I grew up in the 1970s and in our house Saturday evening was called “burger night”. Dad would set up the Weber kettle grill late in the afternoon, neatly stack a pile of charcoal in the middle and douse it with lighter fluid. After making sure the coals were completely white-hot (“son, you don’t want the food to taste like lighter fluid!”) he would spread the briquettes around the grill in a perfect, evenly-spaced geometric pattern designed for maximum air circulation to achieve consistent heating. That was Dad.
My job was to tightly hold the cookie sheet of raw hamburger patties at a convenient height so Dad could scoop them up and place them on the grill. About ten minutes later I was back on the job as he placed the hot and nicely-seared burgers back on the tray. I held it by the edges because it would get hot in the center beneath the meat (“son, you don’t want to drop our dinner!”).
These were hamburgers, served on white-bread buns (whole-wheat goodness had not yet been invented) and dressed with the usual condiments, pickles, and tomatoes (and onions for Mom). Apparently our family was heavily influenced by the now politically-incorrect “Frito Bandito” TV commercials as we would often have Fritos and bean dip. And Coca-Cola. As far as our family was concerned, Pepsi was the loser in the soda-pop wars.
One night Mom put a stack of individually-wrapped American “cheese food” slices on the tray with the meat. Before taking the burgers off the grill Dad and I unwrapped the cheese slices and placed them carefully on the sizzling patties for about a minute. Dad showed me how to fold and tear the slices into quarters and place two of them carefully on top of the burgers. It was okay if the cheese squares overlapped a little as long as they fit cleanly on top of the burgers. Dad didn’t want the cheese draping over the side because it created a caramelized mess on the grill.
One awesome bite and My Life Changed Forever. I became totally hooked on cheeseburgers, my all-time favorite food.
Three and a half decades later I stood at the window in my room on the twentieth floor of the Aria hotel and casino, gazing at one of the most incredible sights one could see in Las Vegas:
A spectacular, glorious neon sign for In-N-Out Burger.
I had flown to Vegas three days earlier to spend the weekend with a long-time friend from California, our annual buddy trip. He had to be in Bakersfield for an event Monday morning and left early Sunday afternoon for the long drive home. My flight was the next morning so I had the rest of the day to myself. I purchased a ticket to see the Frank Caliendo comedy show later that night but I had several hours to kill in the meantime. And the In-N-Out Burger sign had me thinking…
I was familiar with In-N-Out from living in California many years earlier, and their “Double-Double” easily makes the top five on my list of favorite cheeseburgers. It only took a couple of seconds to decide I was going to In-N-Out for lunch. The question was whether I was going to walk in the desert heat or take a taxi. I could see the sign but not much of the actual restaurant as it was located on the other side of Highway 15, a half-mile or so west of the Strip. My short-term goal was cheeseburgers so I decided it would be a healthy decision to walk, even in triple-digit July heat.
I stepped out of the hotel lobby into the City Center plaza and made my way down to the Strip. I turned right and walked south to New York New York, then turned west and followed the sidewalk toward the highway. I was drenched with sweat but determined to continue my quest.
The sidewalk curved around and followed a service side road, but it was headed in the right direction so I kept walking. Soon I came to a “T” and had to choose left or right to find a highway underpass. I saw three people walking about a hundred yards ahead of me and they chose right so I did too, hoping they knew the way. I wondered if they might also be headed for In-N-Out.
Right turned out to be wrong and I met the two guys and girl as they doubled back from a dead end. They said hello and confirmed that they too were headed for burgers. We all turned back and the trio pulled away from me with a quicker pace. I took my time to fully enjoy the brutal heat. As I came back to New York New York I saw the group of three get in the taxi line just outside the casino entrance. I was soaked and miserable so I went inside the casino, toweled off in the men’s room and walked around in the air conditioning for ten minutes or so. I purchased and chugged a bottle of water, then got in line for a taxi.
The driver laughed and asked me to confirm that I really did want a ride to In-N-Out Burger which was less than a half-mile away. As we drove west on Tropicana I saw that the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street would have provided perfect access to cross the highway and get to In-N-Out. I stuck this valuable bit of knowledge in my mental “cheeseburger” file for future reference.
The taxi pulled in to the parking lot and stopped. A dozen taxis were ahead, slowly snaking around the restaurant, dropping people off near the door (the famous “In”) and then picking up satisfied customers on the other side of the building (“Out”). It was the “N” that was tough: ordering and eating the food. The line of people waiting to place an order extended out the door and around the back of the restaurant. I paid the driver and joined the line.
About twenty-five minutes later I made it to the order counter. The restaurant was completely jammed with every table occupied. Some couples were actually trying to eat while standing, one person holding the tray of food and drink so the other could eat with both hands holding the burger.
The friendly employee grinned and said something like “you’re not from around here, are you?” as he looked at my sweat-soaked shirt. He told me that this particular In-N-Out was the busiest restaurant of the entire chain and the locals mostly avoided coming to that location.
I placed my order: Two double-doubles and the largest drink they had. After my long, hot journey there was no way I was going to be satisfied with only a single double-cheeseburger.
After a few minutes they called my number and I picked up my tray. There was still no place to sit so I went outside and looked around. There were several combination bench-tables on the patio next to the parking lot and a couple were empty. I soon found out why.
I sat down and immediately stood right back up, buns toasted from the hot concrete seat. I took the stack of napkins from my tray and sat on them carefully. It helped. A little. Finally, I was ready to eat.
Sweating like a glass of Coca-Cola in the summer sun, I took a bite and it was fantastically delicious, even better than I thought it would be. I looked across the patio and saw the folks I had met on the sidewalk, sitting at another table and enjoying their burgers. They waved, and I raised my drink cup and gave them a nod and a smile. All three raised their cups as well in a salute to pure cheeseburger joy. It felt like we just finished filming a television commercial for In-N-Out Burger.
Careful to avoid dripping sweat onto my food I savored every bite and was sad when it was over. I smiled at the couple who came to take my table as I got up to toss the trash. I hailed one of the “Out” taxis and the ride back to Aria took only a few minutes. I was very happy that I was not walking back.
I estimated the total cost of the two cheeseburgers was close to $50 when I included the two taxi rides. The experience was worth every penny. After accepting the Call, completing the arduous Journey, battling against the deadly Heat, and successfully completing my Quest, enjoying those two Double-Doubles that hot afternoon in Las Vegas is still one of my greatest and most glorious gastronomical achievements.