The flavors of Gulfton’s immigrant neighborhoods are celebrated daily at its restaurants where diners sample gorditas from Mexico, injera from Ethiopia, pupusas from El Salvador and croquetas from Cuba.
But at Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack, 5230 Westpark Dr., diners can also enjoy a hamburger from the Republic of Texas.
And at Bubba’s, the specialty is the real thing: a burger made by familiy members who have been crafting them with their own homemade seasonings and sauces for almost 40 years at the same location.
Adding to the mystique of Bubba’s is its location directly under a freeway overpass – part of the I-69 Southwest/I-610 West interchange. The burger shack, with its outdoor patio and picnic tables, has the homey, compact look of a doublewide trailer — because it once was a doublewide trailer.
Other notes of authenticity greet longtime customers and newbies alike at Bubba’s. A playlist ambles from Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker to Lyle Lovett and Gary Clark Jr. Houston history is memorialized on the walls through photographs of early street scenes along with snapshots of family members and famous customers like Hall of Fame Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich Jr. A buffalo skull donated by Bubba’s South Dakota meat supplier also hangs on the wall.
While the ambience is engaging, it’s the Bubba burger along with other homemade specialties: Mom’s chili and jalapeno potato salad, ‘Es Bueno’ spices, and trademark zesty pickles, all of which have had customers forming lines at Bubba’s front counter for decades.
The burgers are offered in six varieties with the choice of jack cheese and avocados, grilled onions and jalapenos, bacon and barbecue sauce or a fried egg added.
Original owner Bubba Gilliam first opened the trailer as a key shop on Westheimer Road, then moved it to the burger shack location in 1985. It quickly morphed from an ice house with drop-in beer sales into a full-fledged burger shack.
Richard Reed, a Marathon Oil geologist at the time and one of Gilliam’s regular lunch customers, bought the business in 1990, a few years before he was forced to take a retirement package.
After early hiring experiences with a head chef who had an alcohol and cocaine problem and a manager who didn’t work out, Reed took on Bubba’s full-time.
It has been a Reed family affair ever since.
Reed’s daughters, Erin Fisher and Allison Boyd, and their business partner Matt McCracken now operate the shack with the help of their offspring.
Erin, a University of Houston graduate, was 10 when her father bought the business.
“I kind of grew up here,” she said. “I wouldn’t cook the food but I would clean up and wipe down tables. I started legally working here when I was 15.”
Staffing the front counter over the hectic lunch hour, Erin, 42, has the cheerful manner and quick laugh of someone who likes people. But she also has the steely-eyed look of someone at the helm of a ship with a lot of moving parts.
Her son Jackson, 15, and daughter, Madison, 17, who is headed to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville N.Y. in the fall, have worked summers at the burger shack. Erin’s sister Allison, a graduate of Texas State University, also has employed her son, Owen,16. Her daughter, Abigail, 12, has indicated she wants to join the family work tradition.
Business partner Matt McCracken, a UH grad in hotel management, has been with Bubba’s for 10 years. “He is pretty much like our brother,” Erin said.
For a slightly higher price, the Bubba’s burger comes made with prime South Dakota bison. With a ranch in Bandera, Texas, and a fondness for wild game, the original owner put the bison burger on the menu from day one.
Reed and his daughters have kept it there ever since.
“We get it from South Dakota and it is expensive,” Fisher said. “We have tried different places — Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma – but the best is from South Dakota. I think it is the magic grass that they eat up there.”
Fisher said Bubba’s has a loyal following from Gulfton and the surrounding area, starting close by with the employee lunch crowd from the big Micro Center, Walmart and Sam’s Club at the mall complex across the road and drawing others from far-flung neighborhoods.
But there have been challenges along the way, Fisher said. With its location under the overpass, Bubba’s has had to deal constantly with interruptions from freeway and tollway construction.
In recent years its loyal customers and delivery truck drivers have had to be persistent just to find a way to get there.
“When they were building the tollway, that was the worst,” Fisher said. “There was a six-month period when they had Westpark closed. We almost went out of business at that point.”
She recalled that there were two “road closed” signs on one end of Westpark, so customers had to make a left turn to get to Bubba’s. At the other end was a deputy constable making sure people were not trying to cut through the construction zone.
‘’We had loyal customers who could find us,” Fisher said.
So, Bubba’s has survived through COVID and marches ahead through continuous road construction.
Welcome additions to the Bubba’s menu of late are french fries and onion rings. Fisher admits these items normally are a given at any burger shack. But “I used to have people leave because we didn’t have french fries,” she said.
The reason for the previous absences from the menu is that the trailer structure could not handle a ventilation system required for a fryer without a major remodeling.
But Bubba’s waited long enough for technology to catch up and recently acquired an advanced fryer with a ventilation system built into the equipment.
Among Bubba’s loyal customers these days is Fisher’s dad, 81, who lives in Bellaire, enjoys gardening and has been known to drop by to get a burger. And now he can add french fries and onion rings.
— By Phil Shook