It seems every college campus has to have a burger joint. Ideally, this place should be inexpensive, unpretentious, independently owned, and decades old. The Chuckbox, which serves hamburgers in a location just across University Drive from the ASU Main Campus, meets all of these criteria. The restaurant, which is three blocks from the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station, stands nearly alone in a sea of new high-density construction as a throwback to another era when most Tempe restaurants occupied freestanding structures and Western kitsch was still fashionable decor.
Outside along the Forest Avenue side of the building, there’s what appears to be a old chuck wagon near the patio. On the University Drive side, an old sign proudly proclaims “Over 278 Sold,” a milestone that was likely surpassed soon after the restaurant opened four decades ago. A bike rack is found in the back of the building, and it’s one of the most secure places to lock up in Downtown Tempe. The reason: A guard sits next to the bike rack during peak business hours to keep non-customers from parking cars in the restaurant’s lot, and the added protection for bikes is a nice side benefit.
Customers can enter the building from two entrances. Inside, two landmarks will be visible. The first is the condiment bar in the center of the dining room (more about that later), and the second is a landmark of the human variety: Big Juan. Manny “Juan” Sanchez is often the one taking orders and cooking them on the grill in front of a cafeteria-style line. For many customers, a visit to the Chuckbox is not their first exposure to Big Juan. He’s a veteran employee who is often featured in the restaurant’s advertising with a promise of a burgers, beers, smiles, and hugs.
The Chuck Box acknowledges its location near a college campus by wisely offering burger alternatives, but the vast majority of customers going through the line order a hamburger. The most popular choice is the Big One, one-third of a pound of ground beef shaped into a thin patty and cooked medium well unless requested otherwise. Customers with big appetites can ramp up to the Great Big One, which involves a full half pound of beef, while “little kids and little old ladies” (the restaurant’s wording) can order a Little One, the smallest of the burgers offered here.
It’s even possible to order a Double Big One or a Double Great Big One. The second choice involves a full pound of meat more appropriate for competitive eating challenges than lunch. All burgers can be topped with a slice of jalapeno jack, cheddar, Swiss, or American cheese. Other add-ons offered at the grill include guacamole and bacon, the latter in a circular form obviously meant to function specifically as a burger topping. The restaurant’s signature Tijuana Torpedo is an oblong patty topped with green chile and jalapeno jack, creating a burger with a bit of built-in spice.
For customers looking for something other than a hamburger, the Chuckbox offers a Gardenburger as an alternative patty. Purists should be aware, however, that it’s cooked on the same grill as the beef and chicken. Poultry is offered in four different types of chicken breast sandwiches. The basic one is a simple, undressed piece of white meat. The barbecue sandwich and the spicy sandwich involve tangy sauces added during grilling. The teriyaki sandwich is based on a salty soy marinade with two pineapple rings dressing the chicken. The chicken strips are the sole non-sandwich option.
Most sides dishes are also cooked to order, and all of them are fried. The Chuck Box potatoes, which are really French fries by another name, are an obvious-but-just-okay choice. The crisp beer-battered onion rings are a more effective testament to the greasy goodness of the deep fryer, as are the fried zucchini and the fried mushrooms. The fungi in particular have an earthy taste and lots of moisture that is locked in by the frying process, yielding one of the more flavorful side dishes at the Chuckbox. Most indulgent of all are the cheese-filled jalapeno poppers.
Once customers have received their food from the grill and added a beverage and maybe a packaged brownie or Rice Krispies treat (the only desserts offered), the next stop is the cashier. The Chuck Box is cash-only, so stop at an ATM on nearby Mill Avenue before visiting or use the one inside the restaurant. After payment, the two-sided condiment bar should be considered a mandatory detour. This is the place to adorn a burger or sandwich with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, relish, ranch dressing, chopped onions, iceberg lettuce, fresh tomatoes, sliced jalapenos, and just about any other traditional topping.
With a fully dressed burger or chicken sandwich in possession, customers can finally take a seat — either at the tables inside or the small two-tops on the twin patios by both entrances. Outside, the chairs are actually tree stumps, and there is ample opportunity for people watching. Inside, the furnishings are equally basic with seats fashioned from old crates. Customers who have purchased wine or draft beer — either the usual ubiquitous light beers or local favorite Four Peaks’ Kilt Lifter or Hop Knot brews — can bring their drinks outside as long as they do not leave the patios.
The Chuckbox is open seven days a week, although with earlier closing times in the summer. It can be packed during weekday lunches or before ASU football home games. During those peak hours, it’s always good to determine one’s order while waiting in line and then move quickly through the queue. On other occasions, the experience may be a little more relaxed. At any time, the Chuckbox is a bit of tradition that’s hard not to appreciate. ASU and Tempe are becoming taller and more dense with new constructions projects nearby, but its simple hamburgers remain a constant in the middle of change.
202 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281