Lucky Boy Drive-In
640 South Arroyo Parkway Pasadena, CA 91105 (map); 626-793-0120
Cooking Method: Char-broiled
Short Order: An old school greasy spoon delivers on the grease
Want Fries with That? No, no, no. Please, no
Prices: 1/4-pound hamburger, $2.90; 1/4-pound double cheeseburger, $4.65
Notes: Open daily 6 a.m. - 2 a.m.
The breakfast burritos are legendary giants
As I write this I sit on a plane that will fly me across this vast and stormy nation and drop me into the arms of my childhood home and family. It's the holiday season and that means mellifluous sounds of Christmas carols and familial recriminations. I can almost taste my favorite meals and see the disappointment in my parents' gaze that make me feel at home.
Okay, it's not that bad. The truth is my family is so deeply loving and supportive of me and this extended adolescence I pass off as adulthood that it barely feels real sometimes. The problem is I've lived thousands of miles from them for a dozen years. This makes it easy to forget the primitive pleasure of being embraced by my parents or my sisters. Stepping back into the rhythms of my youth and hometown is, for me, a joy I can count on this time of year. To be fair, I grew up in New York City, so going home doesn't suck suburban eggs for me the way it does for many of my friends. I've got Mom, Pop, my sisters and Shake Shack waiting on the other end of my plane ride.
Before I get all that holiday cheer for myself, I thought I'd share a little with you. I am recently back from a visit to a vaunted greasy spoon called Lucky Boy Drive-In. You can find it in Pasadena, California, which is, by all rights, a city unto itself that sits just a bit north and east of Downtown LA. That said, anyone you ever meet who grew up there will claim to be from Los Angeles like the the way people from Westchester say they're from New York. I'll let the Los Angeles version slide since in car culture like ours, it seems less egregious. Pasadena is an easy ride from Los Angeles proper; the New York version is another story.
For me, going for a burger in Pasadena has always only meant one thing: Pie 'N Burger. It's a classic American diner with a truly great hamburger, but since you read AHT you already know that. As much as I'd like to add to Mr. Solares' love letter to Pie 'N Burger, it seems a dereliction of my duty not to offer up a new burger. Where to go? I'd heard tell of a spot in Pasadena that sounded worth a look. So I looked. And I ate.
Trying To Get Lucky
Driving up to Lucky Boy, you get a pretty good sense of what you are in for. The sign stands thirty or so feet in the air and says, "Luck Boy Char-Broiled 1/4 Hamburger." (Guess what I'll be ordering.) The structure itself is another giveaway. A small dining room with a large outdoor seating area that is typical of the Southern California Drive-In restaurants. These places serve burgers and fries, but have added a few standards over the years. Mexican dishes and pastrami sandwiches are now common accompaniments to the burgers and fries.
I walk up to the register after taking a quick peek to confirm my suspicions. Yup—burgers and burritos abound. When I gave the cashier my order, I was glad to have a definitive answer. A moment's hesitation leads to a mild scolding. Hamburger, double cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and a Coke. I throw down the cash (it's all they'll take) and get my receipt with my number.
I spy the short order cooks who work at a frenzied pace. I'm particularly pleased to see the flames fly above the grill when the meat is flipped. The preformed patties don't instill confidence, but I've enjoyed them before. It's off to a booth to play the waiting game. Tick, tock. Okay, the waiting game is boring—I'll cut to the burgers.
The Gift Of Burgers
They arrive wrapped in paper and sitting in a cardboard box. There are two layers of paper: a yellow, waxy paper (which I have come to love during my years of burgering in Los Angeles) and a bag printed with the phrase: "Everybody knows Lucky Boy and Loves It!" I know it, but I'm not rushing into anything. Then it hits me: The burgers are wrapped...in paper. Wrapping paper! Gifts! It just could be my holiday spirit, but I'm feeling like somebody's been nice this year.
I de-bag the fries and onion rings into the cardboard box. These are two huge portions. I can barely believe how much there is of both. While it's a lot of food, it's not very attractive. The frying seems to have soaked rather than crisped, but perhaps I'm unduly critical. I have a fry. Then another. Hmm, oddly plain. Then it's the onion ring. Then another and another. I can barely believe how little flavor these have. Don't believe that hooey about anything tasting good fried—these are truly terrible. They've had their chance in the spotlight. Next.
I unwrap the quarter-pound hamburger and it greets me with a big, tomato-toothed smile. It's a beautiful specimen: The bun is fluffy and seedless and the tomato is thick-sliced and screaming red. The lettuce and onion take their places alongside a "special" sauce (think peppery Thousand Island).
The first bite is mostly bun and veg. I keep going to get to the meat, but it never steps up. The bun and condiments aren't a revelation, but are certainly playing their part in this little Christmas pageant in my mouth. The meat is doing little more than adding some chewy texture. This is the kind of experience that makes people say silly things like, "Veggie burgers taste just like regular burgers." (No they don't and I'd appreciate your not saying that again.)
This whole ordeal is beginning to remind me of a Christmas morning during which it would become clear that I had to work on my communication skills. "A stuffed animal? Really?" Would Lucky Boy deliver any joy to me? (Let alone the world and newborn king.) The double cheeseburger waited for me like largest present under the tree. It's the biggest so it must be the best, right? I have at it. Paper goes flying, burger goes in.
Immediately, the experience changes. The cheese adds a much needed shot of fat and texture. And, hello meat—I'm finally tasting that char-broiling of which they spoke. Mind you, my preference is a griddle, but the Lucky Boy grill really adds a nice smoky flavor that cuts right through the rest of the sandwich. Before I know it, I've downed the whole thing.
I make my way back to my car and assess the whole experience. Yes, the final double cheeseburger saved the day, but in the end I can't really give much of a recommendation for Lucky Boy. I can't imagine driving out of my way for it again, especially with Pie 'N Burger just down the road. I'm just kind of left flat. This doesn't give me enough holiday cheer. I know—I'll go look at some Christmas trees.
Christmas Tree Lane
Before heading home I drove up to Altadena, the town directly north of Pasadena. At the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue and Alameda Street you find the plaque that commemorates the wacky tradition of hanging flammable objects on dry, dead trees. It seems Altadena's founding family, The Woodburys, chose to plant 135 Deodor Cedar trees up and down Santa Rosa Avenue in 1885. Time and a favorable climate have turned these trees lined up alongside the road into a natural spectacle. On this misty afternoon they are breathtaking. Putting Christmas lights on them feels a little bit like gilding the lily.
As dusk gives way to night, the trees glow with endless strings of industrial Christmas lights and "Christmas Tree Lane" sparkles to life. Cars full of spectators fill the street that was all but empty just an hour before. Things are getting a bit dicey with the crowds so I finish up my gawking. I take one last ride up this mile long stretch of lights hanging from these natural wonders. I think back to what they looked like in the daytime when the lights were off. I'm not so sure there could be anything more beautiful than their unadorned branches.
I think through the burgers settling in my belly. Life offers us disappointments in at least equal measure to our joys. It's our outlooks that can tilt things in our favor. Certainly the holiday season is a bathed in consumerism and artifice, but it needn't be seen only that way. What it can offer is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the beauty that is always around us—the way decorating a tree gets us to look at a tree.
My plane shudders to life beneath me. Soon I'll be flying home for the holiday. It is the holiday that motivated this journey, but the trappings of Christmas aren't what I anticipate. Awaiting me on the other end is a family that wants to love me and be loved back. I am the lucky boy.