Drive-in restaurants were not invented with a global pandemic in mind but, turns out, they are suited well to Coronavirus restrictions.
Sonic may be the dominant player in the drive-in restaurant world, but in our region, there are still some of the classics left.
With Las Cruces as your hub, there’s a diamond of drive-ins within an hour’s drive. The four restaurants are due east, north, west and south of Las Cruces, creating a diamond pattern. I recently did the tough work of sampling this quartet, with a focus on burgers.
EAST STOP: Hi-D-Ho Drive In, Alamogordo, 414 S. White Sands Blvd. I lived in Alamogordo for a dozen years, so have long been familiar with Hi-D-Ho and its world-famous Tiger Burger with green chiles. But it had been a long time – too long.
It was just as good as I remembered.
If you’re not prepared to eat a lot, order the regular burger. But if you want the full experience, order the Tiger Burger, so named because the Alamogordo High School mascot is the Tiger. Since the Hi-D-Ho began in 1952, you can imagine a bunch of AHS students flocking to the restaurant in the 1950s, the golden era of the drive-in restaurant.
Make sure you request green chiles when you order your Tiger Burger. I failed to do that once, assuming it was automatic, and my burger came out with none. If you feel about green chiles the way I do, you won’t take that chance.
You can sit in your car, or at the patio tables, and watch the world of Alamogordo unfold down White Sands Boulevard. On my visit, a lady flashed about $5,000 in cash in front of me (the story is less interesting than it sounds). Anyway, it’s particularly nice on the night of a full moon, rising over the Sacramento Mountains as you devour your Tiger Burger.
NORTH STOP: A&B Drive-In, Truth or Consequences, 211 N. Broadway St. A&B has “only” been around for about 30 years. It also has a patio on the town’s main drag. If you’re getting the green chile cheeseburger, I recommend getting the double. It’s much juicier. Later in the afternoon on my visit to T or C, I learned from a local A&B has some great Mexican food as well. He particularly recommended the gordita plate.
WEST STOP: Benji’s Restaurant, Deming, 821 W. Pine St. Benji’s is technically not a drive-in, but it is housed in a former Sonic, and retains the awnings, as well as several tables on the patio. On my visit, I went inside to place my to-go order, and the server said he would bring it out to my car. Others dined inside. I’d been there a few years ago, and had an excellent breakfast burrito. On my recent stop, I planned to eat while driving back, but even though it was on its way to being a 100-degree day, even at noon, under the shade, it was comfortable with the car off and the windows rolled down.
SOUTH STOP: Charcoaler Drive-In, El Paso, 5837 N. Mesa. The Charcoaler has been around since 1961, which they’ll tell you as soon as you pull up to the speaker menu. I’ve always been wary of the disembodied voices behind these speaker menus. As a little kid, I once thought there were miniature humans trapped inside them, barking out your menu requests.
I normally opt for green chile cheeseburgers, and they indeed have a Green Chile Double on their menu. But since I’d never been to Charcoaler, and they have another item called the Original Double on the menu, it made sense to try their signature item. Besides, can you really trust a green chile cheeseburger made in Texas?
The order process is more like a drive-THROUGH than a drive-IN, but once you get your food, there are several classic canopied parking spots to drive under and enjoy your in-car fare.
When I first opened my Original Double, I panicked. It looked to be coated in ketchup.
I have a deep-seated personal aversion to ketchup, particularly if it’s slathered on these three items, in order of my abhorrence: hot dogs, steak, hamburgers.
As it turned out, my fear was unwarranted. This was not ketchup, but Charcoaler’s own barbecue sauce, and its trademark fare. I’ve only had a few barbecue-sauce burgers in my life, so I don’t have a big portfolio to compare. But I enjoyed the burger. The charcoal flavor on the patty came through, and the sauce complemented it.
I had both the fries and onion rings. The fries, decent, the onion rings, excellent. I will be back, and I will try their green chile burger.
Richard Coltharp is publisher of Desert Exposure and the Las Cruces Bulletin. His all-time favorite drive-in is Cupp’s Drive Inn in Waco, Texas, est’d 1947. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.