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[Photographs: Erin Jackson]

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Like the standard cheeseburger, the TJ Torpedo had beautiful striping from the broiler. Check out that char.

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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

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