This post is a little longer than most, but bear with us: it’s worth it.
We first heard about Travis at an Alloy Thai pop up dinner last year. One of the other diners told us about a truck that shows up at special events. She had found him at a Veterans’ Day Parade once. His burgers and dogs were famed to be the best in Birmingham.
I immediately began to do some research. My usual tactics-a thorough search of Google and all social media sites-revealed one of those auto-generated Facebook pages entitled, “Travis Chicago Style Polish & Bear Burger.” The page has nearly 1300 likes. Pictures of hot dogs and burgers smothered in some kind of amazing-looking sauce taunted me. There were no menu photos, no listing of hours or locations. But clearly, Travis had a loyal following who knew exactly where to find him. So I left a post on the page that read, “I can’t figure out how to find this place!!! Where is it? I’ve heard it’s amazing. Some one help me!!” That was on November 11, 2015.
Turns out that another couple from the Alloy dinner, Marqus and Alyssa, were just as intrigued as we were. They did some additional research, and found out that Travis parks his truck on the weekends at the Bessemer flea market, and on Friday and Saturday nights across from Platinum, a club downtown.
All four of us-Mr Foodie and I, Marqus and Alyssa-made 20 minute drive to the Bessemer flea that very next Saturday at noon. We had never been before. The Bessemer flea is a dizzying array of vendors peddling all kinds of new and used goods. As we walked up and down the aisles, we looked for where someone might park a truck. Finally, we approached a vendor selling a hodgepodge of toys, cell phone cases, and other electronics. “Do you know where we can find a truck called Travis Burger?” She smiled knowingly. “If he were here, you could smell the onions and peppers on the grill, and you would see the line.” She pointed to a parking lot across the way. “He would be over there. He should be here soon.”
Hangriness had set in, and we needed to eat. We found a little alcove in the market that was occupied by none other than Los Dos Hermanos’ taco truck-which (gasp) we had not tried yet. It was fantastic. We left with a belly full of carnitas, but still longed for our Travis Burger.
Months went by. I continued to monitor the auto-generated Facebook page for signs of life. People continued to eat at Travis Burger and post about it, but no one responded to my cry for help. All of this had the effect of making me want a Travis Burger even more. Mr Foodie and I decided that we would wait until we had more definitive information before driving all the way back out to Bessemer. I had a feeling that one day, we would get that information.
Out of the blue, last week, loyal blog fan Kevin sent me an email. He knew about my search for Travis, and he had a tip. “I found out that on Tuesday Wednesday and Friday he parks at the platinum club on 2nd Ave n & 9th Street downtown just west of 65. On Thursdays at lunch it is west of 65 on lakeshore at a big regions bank office by the lake with the walking trail around it.” That was it. I could no longer stand by and wait for more information. I had to act on what I had. This would go down in the books as the Weekend We Found Travis.
Mr Foodie and I decided that we would take every possible opportunity to find Travis. So on Saturday, around noon, we headed to the Bessemer flea. This time we went straight for the parking lot. No Travis. We stood there for a moment, collecting our thoughts. Just then a man walked by. “Excuse me, do you know anything about the Travis Burger truck?” His response was more than we could have hoped for. “I was just talking to Travis’ son! Let me find him for you.” Moments later, we were talking to Damion. A nicer, friendlier guy you could not find. Damion explained that his dad was on his way from a gig on the other side of town. He called his dad and confirmed: he would arrive in an hour or two. And they would also be on 2nd Avenue North around 8th/9th St N starting around 10pm. He warned us there would be a line-a very long one-steadily from opening till 5am.
He also shared a little bit of information about the truck. The truck has been around as long as Damion has-about 40 years. When his parents found out they were expecting him, they moved from Chicago back home to Birmingham and opened up for business. He also told us that they have always operated by word of mouth-they’ve never had any press, and have never even had a Facebook page. Mr Foodie and I exchanged a knowing look…. that bit about not having any press was about to change. Not wanting to blow our anonymity just yet, we didn’t press him for too many more details-but we had heard enough to know that this place has a high likelihood of being extremely blogworthy. Any place that’s been around for 40 years and still consistently generates a line must be doing something right. We assured him we would be eating his dad’s food that weekend. As for lunch, hangriness had once again set in. We went down the road to grab some BBQ.
That night, we kept pre-existing plans to eat at Bamboo on 2nd. But we kept it light-just a roll per person plus a few apps. Later that night, we had a job to do.
We knew we needed to call in some reinforcements. So we texted our foodie friend Carlos. He was in.
At 10pm, we rolled up. No sign of Travis yet. So it was off to the Collins Bar to wait. An hour later, we were back.
After all of that, the truck was surprisingly easy to find. It was on 2nd avenue north just down (and across the street) from Platinum. The cars were literally circling the parking lot in a massive traffic jam. It was clear that they weren’t there for the club-they were there for Travis. Some had parked in the lot across the street where they were enjoying their dinners, fourthmeals, or midnight snacks. The place was lit up like a football stadium. And as promised, there was a line.
As we approached the truck, we saw our new friend in the window:
As we waited (and we only waited about 10 minutes or so-we were early and they were turning out food briskly), we made an observation. Everyone seemed to be getting something that came in a huge foil wrapper and was $13. I decided right then that if what we ordered was good, we would need to return for that item-the Polar Bear Burger.
But we had plenty to keep us busy. When our order was ready, we crossed the street to our car. Mr Foodie pulled up underneath some heavy fluorescent lighting-not usually our favorite for photography but, when compared to pitch darkness, was just perfect. We spread out our smorgasbord of meatiness on the hood of our car:
Everything comes covered in what I later learned is a homemade BBQ sauce, ground beef, onions, peppers, and mustard.
First, the polish sausage. Amazing smoked flavor. Incredibly juicy.
The “debris,” as we began to call it, was the best part. It was a combination of sweet from the sauce, and savory from the meet and peppers/onions. And combined with that fine, fine sausage-perfection. We were eating plain debris with our hands when the sausage was gone. Mr Foodie made a debris sandwich with the end of a bun. It was chaos.
Next up, the Koney. The best all beef frank imaginable. Covered with the same amazing mixture:
And finally, the burger. A juicy beef patty covered in the same mixture and melted American cheese. I could not imagine a better burger. We devoured it.
We agreed unanimously-this place was fantastic. I immediately began lobbying Mr Foodie to return the next day, for a few reasons. First, I needed to learn more of the backstory behind this incredible truck. Second, we needed a Polar Bear. And third, we needed some daylight photos.
It wasn’t a hard sell. The next day, this time around 3pm (the correct time to arrive at the Bessemer flea if you want to find Travis), we were at it again. When we walked into the lot, we spotted Damion immediately. We told him that we liked it so much, we were back for more. He told us that his dad – Travis – was in the truck. Damion walked us over and told his dad that we had tried his food for the first time the night before, and had loved it. It made us feel so good to see that even after all those years of flipping burgers, they still get excited over new (and enthusiastic) customers.
We waited in line with a man who said he’s known Travis since his Chicago days. He lives in Wisconsin, and when he comes to Birmingham, the first thing he does is come to the truck. Another man chatted with us about our experience the night before. He told us that he asks Travis to go light on the sauce to prevent being coated in it-good tip, but that only made me want to get extra sauce. I cannot imagine asking Travis to use any less sauce, regardless of the mess. If I could swim in that sauce, I would.
We ordered a Polar Bear, and a Chicago Bear Burger again (I had to have my own).
Travis insisted on converting our Polar Bear (2 pieces of sausage, 1 burger patty, 2 slices of cheese) to a Grizzly Polar Bear (2 pieces of sausage, TWO burger patties, and FOUR slices of cheese). And of course it’s topped with the delicious debris mixture. This sounded downright terrifying, but I guess that’s the idea. Here’s how it looks when he puts it together:
We took our food to a little picnic table to begin the eating process. Let’s focus on the Grizzly Polar Bear for a moment. Here’s what it looks like in the wrapper. It is roughly the size of a 10-year-old child’s head.
Another patron, who had watched us order, joined us at the picnic table, because, as he said, he wanted to “see how we were going to do this.”
There’s no way to eat it like a sandwich. And cutting it would be no better. So Mr Foodie just stuck his face in that giant delicious pile of stuff and went at it. Moments later I was having a go. It just tasted like everything that’s right in the world, all in one place. I have no better way to describe it than that. There are no words.
And of course, the burger was amazing again:
We ate about 75% of both before packing it back up (we saved the rest for later-can’t let one drop go to waste).
After all of that, we knew we had to tell Damion and his dad how much we enjoyed it. And we also knew we had to take one extra step. As you know, we rarely blow our cover. Most of the places we blog about find out that we were there when I send them the post. But these guys had such spirit. We wanted to know more, and get their permission to share a bit more of their story with our readers. So we did the thing we never do.
As Mr Foodie cleaned up our giant mess, I headed over to Damion. I told him how much we enjoyed the food again. And then I told him, so, we write this blog called What to Eat in Birmingham. We’re a local travel blog focused on food. What happened next is one of my favorite moments in the history of our blog. Most of the places we write about have never heard of us-which is fine. No problem. But Damion, it turns out, is a blog fan. Not just a “loyal blog fan,” but what I call a “superfan.” Damion proceeded to list several places (including some of my personal faves, like Pho 280, Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, and Fancy’s on Fifth) that he tried because of the blog. He even mentioned that he tried the El Guapo burger at Fancy’s (the same one we tried in our post), which he loved. That is some very high (and well-deserved) praise for Fancy’s. So there we stood, me covered in burger sauce, talking about our favorite restaurants in town. The blog had come full circle.
Moments later, Mr Foodie and Travis joined us. I got to learn a few more things. Travis got his start making hot dogs on Maxwell Street in Chicago, famous for its Polish sausages. That’s where he learned the art. When he moved back to Birmingham, he decided to open a Chicago-style hot dog truck. When he went to apply for a city license, they had never had a food truck before-so Birmingham had to call on their colleagues in Georgia for advice. This probably means that Travis and Damion run the very first food truck in town. And it has been in continuous operation ever since. He’s had carts, trucks, and everything in between over the years (Damion pointed out that this is his 10th truck, which he’s had for 10 years). But all have sold essentially the same food. First it was just dogs and sausages – all with Kosher beef, in keeping with Chicago-style. Then when the Chicago Bears had their exceptional 1985 season, the Chicago Bear Burger was born. Before he knew it, he was making his combo burger-dog concoctions.
I asked Travis what he does that makes his food so special. Of course, he can’t give away any major trade secrets, but he did tell me a few things. He used fresh, never frozen beef. He sautées the meat with the peppers and onions. He has his amazing homemade secret sauce. And he’s been doing all of this for 40 years.
But what really makes his food special is summarized perfectly by a story he told me. Damion mentioned that he was working at that event on the other side of town. Travis explained that this neighborhood had experienced a recent surge in crime. They wanted to hold a community meeting, and needed to be sure it was well-attended. So they had Travis park his truck right outside, and everyone got food as they left. Travis’ food, it turns out, is something everyone can agree on.
I never do this but, after all the time we spent together, I really wanted to take a picture of these two guys in front of their truck. Forty years, two generations, and truck #10. These guys and their truck are a true Birmingham original, and a real local treasure. A picture could summarize that sentiment better than words ever could. So here it is:
How to find the truck: The truck travels a lot. They do festivals in New Orleans and Mobile, where they have a strong following, as well as locally. But typically, you can find them on Saturdays and Sunday’s starting at 2pm-ish at the Bessemer flea, and Friday and Saturday nights from 10ish till 5am on 2nd avenue N across from Platinum. And now, just like Kevin said, “west of 65 on lakeshore at a big regions bank office by the lake with the walking trail around it” on Thursdays and Fridays. And this week, they are launching their Facebook page. So like it, and you will learn their whereabouts. Damion and Travis also told me that they are working on a location to park in Avondale (yes please!!), and Damion is working on outfitting a truck of his own.