What you do is, you exit Highway 370 a few miles west of the Missouri River -- past the scattering of farms in the outer reaches of St. Louis County to where the land is flat and almost creepily unnatural, like it's just waiting out its planned fate as an anesthetized expanse of big-box stores and attached-garage subdivisions. There'll be a sign as you approach the interchange, one of those blue signs indicating what food is available at that exit, listing a Jack in the Box, an Imo's, a Subway, a Sonic, a Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas and a Mickey D's. No mention of Chuck-A-Burger, but soon you'll see the big, rectangular billboard, the one with the drawing of the sky-blue '57 Chevy with headlights that actually light up.
After you get off the highway, you'll pass the Jack in the Box, the Imo's, the Subway, the Sonic, the Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas and finally the McD's. It'll look like there's nothing else after that, just more grassy-field developments-in-waiting. But make a right and you'll see the gleaming brushed-aluminum roof, like a cross between the Chrysler Building and something out of The Jetsons, sitting amid a swath of freshly paved parking lot. If you get to the patch of placards heralding the arrival of a car wash and a frozen-custard joint, you've gone too far.
Once upon a time, Chuck-A-Burger was the St. Louis burger chain, with eight outlets dotting the fringes of the county. You didn't just go to eat; you went to cruise, to see and be seen with your wheels and your girl. "Cruisin' Capitol of the Midwest" is what the sign says at the one remaining original outpost, which has been slingin' the eats in north county since 1957. The one off Highway 370 opened only six weeks ago and is the first new Chuck-A-Burger in more than 30 years -- patterned after the oldies, and definitely a goodie.
Just like back in the day, you can either go inside Chuck-A-Burger for a sit-down meal or park under the canopy (except on weekend nights, when those spaces are reserved for vintage cars) and get curb service from a fresh-scrubbed carhop decked out in red-and-white bowling shirt and red cheerleader skirt. The uniforms seem to fit the girls a bit on the baggy side, which in this midriffs-gone-wild era is just downright refreshing.
The Chuck-A-Burger menu is classic (right down to its Flamingo Motel-style font) and then some: burgers, fries, shakes and vanilla Cokes, but also beef tamales, Coney Island dogs, catfish sandwiches, pork-tenderloin sandwiches, salads and malts.
The burgers, fried on a stainless-steel flat-top, are called Chucks -- as in Single Chuck, Super Chuck, Triple Chuck, Pizza Chuck, etc. The patties are fast-food thin, with burnt, uneven edges (like the ones you find at Carl's Drive-In in Brentwood), and are served on soft, slightly toasted, seedless buns with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mayo, ketchup and mustard or any combination thereof. The toppings are terrific -- fresh and cold and crisp and hand-cut and plentiful. When was the last time a hamburger's fixings grabbed your attention before the beef they're meant to complement? A quarter-pound Single with everything yields more than the sum of its parts: It's hot summer Saturday nights and teenage flirtations and Fourth of July picnics, tangy and salty and sweet and gooey. The BBQ Chuck's a neat twist, a single patty smothered in barbecue sauce and topped with -- hey, whaddaya know! -- creamy coleslaw. (You may want to avoid the Pizza Chuck, though; mine was a buzzkill, saddled with a mulchy, lukewarm tomato sauce and a wimpy, translucent slice of mozzarella.)
The shoestring fries are passable; they come out of a bag and aren't exactly bursting with fried-potato flavor. Seasoned curly fries are better. You can dress up either kind with Cheddar sauce for 50 cents extra. Breaded mushroom balls are just like the menu says: crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. And they go great with a side of horseradish sauce. The Cheddar cheese balls, similarly prepared, taste like day-old mac and cheese when they bother to taste like anything at all. A grilled cheese sandwich, which (rightly) employs good old American cheese instead of Cheddar, is simple and true, like Mom's. And that says a lot: A properly prepared grilled cheese sandwich just might be the greatest food in the world.
I loved Chuck-A-Burger's tamale, so squashy you could spoon-feed it to a baby, except you probably wouldn't because it's drenched in chili sauce. The menu mentions melted Monterey Jack and Cheddar, but I didn't see 'em; maybe they melted into the chili. The cornmeal retains its heat very well, especially given there's no husk wrapped around it. And the salad -- iceberg, romaine, tomato, shredded Jack and Cheddar, sliced hard-boiled egg -- is fresh and perky.
If you're looking for a BLT or Frito pie, you can't get those at this new Chuck-A-Burger yet. You can get 'em at the other Chuck-A-Burger, though, the old one situated along a godless stretch of half-empty strip malls on St. Charles Rock Road. This was the second-ever Chuck-A-Burger (the original was at Page and Pennsylvania and opened in 1955). You could fit two or three Rock Road Chucks inside the new St. Charles one. If the new Chuck-A-Burger conjures The Jetsons, this one's like Al's diner from Happy Days. It's got a row of faux-wood booths (like those you find at snack bars in old bowling alleys) and a counter with nine knee-high stools bolted to the floor. Shakes and malts are served in classic sundae glasses with a maraschino cherry on top. The waitresses (including a friendly older woman who does not bother with the cheerleading outfit) seem to yell a bit more than the ones in St. Chuck (though not to the point of communicating in diner jargon -- you know, like "moo juice" for milk and "hockey puck" for a well-done burger). The BLT came on barely toasted white, with plenty of B. I was hoping the Frito pie would be like a chili-Frito casserole, but it turned out to be nachos with Fritos instead of tortilla chips.
Chuck-A-Burger was started up by a man named Bud Taylor. One of his first managers was Ralph Stille, who went on to become vice president of the empire. Stille's son Ron now owns Chuck-A-Burger, and he's looking to expand once more. He may well succeed. Vintage-car enthusiasts, men in leather jackets and women in poodle skirts still cruise Chuck-A-Burger on weekends -- the one in St. Charles, anyway, the one Ron calls "three times as big and four times as beautiful" as the Rock Road location. Ron says he still uses all the original recipes (since day one, he adds, Chuck-A-Burger has cooked only with vegetable oil; no animal fats). And Ron's mother sews the car-hop uniforms.
Like I said, you'll be able to spot Chuck-A-Burger pretty easily. It's beyond McDonald's.