All energy flows according to the whims of the Great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy Him."
Hunter Thompson said that, and while the good doctor has said a great many things in his time -- a large portion of which have only the most glancing association with the truth -- I think he was really on to something with this one. Just as he was drawn again and again into the slick and sticky embrace of Las Vegas and its environs on his foul quest to touch the main nerve of the American dream circa 1971, so, too, am I drawn over and over to restaurants that pulse with the old blood of American cuisine. Like some crazed phlebotomist, I see blood everywhere. I sense it here and there, always diluted, often weak. I smell it running just below the smooth veneers and modern fixtures of certain restaurants, hear it thrumming like a bounce-back echo on my internal sonar. And when it's close, I feel it: a connection between the old blood and my own. The irresistible pull of the Great Magnet -- like finding like.
And like an idiot, I followed the drag last week into yet another of Aurora's multi-tiered, densely packed mazes of consumerism run amok and found myself at Fatburger.
Yes, Fatburger has history. It calls itself the Last Great Hamburger Stand, and each new franchise comes with a pedigree that should make it a deadlock for greatness. Founded in L.A. back in 1952, Lovie Yancey's burger joint was a Left Coast mecca for beef and blues. Musicians hung out there. People who followed musicians around hung out there. Fatburger was born and brought up in the heyday of America's love affair with fast cars, quick service and dangerous music, and it put all three together under one big red awning.
Fatburger made burgers and fries and not much else. (It still does.) And odds are it made them well back in the day, because it survived and flourished (with fifty locations now, most still in California) in Ray Kroc's Kingdom of the Hamburger while so many of his bastard offspring died off with barely a footnote in the history books to their credit.
Today in L.A., you're either a Fatburger fan or have sold your loyalty to the competition -- Tommy Burger or In-N-Out. Me? I'm an In-N-Out guy. My wife prefers Tommy's. And I have no doubt that one day this will be listed as the prime motivator on our divorce decree. Like an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant marrying, we've been doomed from the start. It's just a matter of time before one of us puts a bomb in the other one's car.
But for the time being, we can agree on one thing: Fatburger sucks. And this suckiness has nothing to do with the food. On our first (and only) visit to Colorado's first Fatburger franchise, we both ordered burgers with everything. The patty was a decent-sized puck of flat-grilled American prime, tasty enough and mounted on a chewy bun loaded with fresh toppings. The fries came in two varieties -- skinny and fat -- and they were excellent when hot, terrible once they'd cooled even just a little. And everything was wrapped for the road, which was nice -- waxed paper being the traveling burger's best friend. The food wasn't fantastic, but it was fine.
No, what guaranteed that we will never return to Fatburger was everything else: the crowds, the line that snaked from the register halfway to the door, the screeching children, the wreckage of the dining room. Our quick lunch wasn't: For a to-go order, it took 28 minutes from start to finish. Our cheap lunch wasn't, either: Two burgers, two fries and two drinks cost upwards of fifteen bucks. Montel Williams is the major stakeholder in Fatburger's franchise operation, and throwing good money after any product with a talk-show host's name attached -- Oprah books, the Rosie magazine, Phil Donahue boxer shorts, whatever -- just makes me feel dirty. And it drives me absolutely bat-shit crazy the way the orders are called. Every time someone got to the register and asked, please, for a burger and fries, the girl running the show would shout it out -- in a voice like a broken car horn, only less charming -- to the crew in the wide-open kitchen five feet away.
"Two fat burgers!" she'd bellow.
"Two fat burgers..." the crew would call back in unison, sounding like Gregorian monks bored to tears at groaning out the same dirge for the thousandth time.
"Two skinny fries!"
"Two skinny fries..."
I flinched every time I heard it, and it got worse the closer I got to the front of the line. By the time I'd reached the register, I was white-knuckling my wallet, grinding my teeth, praying fervently that I wasn't going to snap, go over the counter like a running back over the dogpile of a goal-line defense and just start strangling people.
The shouting was so pointless, because every order was being keyed into a computer. There were more monitors on the line tracking the wants and needs of the dozens of waiting customers than there are in the missile-defense room at Cheyenne Mountain, and the kitchen's line was the most ridiculously overstaffed thing I've ever seen. It was assembly-line cooking taken to insane extremes, with no fewer than twelve bodies clogging up the works at any time. There were three guys flipping burgers, one just in charge of buns, two -- sometimes three -- spreading mayo and laying on pickles, one whose only job was to put things in bags, another whose sole purpose was moving fries from the fryer to the heat lamp. And then there was someone looking over the shoulders of everyone actually doing a job, ostensibly to make sure they were doing it right ("Larry, the burgers are burning. Larry? Larry! For the love of God, Larry, just flip the goddamn burgers!"), but really just getting in everyone's way.
And in the end -- after thirteen minutes in line waiting to order and another fifteen waiting for the food -- we collected our burgers, our fries and our drinks and got the hell out of there without me murdering anyone. But that speaks more to the calming influence of my dear, sweet wife than to any pleasantness I encountered during my Fatburger experience. Sure, the place scores high on the historical-importance scale, but fifteen dollars and a half-hour of my life for a bag of mediocre burgers and some fries? No, thanks. If any of the blood that once made this burger stand a powerful example of early-American cuisine and a strong contender for the L.A. throne still pumps through its heart, it's gone thin over the years -- like the blood of a royal family into its tenth generation of inbreeding and cousin-lovin'. Give me a Griff's any day. A Caro's Corner. A Max Burgerworks, even (see review, page 49). I'd jump in my car and gladly do a sixteen-hour high-speed drive across mountains and deserts, following the pull of the Great Magnet to the first In-N-Out Burger across the border in Blythe, Baker or Barstow. But for a Fatburger, I wouldn't even drive across town.
Leftovers: The venerable Pearl Street Grill just celebrated twenty years in business at 1477 South Pearl Street. That's about five times as long as chef Jennifer Jasinski lasted at Panzano, the elegant northern Italian restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. Jasinski, a Wolfgang Puck veteran whose cooking has earned raves around the country, will be leaving Panzano at the end of the month in search of a room of her own.
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