Saturday, December 29, 2007

American Dairy Bars

If you grew up in the 1960's or before, you remember that fast food was predominantly represented, at least in the south, by the dairy bar. Almost always a small, squat building with windows and counters on three sides and a parking lot all the way around. Usually the parking lot was paved with the little tar and asbestos tabs from roofing shingles and millions of bottle caps. Festoons of bare white light bulbs hung from the light pole in front around different parts of the parking lot and a board with the bill of fare painted on it leaned up under the front counter. There were several layers of paint over the prices where the cost of a burger was changed from .20 to .25 to...

They served hamburgers, foot-long hot dogs with wonderful homemade chili-cheese-and-slaw, french-fries deep fried in lard and hand battered onion rings (as if there were any other kind.) Soft serve ice cream and dipped cones called "brown derbies" with a hard chocolate coating, and sundaes filled out the dessert menu. And you always knew a good one because the lot would be full of cars with paper milk-shake cups on the dash board and kids pelting each other with french fries in the back seat. Most people just threw the wrappers and scraps out the window into the parking lot before wheeling their station wagons back onto the highway. And the owners had no shortage of teenage kids working there who were glad to pick up the trash before returning to the fry grill.

But the iconic dairy bar began to disappear as the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world became more interested in small towns. And now they are about as common as drive-in theaters. I always get excited when I see a dairy bar. I don't know why, because for the last twenty years the few I have found have been such an abysmal disappointment that you would think I'd give up. But the dairy bar to me is the holy grail of fast-food cuisine. And the quest continues.

For years there were only two left in the central Arkansas area that had anything to recommend them: The Spot, and Andy's Dairy Freeze which were oddly enough located only blocks from each other on MacArthur Drive in North Little Rock. The Spot had incredible foot-long hot dogs and onion rings at one time but went out of business about five or ten years ago. Andy's plodded along, the quality diminishing as ready made patties from Sam's became the norm at such places. And we pretty much took them off the list.

Today, seeing that it had become nearly three o'clock and we hadn't had lunch yet, we decided to grab a quick hold-me-over on the way home, and being in the neighborhood we pulled in to Andy's. Well, Mojo's actually. The name changed, but a quick look at the menu board told us that they still stuck to the traditional dairy bar fare and hadn't succumbed to the lure of nachos and the other ball-park concession crap that is being passed off to unsuspecting travelers these days.

I gave them the true test and ordered a hamburger, a chocolate malt and french fries. Blessed Mojo, Saint of all dairy-bars, this was great! There were two young women working inside and I'm sure that neither of them was old enough to remember true dairy-bar fare, but obviously someone was around that knew and trained them. And trained them well. This was the best hamburger I have had in many years. And for less than two dollars it beat the pants off of any of the fancy-pants burgers that I have had at Gadwalls or the Box. The meat was a very thin patty, so you probably should get the double burger for just a little more. The bun was finished on the grill and smashed flat with the spatula until it was crisp and golden toasted with the savory hamburger goodness that should never be wasted. Slathered with copious amounts of mustard, large slices of onions and piles of dill pickle slices, this burger was as near to perfection as you can get. And the malt was an honest to goodness old fashioned malty chocolate. The fries were so-so but not bad. Hey, for less than six bucks I'm ecstatic.

Lots of outdoor seating looks appealing for warmer weather.

I may even go back there for supper.

3801 MacArthur Drive, North Little Rock, Arkansas -- (501)753-4445


At 11:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot banana splits.

At 12:55 PM , Blogger Circa Bellum said...

never was much of a banana split man. Gimme a root beer float any day...

At 5:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

my point is that the dairy bar is where one went to get one

At 10:25 AM , Blogger JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Sounds like a great thing to do in the summertime. I guess DairyQueen is "the new" dairy bar. There are still some left in the more rural parts of the world!

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