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Memories on the menu

The two-fisted Texas Whataburger is back, with many more stores planned for the bay area. Fans will remember the past fondly and enjoy today, too.

Published March 10, 2005

[Times photos: Lance A. Rothstein]
A double cheeseburger, fries and a soft drink from Whataburger at 4205 U.S. 19 in New Port Richey.

The New Port Richey Whataburger is one of two built recently in Pasco County.

Even after an absence of 30 years, the devout will recognize the pure white and unsubtle orange plumage on its sharply pitched roof: Whataburger is back in this part of Florida.

Ah, yes, America's pioneer quarter-pounder, a two-fisted Texas burger, lives to spill over its 5-inch bun. The new restaurants' roofs aren't as sharp as the Whataburger A-frame that once stopped traffic on Southern roadscapes. Yet the flying W waves anew as this old hamburger stand comes back to life.

The first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1950. Founder Harmon Dobson could have been a contender were it not for Ray Kroc and the Big Boys. But his Whataburger may still be in the fight.

The Florida Panhandle was Whataburger's first expansion area more than 40 years ago. A new expansion push has produced almost 650 stores, including three so far in Pasco and North Pinellas counties. The franchisee envisions more than 50 Whataburgers around Tampa Bay in the next seven years, and 75 more from Orlando to Jacksonville.

Whataburger fans will find the basics are the same as always: burgers too big to get your mouth around, finger-snapping fries and thick shakes. There was one other aspect that may have won Whataburger a permanent place in teenage hearts and social schedules: It was one of the first to be open 24 hours. And it still is, with breakfast from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., and the classic Whataburger any time.

In an era when monster burgers come perilously close to full 1-pound size, a single 4-ounce patty isn't as intimidating as it once was. To accommodate bigger appetites, there's now a triple decker - a Whata-Whata-Whataburger - and, of course, bacon and cheese for the fat-deprived. Better choices are two old Texas standbys, barbecue sauce and jalapenos.

Sadly, there's also chicken, or at least the trimmed, boneless white meat tenders, strips or fingers that are the standard fast-food approximation of chicken. Whatachick'n improves the name but little more. I'd love to see a Texas outfit ride to our rescue with chicken-fried steak or chicken-fried chicken.

Whataburger's breakfast includes biscuits and tortillas. The first are the right stuff and up to homemade Southern standards, fresh, buttery and with a slight tang of salt, better than what passes through most drive-throughs. I tried mine with sausage gravy, but the gravy was pasty and sausage pelletized, as if they came from a commissary or a can. In a taquito, the flour tortilla was mild, the eggs fresh and moist, and the bacon crisp and recently off the grill.

Indeed, the strength of Whataburger is that the food tastes as if it has been cooked just for you, even though the kitchens gleam with stainless steel and computer screens. When you eat in, you wait at your table, not the counter, and a Whataserver brings your food with good cheer (I encountered only one employee of dismal spirit and speed).

Even if you have no allegiance to the brand, that small personal touch is enough today to inspire nostalgia. (You have to be fairly old to remember the days before hamburgers were wrapped in paper, when short order cooks made them to order as you watched.)

Whataburger plays it pretty simple, and even soft-pedals the nostalgia. Advertising posters stress the mid century history, but the interior of Whataburger is bare-bones '70s booths, with no cute Happy Days paraphernalia.

But you will get a real burger, and if you're lucky the sound system will sweeten it with a little Jimmie Rodgers.


4205 U.S. 19, New Port Richey, (727) 848-7776; 35691 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor, (727) 789-1221; 7809 Gall Blvd., Zephyrhills, (813) 715-0023; and 28 other locations in Florida, 600 in the United States and Mexico

Hours: Open 24 hours

Details: No smoking; no alcoholic beverages; credit cards accepted

Prices: $2.29 to $5.98

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 09:40:04]

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