718 East Irving Boulevard, Irving TX 75060 (map); 972-579-7651.
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Fast food the way it used to be - tasty, cheap, unapologetically greasy, and well worth your visit
Want Fries with That? Made from frozen, but are crispy, hot, and ketchup-ready
Price: Hamburger, $1.19; double cheeseburger, $3.89, medium fries, $1.69; onion rings, $2.19; milkshake, $2.59
Notes: Around a dozen locations left from Arizona to Louisiana.
The American landscape is littered with the skeletons and ghosts of dead burger chains. Odds are you've eaten in an old Burger Chef at least once in your life, even if you don't know it. And if you haven't had Mexican seafood in what used to be a Hardee's, you haven't lived. Burger joints are born, burger joints die, and the cycle continues. But sometimes a chain doesn't quite disappear. Instead it lingers on, as if on life support, known only to a lucky few. Griff's Hamburgers is perhaps the perfect example.
Once an extremely popular chain in the southwest United States, Griff's is now down to around a dozen locations scattered around the area from Colorado to Louisiana, with the bulk of the stores centered around "corporate headquarters"—one imagines, the back room of a restaurant—in Dallas, Texas. With no website, much less an advertising budget, Griff's relies on a mixture of word-of-mouth and their somewhat creepy mascot "Griffy" to lure patrons into what are quite often crumbling A-frame restaurants. Once inside, though, one will discover burgers as they used to be: juicy, cheap, filling, rough, fast, basic—and delicious.
Understand this: Griff's isn't going for the ironically old-school, retro look. If something looks like it hasn't changed since the 1970s, that's almost certainly because it hasn't—and if it hasn't, that's almost certainly out of necessity (or neglect) rather than out of historical respect. At most Griff's locations you're experiencing fast food as it once was: Formica, tickets and loudspeakers, Styrofoam—and enough saturated fat to stun a gazelle.
Squeeze past the Ms. Pac Man or Galaga machine, and step up to order. Barring the occasional special, like pepper-cheese tots, the only thing to change in decades is the price list. These have kept track of inflation but little more than that—you can get a classic burger-fries-shake meal here and get significant change for $10.
Patties, crisped nicely on a flat-top, are styled as "Giant" and probably were when they were first hewn in the 1960s. These days they'd be considered positively petite at a quarter pound or less. (Tellingly, the default combo on the menu is for a double.) Small they might be, but these burgers are things of beauty with the right balance of crust and juiciness, even though they're cooked well-done.
Don't mistake the modest size for a healthy option (particularly if, like me, you go all-out Texan and add bacon and jalapeños to the mix). From first bite to last, the juiciness remains. External sear, coupled with grease, does a splendid job at providing the bulk of the flavor on the barely-seasoned patties. Within your lightly toasted, unapologetically industrial bun you'll also find your choice of Texan staples mayo or mustard, surprisingly fresh lettuce, a small scattering of onions, and some completely extraneous tomato. If it's not the burger you grew up with, it's damn close.
The notably crisp french fries may not win any awards, but they do exactly what they're intended to do: provide a nice contrast of flavor and texture against your now-soggy burger and serve as an excellent conduit for the plastic-bottle ketchup.
The milkshakes are perfectly fine. Thick and flavorful with a few ice crystals, they're perhaps the only thing on the menu that could be called expensive at $2.59.
To be frank, Griff's would get along fine without your business. Far from its heyday of being a traveler's favorite, remaining locations are nearly all neighborhood joints, away from the highways, visited only by a loyal band of locals. Regulars come here, order their usual, and step up to take their paper sack before their number is called. The rest of us might feel like we're in some kind of living burger museum. In a sense, we are, but it's one that you'll always leave satisfied. And we'll miss it when it's gone.