Friday, May 27, 2011

The Debate Rages On

Today is the Friday before Memorial Day, a day that traditionally marks the kickoff to summer. There are rumors that the weather might even begin to cooperate. Maybe. Something that coincides with summertime is the drive-in and in Kenosha that means Big Star and The Spot. We are fortunate to have not one, but two ‘50s style burger drive-ins to choose from and everyone seems to have their favorites. 

This was evidenced in a blog poll that I conducted recently, with Big Star garnering one more vote than The Spot. The small margin of victory tells me that the debate rages on. Which is Kenosha’s favorite drive-in?

First of all let’s make it clear that there is a definite difference between a drive-in and a fast food restaurant. There are fast food joints all over America. In fact they are all over the world. You would be hard pressed to go anywhere and not find a McDonalds, Burger King or KFC. But go to those same places and try to find a Big Star or The Spot. It’s just not going to happen.

Fast food is fast food, no matter where you are. A Whopper is a Whopper and a Big Mac is a Big Mac, whether you are in Kenosha, Wisconsin or London, England. But a Big Star double-cheeseburger is unique to our fair city, as are those at the Spot. 

We are fortunate to have two one-of-a-kind drive-in restaurants to choose from. But which do you prefer?

Having a rough time making up your mind? It used to be a lot tougher. Back in the ‘70s there were at least five drive-ins to choose from. Besides The Spot and Big Star, there was also A&W, Chat ‘n’ Chew and the legendary Fon Tan Blu. Each had it’s own distinct style and menu. And each featured things that stick out in my memory.

A&W was on Roosevelt Road and 30th Avenue. It has since become Andy’s Drive-in. It has become more of a sit-down establishment, although they will provide service to your car if you leave your headlights on.

Back in the day Andy’s was strictly a drive-in that featured carhops. I remember driving by and reading the daily special posted on the tall roadside sign. You couldn’t beat a one-dollar pizza burger.

Located on 52nd Street and 40th Avenue was Chat ‘n’ Chew. I don’t quite recall when it went out of business but I do remember the fragrant aroma that the small building exuded. The smell was different from any that of the other drive-ins. Like the other drive-ins, it stayed open late.

I fondly recall working at Burger King, closing up and heading over to the “Chew” with the gang after we got done. Its focal point was an enormous billboard that doubled as a menu.

Another Kenosha landmark sat kitty corner from Holy Rosary church, the Fon Tan Blu. The oddly shaped blue building was a destination spot for softball players who had spent the night enjoying adult beverages after their game.

It was not uncommon to have your burger or “Soakie” prepared by none other then Kenosha’s premiere double-play combination, Nick Perrine and Dick Laba. Mama Perrine’s Italian Bombers were second to none. Fon Tan Blu is sorely missed.

Alas, venerable institutions like Chat ‘n’ Chew and Fon Tan Blu no longer grace our hometown. In my humble opinion, with all due respect to Andy’s, Kenosha only has two true drive-ins. The Spot and Big Star are the two remaining survivors. And both have their loyal legion of supporters. Which of the two do you prefer? They both have their pros and cons.

The biggest difference between the two is the hours of operation. Big Star is “Closed for the Season” from Labor Day until March. While on the south side of town the carhops at The Spot have donned their long johns and are waiting on cars into the wee hours of the frigid morning.

Big Star’ normal hours of operation are 11:00 AM until 11:00 PM. Their cross-town rival opens at the same time, but stays open until 3:00 AM during the week and 3:30 AM on Friday and Saturday. Perhaps Big Star subscribes to the theory that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, or in this case, the taste buds.

Both of the popular eateries are located on busy thoroughfares. The Spot at the intersection of 75th Street and 22nd Avenue, while Big Star is directly across from Time Warner Cable on Washington Road.

Because of the traffic, coupled with their popularity, getting in and out of the parking lots can be a bit dicey at either of the drive-ins. But their scrumptious food makes it well worth the hassle.

Both Big Star and The Spot are known for their flavorful root beer and make it available in various sizes all the way up to gallon jugs. The only drawback to the tasty beverage is the swarms of bees that it attracts during the summertime. I think the carhops should be eligible for hazard pay during bee season.

Another delight that each of the two carry is ice cream. The Spot currently features six different “hand-packed” flavors with Big Star offering soft serve cones of the vanilla, chocolate and twist varieties. If you enjoy rich and creamy ice cream, The Spot is for you, but be prepared to pay for the frozen treat.

The menus are similar at both restaurants, offering burgers, fish, chicken, etc. The burgers come in an array of sizes with Big Star tempting your appetite with a half-pounder. 

It should be noted both places have steak sandwiches on the menu. Having enjoyed both, I must report that Big Star’s is closer to an actual piece of steak, while Spot’s is more like Salisbury steak. Advantage to Big Star on the steak sandwich.

Another thing that is offered on both menus is a grilled cheese sandwich. Big Star’s is very tasty and cut on the diagonal, just like mom used to do. On the other hand, the last time I had a grilled cheese at The Spot, it was made on a hamburger bun! Maybe it has changed since then, but a hamburger bun for a grilled cheese sandwich? Please!

The last menu item that I will comment on is the double-cheeseburger, a standard that any good drive-in can be judged on. This is a tough one for me. They both have their own special qualities. Both get very high grades in my book.

The Spot Drive-In
The freshness of the ingredients that make up a Spot double-cheeseburger is second to none. The meat appears to have been ground and formed into a patty moments before hitting the grill. 

If you like your onions grilled, you will love the ample amount slathered on this sandwich. The only downside to this taste delight is that too much of the cheese sticks to the wrapper! But I am nitpicking. The Spot double-cheeseburger is outstanding.

Big Star Drive-In
Big Star’s double-cheeseburger is no slouch either. It too draws rave reviews for its unparalleled taste. There truly is nothing like a Big Star double-cheeseburger. The simple reason is the cheese! Some call it a cheese sauce, or Cheese Whiz, but I have heard from reliable sources that it is actually Velveeta. 

Whatever it is, it’s good! And packaging the yummy sandwich in a Styrofoam container solves the oozing cheese problem. You just wait for it to cool and dig it out with your finger.

Well, there you have it. I guess you want to know which double-cheeseburger I prefer. I guess it matters on how much money I have in my pocket or how hungry I am. You see, the thing is, a double-cheeseburger at The Spot will run you about twice as much as its counterpart at Big Star. But they are both great and quite unique to Kenosha.

After much consternation and more taste tests than I care to admit to, I give the edge to The Spot’s double-cheeseburger. While it is still a bit pricier, the quality of ingredients is superior to that of Big Star’s. As the old adage goes, “You get what you pay for.”

I probably didn’t do much to help to solve the Kenosha drive-in great debate. I presented some pros and cons and, honestly, I enjoy them both. Quite a bit.

Whether you are a fan of Big Star or The Spot, summertime is (supposedly) on the way, so go out and enjoy one of Kenosha’s outstanding drive-ins. You won’t be disappointed no matter which one you chose.

Maybe in the future I will discuss a subject that I am qualified as an expert – Kenosha pizza. Until next time…from the booth.


Leplume said...

Big Star - grilled cheese (second to none), corn dog (the best ever), double cheese burgers!!! OH yeah, now I'm salivating!!

The Spot - three words - root beer whirl. Enough said! LOL

And omg!! The "soakies" at Fon Tan Blu. I forgot how amazing those were. I loved those. Now I want one!

Paul E. Vagnoni said...

Ah yes, the corn dogs! Good catch, MB! I wish Fon Tan Blu was still around. :(

RANDY LAIN said...

Oh man, I had forgot about FON TAN BLu ! ! They had awesome combination bombers,and the fries were excellent. I seem to remember on at least 1 occasion being "slightly" under the influence and going there to feed my alcohol soaked appetite. LOL

sue said...

They both seem very good but I like the look of the Big Star better. lol. Can't wait for the pizza discussion.

Paul E. Vagnoni said...

Randy, I'll be willing to bet that you weren't the only one at Fon Tan Blu soaking up some alcohol with a soakie… :)

Paul E. Vagnoni said...

They are both very good, Sue. Next time you are in Kenosha I will treat you to some Big Star!

sue said...

Now Paul 'next time you are in Kenosha' - I don't recall having been in Kenosha before - must have been my double in a see thru dress !!! But if I do get to Kenosha I will take you up on the Big Star treat.

Paul E. Vagnoni said...

It's a deal, Sue! And bring as many of the Taylor clan as you can. The double-cheeseburgers are on me!!!

sue said...

Oh dear - hope you are prepared for the Taylor Clan - could be a lot of double-cheeseburgers ! But who knows we may all turn up one day.

Paul E. Vagnoni said...

It would be my pleasure. I had better start saving up now - especially if Jake is going to show up!