Burger Bastions

A Couple Of UA-Area Joints Offer Big, Juicy Values.

By Rebecca Cook

WITH CLASSES AT the University of Arizona back in session and Wildcat football lurking right around the corner, it seemed a good time to revisit two of Tucson's best-loved collegiate hangouts for burgers, brewskies and unlimited sports viewing.

Both establishments have been around long enough to initiate several freshman classes on the fine art of dining away from home, and both excel in the same culinary classic: the hamburger. Within walking distance of the UA campus, these two restaurants not only succeed in attracting a large number of college students, they also manage to draw several customers with no present collegiate affiliation. When civilians willingly venture into terra universitas, you know you're in the presence of something wonderful.

Chow Bob Dobbs, located at Sixth Street and Tucson Boulevard, is an insider's paradise. With no sign or markings on the building to indicate what's within, Bob Dobbs is a place for people in the know. Apparently, word of mouth is sufficient--there are seldom many empty tables in the house (one exception is the period following the main lunch crowd and the start of Happy Hour at 3 p.m., when the crowd dwindles to a handful of souls huddled at the bar).

If someone did happen to stumble onto Dobbs, it's doubtful they'd be enticed to enter based on what they saw when they stuck their head through the door. The walls are plastered with graffiti, the kind usually glimpsed on the sides of bathroom stalls. The wooden tables have long since seen their finish eroded and are now etched and inscribed with countless testimonies to the multitudes who pulled up a chair years before you arrive. A few sports pennants and photographs hang here and there around the room, but if there's any kind of design scheme going on here, it's a cinch it hasn't appeared in Architectural Digest.

Yet for those who wander in and settle down for a spell, the rewards are manifold. Nowhere in town will you find greater conviviality, more accommodating service or better burgers. It's true that Dobbs offers more than burgers on its menu--several sandwiches, soups, salads, ribs, an outstanding Texas chili dog and daily dinner specials--but for sheer gut-wrenching delight there's nothing that beats a Bob Burger.

According to the American Dictionary of Food and Drink, Americans consume three hamburgers per week per person, totaling 38 billion burgers annually. No doubt Dobbs regulars do more than their fair share to maintain this sum, due in large part to the undeniably savory appeal of ground beef mixed with a variety of condiments and spices, which constitutes the eatery's most popular item.

The Bob Burger consists of two patties mixed with soy sauce, Worcestershire and loads of garlic, grilled to your preference and affinity for high-risk dining (recent e-coli scares have prompted many diners to demand the total absence of pink from their meat) and topped with melted cheddar cheese. Tomato, onion, lettuce, pickles, ketchup and mustard may be added, and the whole enjoyed between a sesame seed bun. Hamburgers have long been considered standard road food, but Dobbs' burgers, with their slightly irregular shapes and infused flavors, evoke more vividly the image of the backyard barbecue with all your friends gathered round and an icy cold beer at your fingertips.

There's no question that a Bob Burger will have you breathing aromatically the rest of the day. So if you prefer a burger without the spices, the Connie--a single hamburger patty topped with melted cheddar and thrown between a bun--makes a suitable substitute. One-hundred-percent good quality ground beef makes a world of difference.

A choice of side dishes is offered, with French fries the hands-down favorite. Of medium width and with potato skins intact, these fries have both taste and substance.

UP THE ROAD and around the corner from Dobbs is the Big A Restaurant, another impressive burger bastion of higher learning.

The Big A, in business some 30 years, has been broiling burgers since before some of you were even born. Even more amazing is that although the years have seen a change in ownership and location, the Big A is essentially the same as it's always been, an icon of tradition and stability amidst a community of explosive growth and dizzying transformation.

During my undergraduate tenure at the UA, I was a frequent guest at the Big A, where I eventually settled on a favorite meal of a burger topped with crumbled blue cheese and fresh tomato, served between slices of hearty rye bread and accompanied by fresh fruit. I invariably followed this main course with a generous slice of brownie pie à la mode, a fudgy delight unparalleled in its excess. To this day, I can bring back the singular pleasure of that repast, the tastes, the textures and the rah-rah collegiate ambience. It was great.

It had been 13 years since I'd eaten at the Big A. Since my last visit, the restaurant had picked up stakes and moved, and new owners had taken over. Even if it was still good, I told myself, it would be very different.

Wrong. The same wooden board listing a mouthwatering variety of burgers still hangs behind the counter, where patrons place their orders and then retreat to a booth or table until called by name to return and collect their personally prepared and broiled--never grilled or fried--burger. And, right there, at the Number Seven slot, was my standby favorite, right where I'd left it all those years ago. Although the restaurant space is proportioned somewhat differently than the old location, the decor remains the same: Familiar banners from a host of colleges around the country, and yes, a designated coach's corner. The only obviously new additions were some framed newspapers with bold headlines proclaiming the UA's 1997 NCAA men's basketball championship. Nice touch. There was only one thing missing. "Brownie pie?" I hopefully inquired of the girl behind the counter.

"Whipped cream or vanilla ice-cream with that?" she asked. I could have cried.

The food tasted just as I remembered. I've racked my brain trying to think of one other place in this town that has stayed stubbornly, steadfastly, gloriously the same for the last 13 years, and I've not come up with another. The Big A is one-of-a-kind in every respect.

Of course, the proprietors don't live in a bubble, and it's now possible to dine on something other than a hamburger-- they also offer a chicken breast or cod sandwich. Something else I don't recall are the French fries topped with sour cream and fresh chopped chives, an appetizer sure to stave off hunger if not heart disease.

Although they were unfortunately out the night we stopped by, the onion rings at Big A are reputed to be some of the best in town--thin, crispy and sweetly delicious. You can bet I'll be checking those out on my next visit, which I can assure you will be sooner than another 13 years.

If you've been getting your burgers from fast-food chains, it's time to treat yourself to the real thing. There's no tastier way to hold up your end of the per capita hamburger quota than eating heartily at Bob Dobbs or the Big A.

Bob Dobbs Bar & Grill. 2501 E. Sixth St. 325-3767. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $3.95-$11.95.

The Big A Restaurant. 2033 E. Speedway Blvd. 326-1818. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. Beer and wine. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $3.95-$7.95. TW

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