The Sony PlayStation2 has been packed away, the thrill evaporated just a few days after your eager rugrat's hands tore off the Christmas wrapping paper. That Razor scooter is abandoned on the winter-browned front lawn. And the pile of cherished Krispy Kreme doughnuts lies half-eaten, forgotten and stale on the kitchen counter.
It's an odd end for products that were so sought after that entire Web sites were gridlocked, people went into debt to acquire scalped selections, and news reports chronicled folks so desperate that they called in sick to work just to stand in line at a mall.
The message is obvious: We're ruled by marketing. Nothing motivates us more than the taunt of "This product/lifestyle/food is so good, someone average like you could never actually get one/it/any." We hardly need this stuff. Yet, we feel like we should crave it, lust after it, spend hours of our lives clambering over the bodies of our fallen comrades just so we can say we have it.
And now we're going nuts over a hamburger chain. Nothing more than a patty shack! The latest entrant into Arizona's conspicuous consumption battlefield is In-N-Out Burger, and we've all gone bonkers. When the Valley's first In-N-Out opened November 2 in Scottsdale, it was to lines so long that people waited up to two hours just to place their orders. Management didn't even really want us there, in fact, and didn't announce when the doors would open, supposedly to allow staff to get up to speed as people discovered the place. But no such luck; on the first day of business, the line of customers snaked out into an adjacent parking lot. Police officers were called in to control the situation.
In-N-Out illustrates just how insane the lemmings-who-lunch arena has become. I'm willing to accept that some of Arizona's population -- those raised in, or frequent visitors to, California or Las Vegas -- were suckled on the bosom of In-N-Out's luscious burgers and justly crave them. Most of us here, though, have only heard of the illustrious chain. And still, we gladly give up half a day of our lives staking out the store.
Is a basic burger worth all this fuss? Especially since the Valley has plenty of other fine, family-owned hamburger huts that have served us so faithfully all these years?
The answer, actually, is yes. While you won't convince me that fast food anywhere is worth standing hours in line for, In-N-Out Burger is no fly-by-night fad. Move over McDonald's, there's a delicious new game in town.
The trick to navigating In-N-Out is timing. Forget wrangling food on weekends, unless you really want to compete with swarms of screeching soccer kids. Weekdays, at off-hours, are much more relaxing. 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, for example, finds us enjoying our burgers after a mere 10 minutes. And most of that wait is cook time -- In-N-Out prides itself on making everything fresh to order. There are no microwaves, heat lamps or freezers (except for ice cream, I imagine). French fries come from hand-diced, fresh, whole potatoes. Milk shakes are made from real ice cream, and there are no chemicals or prepackaged products on-site.
Or go late at night -- the place stays open until 1 a.m. on weekdays, and 1:30 a.m. on weekends. Avoid the drive-through altogether. No matter the time of day, the drive-through line snakes around the massive parking lot. And don't bother calling ahead -- In-N-Out doesn't publish its local phone number.
Plus, it's fun to eat inside. A significant part of the burger czar's appeal is its ambiance. The place sure looks good, with spiffy gray tile floors, lots of sunny windows, white Formica tables and bright red seats with swivel bar stools here and there. A mind-boggling number of workers scurry about, dapper in old-fashioned parlor uniforms of crisp red and white.
Like Krispy Kreme's doughnuts, In-N-Out's fare tastes better when it's seconds fresh. Don't get bogged down in choices -- there aren't any. The entire menu consists of a hamburger, cheeseburger, "Double Double" burger, French fries and chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla milk shakes.
The counter server calls my order number, and I jump up to retrieve a red tray -- it carries an open-top white cardboard box stuffed with my Double Double combo. The burger's a two-hander, wrapped in white paper for dripless dining and stuffed with two beef patties and two gooey slices of American cheese.
In-N-Out has its own butchers, with beef delivered fresh daily (meat is so much better when it hasn't suffered freezer burn). The hamburger comes to life when grilled to juicy pink, topped with leaf lettuce, firm tomatoes, raw onion slices and Thousand Island relish sauce. No pickles. No ketchup. No mustard. Just quality beef on a bun baked in the traditional manner of the 1950s, with slow-rising sponge dough.
The combo includes shoestring French fries -- pale and lightly fried in vegetable oil (folks wanting crispier fries can ask). Think a fry is a fry? These will change your mind -- virtually greaseless, airy and dusted with a hint of salt. A medium drink rounds out the meal: Coke products, fresh-squeezed lemonade, brewed iced tea or coffee.
There are never any surprises, just consistent high quality every time we visit. All this for less than five bucks? No wonder this fad has flourished since 1948.
The Original Hamburger Works, 2801 North 15th Avenue, 602-263-8693. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Burger lovers wanting to eat within a reasonable time period and at normal lunch or dinner hours will do well with the Original Hamburger Works. There's plenty of seating at this sprawling cowboy/'50s-theme eatery, and service is quick. Step up to the counter for a Big One (1/3 pound), Great Big One (1/2 pound), or Double Big One (2/3 pound).
The cook will slap your patty on a mesquite broiler, top it with cheese, bacon, green chile, mushrooms or onions. When it's done, he'll call you from your booth beneath a hodgepodge of Signal Gas signs, Coke, Nehi and Orange Crush ads, Howdy Doody posters and flickering traffic lights.
Diners grab their trays and head to the chuck wagon-style condiment bar, loaded with ketchup, jalapeños, sliced onion, sports peppers, pickles, mayonnaise and veggies. A thin coat of ketchup, a top of leaf lettuce and tomato, a few pickles on the side, and my burger suits me fine. The slightly smoky flavor of the meat here is a bonus, but the standard slice of processed American cheese can't compete with In-N-Out's primo dairy selection.
Fries here are medium-thick, skin-on and expertly salted; onion rings are tender, jacketed in a crunchy batter.
The Chuck Box, 202 East University, Tempe, 480-968-4712. Also 7215 East Shea, Scottsdale, 480-998-2327. Hours:Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Walking into the Chuck Box is like déjà vu -- it's obvious that it's a spin-off of the Original Hamburger Works. Sandwiches include the Big Juan (1/3 pound, and named after Chuck Box's "beef engineer") and the Great Big Juan (1/2 pound).
The cooks at this long-standing Valley burger biz follow the same routine as the Original, though here we can see them in action, peering at us from behind the blistering-hot mesquite charcoal broiler.
The cook tops my burger with American cheese, tosses it on a white bun, lightly toasted on the grill as the meat sizzles merrily away. The burgers arrive virtually greaseless and wonderfully juicy, presented on disposable plates atop plastic trays to be dressed as we desire at the Chuck Box's condiment bar. We settle into a wooden booth, take in the rustic, cowboy digs surrounding us, and dig in.
Chicago Hamburger Co., 3749 East Indian School, 602-955-4137. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
"Home of the Windy City Slider," the Chicago Hamburger Company's sign reads, and it's the burger the restaurant does best. Sized at roughly 3 inches by 3 inches, the mini-burgers are topped with chopped, grilled onion, pickle slices, American cheese, ketchup and brown mustard on a soft white bun. Don't let the size fool you -- you'll fill up fast. Not on the thin patty, but bread. The best choice is the double slider, with enough nicely grilled meat to tackle the bun. A couple of these are a bargain at just $1.22 each.
The more traditional burger, a 1/3 pounder, doesn't satisfy as well, unfortunately. It's simply got too much stuff and ends up being a complicated mess. Charbroiled beef is fine, but it's lost under a cacophony of shredded lettuce, spicy mustard, ketchup, grilled onion, what tastes like processed American cheese, and bright green relish. The eggy bun makes this a touch sweeter burger than the classics.
I'd make the trip to Chicago just for its French fries, though. These are magnificent models of potato, piping hot, skinless, generously salted and crisp-edged.
Lucky Boy, 3430 North 16th Street, 602-274-6440. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
People have been coming to Lucky Boy for more than 50 years, looking for nothing fancy, just cheap eats. They find it, set among a retro-style diner concept with black-and-white tile floors, pink and teal tables and not much else. Orders are placed at a glass-block counter -- a 1/4-pound single for me, topped with iceberg lettuce, passable tomato, pickle and raw onion. I've got a choice of sauces -- ranch or Thousand Island dressing or barbecue sauce -- but ketchup and mustard are all I need.
The place has seen better days, and it's difficult to get too excited over just an okay charbroiled sandwich. Fries are terrible today, a victim of old oil, I think. The skinny spuds look fresh-cut, but are acrid. Looks like Lucky's luck may be running out.
Lenny's Burger Shop, 15414 North 19th Avenue, 602-375-2160 (plus other Valley locations). Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Lenny's is another longtime Valley favorite, but I'm afraid the gild is off the lily. The problem here is salt, salt and more salt. The 1/4-pound charcoaled burger is nice enough, served on a sesame seed bun with pickle, yellowish tomato, diced onion and my choice of sauce -- ranch, country, barbecue, ketchup and mustard or teriyaki. The country is weird, like salad dressing powder mixed with mayonnaise, but even its sharp bite wilts under a too-salty patty. French fries, medium-thick and fresh, are completely done in by a blizzard of seasoning salt, too. By the time we leave, we've gulped several cups of pop (long live the self-serve soda machine).
In-N-Out Burger has some close competition for the fast-food-beef dollar, it's true. But management is being careful to keep the business special. While a few more locations are planned for the Valley, reports are we won't be saturated with the 140 locations found across Nevada and California. Restraint is smart. Restraint is profitable. Restraint means In-N-Out probably will be a trendy taste here for a long, long time.