Tempe, AZ: Get Smoky, Flame-Kissed Burgers at The Chuckbox
202 E University Dr, Tempe, AZ 85281 (map); 480-968-4712; thechuckbox.com
Cooking method: Charbroiled
Short Order: A tasty, no-nonsense, budget-friendly burger topped how you like it (at the condiment bar)
Want Fries With That? Unless you like eating fries strictly as a ketchup delivery system, I'd skip them
Price: The Big One (1/3-pound patty) with cheese, $5.09; Tijuana Torpedo, $5.85; fries, $1.66
After five hours of driving through the desert, slow-cooking under the powerful rays of sunshine that beat through the windows, I was ready for a great hamburger. AHT editor Robyn had steered me towards The Chuckbox, and after about 2.5 seconds of checking out the website, I had a good feeling it was my kind of place. The burgers are charbroiled, prices are more than reasonable, and the cook, Big Juan, clearly has a sense of humor. Sold.
Inside, there are two main focal points: what looks like a 1980s-era salad bar (it's stocked with condiments), and a grill pit stoked by a combination of charcoal and mesquite. Hot, orange flames shoot up through the grill, charring beef patties and bacon, and flavoring them with smoke.
The menu is fairly simple. Get a 1/3- or 1/2-pound patty, single or double, with your choice of cheese for an extra 50¢. There are also burgers with bacon and guacamole, and the Tijuana Torpedo ($5.85), a burger with jalapeño jack inside the beef and a grilled green chili on top. I nabbed one of those, plus a 1/3-pound burger with American cheese ($5.09).
No one asked me how I wanted my burgers cooked, and I didn't insist on anything specific. I was confident that after 40 years on the job, the grillmaster (Big Juan, himself) knew what he was doing.
He really does. The beef is coarsely ground, smashed on the grill, and cooked to medium. The patties are fairly moist, but nowhere near juicy enough to make a mess. The approach here isn't as much about coaxing flavor out of top-quality cuts as it is about the broiler. It imparts a smoky, backyard barbecue flavor into the beef, resulting in a burger that's delicious in its simplicity and (for me, at least) powerfully nostalgic. There's so much smoky flavor that I couldn't even quibble about the beef being cooked past my preferred temperature.
The lightly toasted sesame seed bun provides the perfect bread-to-meat ratio. It's soft and fluffy, and since there's no worry about it being doused with leaky burger juice, it stands up to the patty to the last bite.
My second burger, the Tijuana Torpedo, wasn't exactly as advertised. The jack cheese was on top, not inside, the patty, and the bun was a typical burger bun, not a torpedo. Some preliminary Google images research reveals that the presentation is standard, and in any case, it was delicious. The chili was mild, and gave the burger a nice, earthy flavor. In my rush to jam it in my face as quickly as possible, I skipped adding any additional toppings, to the burger's detriment. As served, it's a good starting point, but it needs some lettuce for crunch and tomato slices for acidity.
Like the standard cheeseburger, the TJ Torpedo had beautiful striping from the broiler. Check out that char.
You can grab an order of fries ($1.66) near the cash register, but I'd skip them unless you feel a burger isn't complete without them, or your primary objective for eating fries is to use them as a ketchup delivery system. There's nothing wrong with the perfectly acceptable spuds, but there's also no compelling reason to bother with them. It's better to go for a double patty instead.
If I lived closer, I'd be a regular... just like if you do, you probably already are. If you're passing through Arizona's Valley of the Sun, this is the place for a great, classic burger with an uncommonly delicious smoky flavor.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax