Got a whole Lot-A-Love
Lot-A-Burger’s double cheeseburger with onions fried in
Tulsa is a burger town, with roughly 10 places to snag the sandwich per square mile.1 When it comes to burger best-ofs, Tulsa loves possessive proper nouns, with places like Bill’s, Ron’s, and Claud’s topping lists.
There is, however, a secret cabal who worship a curious local chain. I know this sect well, because I too am a member of the Lot-A-Cult.
I was initiated into the Lot-A-Brood several years ago by Stuart Hetherwood, a man eternally on the prowl for the perfect gut-bomb. We’d debated burgers for lunch when he threw out Lot-A-Burger as the best in town.
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Dawg,” he responded.
We went to the 11th Street Lot-A (1516 E. 11th St.), which immediately stood out for its ancient promo photos, red-brick interior, and faux gaslight chandeliers. I snagged a double cheeseburger with bacon and jalapenos. It came with a shot glass’ worth of grease, and the best flavor I’d ever had in a burg.
“Dawg,” was correct.
There are six Lot-A-Burgers in Tulsa and three in Bartlesville, and their sole commonality is the excellence of their namesake. Tulsa’s Lot-As are dine-in, walk-up, or drive-through, and come in varying states of disrepair or rebirth.
Lot-A-Natics all have a shack they claim is the best. The week of my conversion, I raved about Lot-A to a coworker, and she asked which one I frequented. When I said 11th street, she looked down her nose at me through her bifocals and said, “Charles Page. Go there. That one on 11th tastes different.”
Indeed, no two Lot-As are created equal.
The Charles Page Lot-A (2807 Charles Page Blvd.) is a walk-up-and-take-a-number-style shack in an industrial zone good for catching tetanus or ditching bodies. The only aesthetic tying it to Tulsa’s other Lot-As is the faded blue-and-red logo on their weathered billboard. The windows of the joint are devoid of corporate marketing, aside from a plethora of papers pasted on like ransom notes. Upon them are threatening phrases like “polish dog” and “cream cheese or cheddar breaded fried mushrooms.”
The burger, a double cheeseburger with onions “fried in” (a Lot-A-Specialty), was perfection. The meat, cheese, onions, mustard, and bread formed a holy quintinity of flavor—each ingredient a consubstantial part of the divine burger whole. For something less blasphemous, think tres leches in burger form.
I asked the girl at the counter what relation they had to the other Tulsa Lot-As.
“Nothing,” she said.
Current owner of the Charles Page Lot-A, Johnny Qualls, humbly confirmed this on the phone.
“We get a lot of people from out of state [who] used to live here and come visit,” Qualls said. “They even come just to eat at this one ... ‘cause, from what I gather, we’re the best one. And I don’t really like to blow my ego up that much, but that’s just what I hear.”
Leo Waller started Lot-A-Burger in 1951, and was later joined by his son-in-law Johnny Akers. The Akers family opened the additional Bartlesville stores and bought all of the Tulsa stores—except the Charles Page location—in 1994.
In 2003, Waller sold the Charles Page store to Graciela Qualls, Johnny Qualls’s mother and a longtime Lot-A worker who Waller knew “would run it the way it was supposed to be ran,” according to Qualls.
Graciela, who recently died, turned the location over to her son.
Qualls’s Lot-A is the only independently owned location and is the oldest standing Lot-A in town. This independence allowed them to build an exotic menu, replete with catfish dinners and corn nuggets. But he said they buy their beef from the same place as the other guys, and stay true to the original recipes.
After his claim to being the best, I knew what I had to do: case every Lot-A-Joint across town.
The one just west of the river (928 W. 23rd St.) is a fresh, white-sided structure, which recently reopened. Upon my initiation, when Hetherwood pointed out the other Lot-As, he told me this one shut down “because they kept it too real.”
When I drove by I saw “kept it too real” meant “burned to the ground.”
This Lot-A is a walk-up like Charles Page, with a decrepit drive-through box in an adjacent lot. I ordered a double cheeseburger with onions fried in (which I do at every Lot-A) and was given a number, which I quickly forgot. It looked like I was the only person there. The clerk shouted, “Number 32,” but as I approached, a secret patron snagged the brown bag and retreated back into the Lot-A-Shadows.
Farther south in West Tulsa (4407 S. 33rd W. Ave.) is a shotgun style, mobile Lot-A. A red shack sits out back, and is painted with a cartoon burger and Lot-A’s motto, “A Square Meal on a Round Bun.” I grabbed my double and started my car to head home. But, first, I took a bite while it was still fresh. I threw the car in park and finished the whole thing right there.
There are two Lot-As on Mingo, and the one south of the B.A. (4555 S. Mingo Rd.) is the wackiest in town. The interior polka-dotted wallpaper is adorned with seemingly random film posters, including “Hairspray,” “Without a Paddle,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Wolf Creek,” because nothing says “excellent hamburger” like a one-panel ad for torture porn.
I nearly threw my burger all over myself when a patron blasted their car horn in the drive-through. After I ate, I drove around the corner and saw the sign: “Please honk for service.”
Because Hetherwood originally welcomed me to the fold, I asked him to accompany me to the Lot-A on North Mingo (1208 N. Mingo Rd.), where the bright white building sits between Batman’s and the Turtle Church, just south of Pine Street. It could easily be mistaken for a bait shop. We each ordered the standard “DBL DBL OF,” as it is written on the greasy brown bags.
As we ate our burgs, the conversation became limited to a certain four-letter word, the way Bunk and McNulty analyze crime scenes on “The Wire.”
On our way out, the lady at the counter gave me contact info for the owner’s daughter, Judy Gray, who handles media.
“Dial 1 for the lawyer, and 2 for Judy,” she said.
“If her business card doesn’t say ‘Attorney at Lot-A-Burger,’ it’s a goddamn crime,” Hetherwood said.
I left a voicemail for Gray, and another one several days later, with no luck. I’d hoped to ask her about the different structures and why Lot-A-Burger’s marketing photos hadn’t changed since the early ‘90s. They’re even cruder than Braum’s vaporwave ads.
Qualls told me he has no plans, or need, to advertise the Charles Page Lot-A-Burger.
“It’s a very nostalgic item, believe it or not,” Qualls said. “People hear the name and just know where it’s at, so there’s no need for marketing.”
He plans to use any extra revenue to gussy up the Charles Page shack and add patio seating so people don’t have to eat in their cars.
Five days after my original call to Judy Gray, I was poking around a different Lot-A and an employee offered me Gray’s personal number. When I called Gray I received a cold response.
“Hey Judy, this is Mitch,” I said.
“I left you a couple voicemails at your office number, but a worker gave me this one, and …”
“Oh really?” she said. “Well then who was that?”2
I didn’t tell her.
“I’m doing payroll now, and had to work a store this afternoon, so I can’t talk,” she said.
“That’s fine, I’m just a big fan and would like to schedule time to talk,” I said.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I never spoke to her again.
Like Qualls, Gray seems confident in the cult nature of her product—it doesn’t need advertising, or reporters.
Ultimately, the quality of a Lot-A-Double boils down to which employee is making it—so it may seem unfair to compare the shacks. However, Tulsa needs the truth, and the Voice is gonna give it to you. Here are Tulsa’s Lot-A-Burgers, ranked:
1. 1208 N Mingo Rd. | Hamburger Holiness
2. 2807 Charles Page Blvd. | Double Cheese Divinity
3. 4407 S. 33rd W. Ave. | Burger Bliss
4. 1516 E. 11th St. | Crunchy Bun
5. 928 W. 23rd St. | Soggy Bun
6. 4555 S. Mingo Rd. | Grease Bomb
1) This is a conservative, though entirely dubious, estimate.
2) This is as good a place as any to point out that Walt and Jesse often scarf Blake’s Lotaburger in “Breaking Bad.” Blake’s is an unaffiliated chain, and the franchises are sworn not to build within a certain distance of each other. Still, this phone call gave me Los Pollos Hermanos vibes.
For more from Mitch, read his article on The GO Plan, which is making Tulsa more bike friendly.