Shiprock burger stand provides time machine back to the 1950s

James Fenton
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK — On the south side of U.S. Highway 64, bookended by towering cottonwood trees just east of downtown Shiprock, is a slice of history — a roadside burger stand painted white with red trim like a tiny fairy-tale cottage.

In the roughly 65 years it has been open, the Chat and Chew restaurant has survived as the world has changed around it.

Inside, aside from the prices on the hand-painted menus, not much has changed. A jukebox that played 45s through a speaker hanging outside was replaced by a candy vending machine. The eatery's popular burger triumvirate — the buddy, the jumbo and junior — are still there, along with intriguing culinary oddities, such as steak fingers and chicken planks.

Entering through a red curved-top door, there is little room for anything but ordering and paying — it's cash-only and there are no restrooms. Then customers walk back outside to sit at a picnic table while cook Phyllis Deschine — wedged between the front counter and a blazing hot griddle cooled by multiple fans humming in the background while a country song crackles from a small boom box in a corner — whips together orders in five minutes or less.

The walls slant outward and the creaky floor slopes to the west at a considerable enough angle to lend the pentagon-shaped building the feel of a house cut loose at sea.

"You get used to it," said Deschine, 58, who has run the kitchen during breakfast and lunch hours for more than 12 years. "Plus, you get busy, people coming in a lot to get their orders."

On Wednesday, Robert Birgam Jr. and his wife, Nancy Phillips Birgam, stopped by the eatery on a lark while driving from their home in Payson, Ariz., to visit relatives in Cortez, Colo., and ordered a pair of green chile cheeseburgers. The married couple, now retired, remember the Shiprock greasy spoon fondly.

As teenagers attending Shiprock High School in the 1950s — an easier time when thick copses of cottonwood trees formed a canopy over Highway 64 — they said they often walked to the burger joint. The only two other businesses there at the time — The Doghouse, which sold tacos, and Chief Drive-In — also were popular meeting places for area teens.

"All the kids, we either went into the drive-in theater or The Doghouse or Chat and Chew. All us kids walked to Chat and Chew. Mainly here, it's always been the same," said Nancy Birgam. "We'd go for the burgers — and, wow, they're still here, the same ones. Only the prices have changed. Back in the '50s and '60s you were probably looking at less than a dollar for a burger with fries and a Coke."

The Birgams dated in high school, but went their separate ways in 1963 and ended up reuniting 29 years later.

They point out to Helen Begay, after she takes their order, that the sign with the little boy and girl that used to be on the front of the building is missing.

"People say that a lot, mostly elderly people who grew up near here, 'Where's that little boy?'" Begay told them. "The owners are talking about bringing the sign back, make a new one."

For the Birgams, paying a visit to their childhood burger stand was more an experience of time travel than gastronomy.

"I'm 67 now, and our coming here way back in the '50s — you're talking 57 years ago. And it's still here. It just amazes us. Every time we pass through, we say, 'Oh, let's stop,' so this time we did," Nancy Birgam said. "Back in the '50s, we had to eat what our parents put in front of us, which was very little. They could only afford so much. So when we became teenagers and we could work here and there and save, it was a little treat. French fries and a hamburger and a milkshake — it was, like, wow."

More than a half century ago, the restaurant belonged to a select few places where kids could go in Shiprock, located on the easternmost edge of the Navajo Nation.

"It was food we didn't get at home. That was the treat," Robert Birgam said. "All the businesses were only on this main drag. That was it. The four-lane was only a two-lane highway then, and those cottonwood trees were over the road. It just made me so mad when they cut them down. It looked like a tunnel. It always shaded the road. It was beautiful."

The couple both agreed that the quirky eatery with their favorite burger would likely outlast them, but said they would return again to see if it was still there.

"It's a memory of coming through, and looking and saying, 'Oh my God, the Chat and Chew is still standing,'" Nancy Birgam said.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.