Losing the Realest Burger in New Orleans

By Jordan Hirsch


New Orleans, Louisiana

Ask any New Orleanian about Bud’s Broiler, a local chain of hamburger restaurants, and chances are they’ll give you the number of their usual order — No. 1 through No. 11 — and tell a story about going there back in the day.

Because it was good and cheap, with locations all over town, Bud’s has been part of every New Orleans childhood since desegregation. It became a civic institution even though there was nothing inherently New Orleans about the place — the titular Bud came from Texas and served straight-ahead burgers and hot dogs. (Po-boys appeared on some menus decades later, but I’m not convinced they could have been produced if they’d been ordered, which they weren’t.) Bud’s earned its New Orleans bona fides by being itself for so long while the world turned around it. After 62 years, its sudden departure from the city in December 2018 was staggering.

Bud’s wasn’t failed by government or gentrified away, the usual laments of changing times since Hurricane Katrina. The last location in town, an old triangular building between a shopping strip and a cemetery, closed amid a legal battle between its franchisee and the parent company Bud’s Broiler Holdings. Unassuming to the end, there was no campaign to save it or mock jazz funeral to mark its passing — just a For Lease sign on the door and, for me and many others, a feeling of personal loss.

Everyone felt like Bud’s was theirs: By tradition, customers carved their names into the stained wood picnic tables that filled every restaurant. As a kid, I read the tabletops while munching crushed ice at family dinners at the Bud’s on Elysian Fields Avenue. When I was 12, we moved near the one on Calhoun Street, which became a pit stop on walks home from middle school. The décor was like the Elysian Fields location, in that there wasn’t any. Instead of a jukebox, it had an arcade game (for years it was Golden Tee) and, behind some saloon doors, a video poker nook.

By high school, I’d locked in my order — two No. 2s with onions. A No. 2 was a burger with their signature hickory sauce, matter-of-factly called “sauce” on the menu board hanging over the counter. (A No. 4 was a burger with sauce and cheese; I puzzled over why they weren’t numbered sequentially but at some point accepted the mystery.) Depending on my appetite, I’d add an order of cheese fries with a ladle of sauce poured on top. It was sepia-toned, like everything else: the tan paper cups with the longhorn logo, the brown plastic trays your order came out on.

On trips home from college, Bud’s on Calhoun offered a reliable dose of the familiar. There were kids in private-school uniforms and workmen in Dickies waiting to hear their numbers called. There was a ballgame eternally on the wall-mounted TV — the remote control, often on one of the picnic tables, added to the feeling you were in a friend’s living room. It was unfailingly serene. When I settled back in New Orleans in my 20s, I’d go there with expatriate friends when they came home for the holidays. Bud’s in late December was as fundamental as Thanksgiving turkey.

Calhoun Street flooded when the levees failed in 2005, but Bud’s reopened six months later when most of the surrounding neighborhood was still empty and stinking of mold. On my first post-Katrina visit, I asked the owner, Jason Qader, about a guy who worked the register. I never knew his name but always recognized his high, nasal voice when I called in orders.

“You mean Squeaky?” Qader asked. He wound up in Houston and never made it back.

A few years later, I met a guy with an old-school New Orleans accent named Billy who told me his dream was to have a Bud’s. He was putting his savings into reopening the old triangular building on City Park Avenue, shuttered since the flood. I thanked him for the investment. The city could never return to what it was before the storm, but getting the flagship Bud’s back would bring it closer. Some time after it reopened, I got in a cab and Billy was behind the wheel. He didn’t remember me but talked about Bud’s anyway, how his wife got it in the divorce, how hard it was to let it go.

In 2011, I got a job writing for the HBO show “Treme,” which made a point of highlighting New Orleans restaurants. By then, the attention lavished on local specialties after the storm had made Bud’s even more precious: It was a capsule of New Orleans before Katrina, when no one was watching. When a “Treme” producer asked me for a dish to reference in a particular scene, I thought of Bud’s, then hesitated, not wanting to exploit it. But Bud’s wasn’t in danger of being swarmed by foodies or culture seekers. It was incorruptible. So, in the third season of “Treme,” episode 3, when a character stinks up a van, he blames it on two No. 2s with onions.

Not long after that, my parents left the city. My dad had Parkinson’s disease with dementia, and they moved north to manage his care. As movers emptied successive rooms of their house, I walked my dad into the next one and tried to keep him out of the way. We wound up in wicker chairs on the front porch, where my mom sat with him while I picked up lunch for us from Bud’s on Calhoun. While we ate, one of the movers told me how good my No. 2s looked and said he was going to Bud’s when he finished loading the truck. Somehow, this was consoling.

The weekend after Thanksgiving in 2017, with little more than a day’s notice, the Calhoun Street location shut down. It was still going strong after 40 years, but Qader was retiring, and that was that. On its last day, it was full of people who seemed, like me, slightly dazed. I took home a pristine paper cup with the Longhorn logo and set it on my desk as a penholder.

Last spring, my dad died, and in the fall my brother came to town for a memorial event. It was his first time back in years and getting to Bud’s was his highest priority. We passed the site of the one on Elysian Fields on our way to the memorial, but it’d been gone since the flood. The only sauce in town was on City Park Avenue. New Orleans being down to one Bud’s felt dicey, but I found hope in a video recorded by the security cameras there. It showed two employees beating down a would-be armed robber and chasing him away. Surely, right-minded New Orleanians would band together to protect the place. My brother, my mom, and I made it there after scattering some of my dad’s ashes. We were wrecked, and it seemed to be, too, with plastic forks and stray French fries on the floor. But the sauce was the sauce, sweet and smoky. It wasn’t until a couple of months later, when it closed, that I realized we should’ve carved our initials in the table.

Now the remaining Bud’s are in the suburbs and beyond, across the river and the lake — not out of reach, but maybe too far to serve their purpose for me. My last visit to a Bud’s across the parish line was in Metairie on the day after Donald Trump’s election. I stepped into the silence between the all-white diners and the all-black staff and felt a long way from home. Last year, for the first time in decades, Christmas and New Year’s came and went with no No. 2s.

Then, in January, the rapper Curren$y took over the building on City Park Avenue. When he was just Shante Franklin, I sat next to him in the middle school by the Bud’s on Calhoun. He’d since founded his own record label and brand called Jet Life, about moving onward and upward. He got bigger than New Orleans, but still went to Bud’s for No. 4s like he had growing up. Recently he had a son and decided owning a burger spot in the old triangular building would mean more to him than another Rolls-Royce. He’s making it a place of his own called Life Burger. For Bud’s, I’ll have to hit the highway.

In the meantime, I can look for solace at home. After the flood, Qader hung paintings in the Bud’s on Calhoun, including a generic pastoral scene of fall foliage and a shack with smoke rising from its chimney. Upon inspection, it wasn’t a painting, but an image printed on canvas to look like one. On top of the print, in red paint, someone had brushed “Bud’s Broiler” on the shack. It was an inspired stroke, willing your own Bud’s into existence, immortalizing it. Some years ago I made Qader an offer for it, and he gave it to me off the wall. I hung it in my kitchen, which smelled like sauce for days afterward.