Oldies Done Goodies

Shari's And Pat's Are A Gas, With Good Food And Grand Nostalgia.

By Rebecca Cook

IT'S A SURE sign of advancing years when you begin to indulge in nostalgia. It's particularly noteworthy when you long for an era that chronologically speaking, you essentially missed the first time around.

But when daylight hours stretch tellingly into the sultry dog days of summer, I'm reminded of those evenings when my mother simply couldn't bear to turn on the oven in our non-air conditioned house in order to cook supper. Instead, she waited patiently for my father to come home from work so she could convince him to shed the shirt and tie, load the whole family into our Freon-free '58 Ford, and head down to the local drive-in diner for hamburgers, shakes and cones.

Chow An American institution, the drive-in restaurant epitomizes our ongoing love affair with our cars, an affinity so pronounced that we even devised a way to eat on wheels. In the 1950s, the drive-in became the place of shared experience. First dates, Little League victories, adolescent hijinx and frosted mugs of foamy root beer swirl in the collective consciousness of untold millions. It was fast food for sure; but in the days before those arches and corny Colonels came to town, it was fast food with character--individually distinct, fresh, and irresistibly quaint.

In the franchise frenzy of more recent decades, the majority of these mom-and-pop joints have disappeared. But Tucson is fortunate to have at least two blasts from the past still operating in all their glory. Want to take a little romp down memory lane, to a time when cholesterol levels and fat content were the preoccupation of but an out-voiced few? Then stop by Pat's and Shari's drive-ins for a delicious time-travel experience.

Pat's Drive-In has been a Tucson institution for nearly 40 years, beginning first as a small spot downtown and later moving to its present location on North Grande Avenue, near St. Mary's Road. A favorite neighborhood hangout as well as a popular place for office types and ambulance crews to grab a quick bite on the run, Pat's has gathered a loyal following with its homemade chili con carne and fresh-cut French fries.

Current owner Carlos "Charlie" Hernandez began working at Pat's in the mid '60s, while still a student at Tucson High School. In 1979, Pat's original owner, Henry Patterson, offered the business to Hernandez, who has carefully tended the esteemed chili dog tradition ever since. Prices have inevitably risen over the years, but even taking inflation into account, Pat's continues to be one of the best meal deals in town. Family specials with hamburgers, chili dogs and mountains of fries can be had for about $7, and should handily put a dent in the appetites of a clan of four.

Burgers with or without cheese, double or single patties, are also affordable options, as are fried shrimp or chicken. If you've got a five-spot in your back pocket, you can dine extravagantly at Pat's. Of course, the chili's the thing here, a phenomenon about which whole books could be written. Mild or spicy, Pat's chili is the real deal--no commercial cans used here. Each batch is whipped up from scratch using whole pinto beans, ground beef, onions, garlic and a subtle infusion of various herbs and spices. If you're sampling the spicy rendition of this house specialty, expect to find some finely chopped jalapeños adding fire to the mixture. So good is this chili, that it transforms the most mundane of weenies and spongy buns into culinary works of art. Topped with a handful of freshly diced onions and grated cheese, Pat's chili dogs ascend to the ranks of plebeian haute cuisine. There isn't any fresh-brewed root beer to enjoy at Pat's, but the pink lemonade makes a congenial substitute and a fitting complement to the various chili dogs and hamburgers.

Also legendary are Pat's French fries, scrubbed, peeled, sliced and cooked on the spot to impart a full potato flavor to each and every snippet. Just to ensure that there are no illusions about what you're putting into your body, Pat's packs your food into brown paper to-go bags, which unwittingly disclose the rather greasy nature of their content. Most people will relish the guilty pleasure of periodically dining on this kind of fare, but for the exceptionally squeamish it might be advisable to eat on the premises, either in your vehicle or at one of a few picnic tables set up outside.

Not far up the road from Pat's, another retro dining experience awaits in the guise of Shari's First Avenue Drive-In. More than a few generations of Tucson residents have come of age under Shari's exemplary hamburger and milkshake tutelage. Once again, the hallmarks of Shari's include using all fresh ingredients, nothing that's frozen (other than the real ice-cream) and fast, friendly service. On the surface, these attributes may not seem like such a big deal; but for those of us who've spent way too much time in the drive-thrus of several chain restaurants, these niceties are not to be overlooked or under-appreciated.

Shari's hamburgers are worth the drive across town: thick, juicy, 100-percent pure, ground beef patties, grilled over an open flame until thoroughly cooked, and then slapped across a sesame bun and topped with fresh lettuce, tomato, onion and dill pickle. These burgers come closest to the kind you make at home, the advantage to Shari's being that someone else had to fire up the grill and clean up the mess. Various sizes are available, ranging from the typical single patty to a triple cheeseburger.

Even the hot dogs, which appear at first glance to be rather ho-hum, are elevated to a more interesting state by the fact that the frank has been searingly grilled prior to being placed in the bun. A small detail perhaps, but one that yields tremendous benefits in terms of taste and interest.

For those seeking a change of pace from the usual burger/dog scheme, Shari's offers chicken and country-fried steak sandwiches, which aren't going to rescue your arteries, but offer tasty alternatives nevertheless.

Shari's further distinguishes itself with an awesome array of milkshake flavors, all of which are made to order with real ice-cream. It isn't until you sample the creamy goodness of one of Shari's milkshakes that you fully realize that the chain varieties you've been settling for possess a grainy, artificial quality. Not only is the flavor of Shari's milkshakes vastly superior, so are the choices, which range far beyond the typical trio of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to include cherry, butterscotch, coffee, pineapple, coconut, peanut butter and blueberry. No wonder they say variety is the spice of life. Prices at Shari's might stray a bit higher than the chains, but what you lose in total cost, you more than make up for in overall quality. Simply put, Shari's is better. Pay up or endure the mediocre consequences.

Time to get in your car, roll down the windows, turn up the radio and cruise over to Shari's First Avenue or Pat's Drive-In. Whether you're seeking simple nostalgic gratification or a good, honest meal that's a value for your money, both of these places should suit your needs perfectly.

Pat's Drive-In. 1202 W. Niagra St. 624-0891. Open 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Cash only. Menu items: $1.50-$24.95 (for a gallon of chili).

Shari's First Avenue Drive-In. 2650 N. First Ave. 623-5385. Open 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. No alcohol. Cash only. Menu items: $2.49-$5.75.

Chow Scan is The Weekly's selective guide to Tucson restaurants. Send comments and updates to Chow, P.O. Box 2429, Tucson, AZ 85702; or use our e-mail address, tucsonweekly@tucsonweekly.com. These listings have no connection with Weekly advertisers. TW

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