy who apparently hasn’t been in for years, she sets down his menu, looks him square in the eye, and asks, “Are you still a nice man, or have you gone mean?” The man cracks up, thrilled to be remembered. As Young leaves him she passes our booth and sees that the chili is only half eaten. “Now what’s wrong?” she demands.
“Did you hear me complaining?” Michael parries back.
“I’m ready if you try.”
Then, noticing a warning on the menu that pie is available only while it lasts and also observing that many customers have their pie delivered with their lunch, Michael asks in a slightly desperate voice if there is any cherry pie remaining.
“Man, don’t you even think about that pie thing,” Young instructs him. “I’m worried about your chili. You, worrying about pie.” Thirty seconds later, merrily exasperated, she delivers a piece of the precious cherry pie to the table.
When we are about to leave, Don Compton addresses us from a table where he has taken a seat with some friends who came for lunch. “Congratulations, you two!” he says. When he sees the puzzled look on our faces, he explains why we deserve kudos. “Debra. You did good! She did not have you for lunch.”
Lock Drug (permanently closed)
1003 Main Street
Olmos Pharmacy (permanently closed)
San Antonio, TX