Of Burgers and Lobster

Notes on Shari's, El Con offerings and feasts in Baja

What hasn't happened since last we communed? In no particular order:

As fans will know, the venerable Shari's First Avenue Drive-In, between Grant Road and Glenn Street, has changed ownership, but I am reliably informed that all continues apace. This spring, about six weeks before the switch took place, I hired myself out to work a day there. Well, "hire" too strongly suggests something professional--I was offered pay at the end of my shift, but couldn't consider it.

I am deeply thankful that the sale of the place was already being contemplated, because I was a disaster. My fries were too soggy, the milkshake/malt mixer an insoluble puzzlement, my cash-register skills nonexistent, and the low-hanging menu board a constant knock on the head. And my writing was too small for the real cook to decipher. For those of you charged for a chicken sandwich when you ordered the nuggets: Thanks for your forbearance. The whole experience refreshed my appreciation for the folks who do this work day in and day out.

Having a backup job talent in this changing market is always a good idea, and one of my very first jobs was in the same location (when it was June's) in the mid-'60s. I haven't lost my taste for the burgers, just my touch. Need to find a more appropriate fallback position.

Speaking of burgers, the significant Andrew and I got off the pot and decided to give In-N-Out on Broadway Boulevard a try the other day. I've been feeling guilty about passing it up to this point--the local media coverage of its opening suggested it was one of the key community events of the new century. I think, actually, it was given more coverage in the Arizona Daily Star than the Tucson Regional Town Hall meeting a few weeks ago.

In any case, we decided to give it a try on a late weekend afternoon. I mean, it's been two months since it opened. Still a line of cars, but we parked and walked in--to a line of people out the door, an abuzz crowd and enough stimuli in black and white to give me a small fit. We gave up after about 55 seconds, finding refuge in the Lake Tahoe splendor of Claim Jumper, across the way. Yes, my editor, service is good there, and the burgers scrumptious (including the Boca, Andrew reminds me to say), but we still took home about a pound of fries and half an Angus steer.

Not that you should think this man lives by burger alone. The past two weeks have taken me to the world o' lobsters in Maine (for my goddaughter Karli's Colby graduation) and Baja extravaganzas (for the nuptials of my friends Noah and Chava).

I'm not a big lobster fan, but I did some fact-finding sampling from Boston to Boothbay, Waterville to Bar Harbor. (We had no lobster in Baja, thank you.) A basically uninformed observation: Lobsters now seem gargantuan in size and bland in flavor, but perhaps I am seeing that through the filter of a recent, endless Vanity Fair piece on sushi and fish markets. In any case, my fave meal in the Northeast was a set dinner in Freeport, Maine (home of L.L. Bean and so very much more), at the Azure Café, owned and run by an expatriate Floridian, Jonas P. Werner. In addition to being warm and funny, he has put together a great staff and kitchen. My dinner that night included a salad of baby greens, caramelized pistachios, Bermuda onions, gorgonzola cheese and a grilled strawberry balsamic vinaigrette, and a perfectly grilled filet in sea salt with fresh tomatoes and roasted garlic-infused potatoes. The Lacrima di Morro was an amazing red.

In Baja, to be honest, I didn't want to move very far from my room and hammock at Esperanza. But the feast(s) put on for the festivities were a fine reason for leaving such a sanctuary. The grilled dorado and tomato coulis I ate the first night while watching the full moon above the Sea of Cortez was amazing, and they were quick to remedy charging me double for a half-bottle of sauvignon blanc. My fave meal was on the beach the night before the wedding--an expansive buffet of incredible salads, fish, lamb, chicken, beef and desserts, all straight out of Diana Kennedy. The lamb, particularly, cubed and simmered in chiles, garlic and a bit of tomato, was exceptional. Chava and Noah have promised me that we will do all of the major milestone anniversaries back there--which made it easier to leave.

Back home the second night, the air conditioner imploded and had to be replaced, all of which made me think about economy and simple food. I leave you with this garlic soup, which Andrew and I made Sunday night after a day of videos, laundry and conversation.

Garlic Soup

  • 3 cups dried bread, broken in 1-inch pieces (i used leftover garlic/rosemary bread)
  • 8 dried pasilla chiles (experiment with others--this is what i had on hand)
  • 14 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 12 cups chicken stock
  • 2 1/2 pounds chicken breast
Boil dried chiles until soft. Cool, split open and discard seeds. Chop chiles. Reserve. Heat oil and lightly toast garlic. Add bread and brown. Add stock. Add reserved chiles. Simmer for an hour. Slice chicken into strips; salt and pepper, and brown in oil. Place on rack and broil. Remove from oven; cut into small cubes and add to soup. Let simmer another half-hour until mixture thickens. Good with a chilled Pacifico, crisp pinto grigio, or a bold riojo.