The burger: Come September, I generally have a predictable reaction when the evenings begin to turn cool. I imagine a ticking clock hovering somewhere above the venerable Dari-ette Drive-In, counting off the days until owner Angela Fida yields to Minnesota’s slide into winter and pulls the plug on her seasonal, semi-outdoor business. The inevitable usually occurs sometime in October.
“It depends on the weather,” she said. “It’s unpredictable.”
In other words, it’s now-or-never time for a crack at the drive-in, and its signature item, at least for burger lovers: the third-pound Burger-ette.
Come on, what else where they going to name it? First, the stats: It’s a third-pound beef patty, formed into a flat, bun-sized disk and grilled to just-past medium, so there’s enough char to tickle the taste buds.
The sesame seed-studded bun is one of those pleasingly soft monsters, large enough to handle the patty, not to mention the essential roster of California burger-esque garnishes. There’s a thick-cut (but disappointingly flavorless) tomato slice, what feels like half a head of cool, crunchy iceberg lettuce, a slice of gooey (and super-salty) American cheese and enough mayo to make a smallish chicken salad.
Add it all up, and the Burger-ette is one of those two-handed, unapologetically sloppy burgers (in the vein of the Big Mac or the Whopper, only better) that's notable for its whole-hearted simplicity, and its value. Don’t wait until next April – when Fida reopens – to get a crack at it.
Fries: Extra. The Burger-ette “basket” version includes crisp, salty, deeply golden fries – and a side of coleslaw – for $2.50. Or, for the same price, skip the fries and indulge in a different kind of carb: a side order of spaghetti. Don’t want coleslaw? A straight-up serving of those can't-eat-just-one fries is $1.99.
History lesson: Fida grew up at the Dari-ette, which sprang to life on July 21, 1951. Fida’s father’s parents were the original owners, and her parents, John and Lois, met while they were both working at the restaurant.
They married, and raised their daughter in the house next door. Her first job? Taking orders on the switchboard. She was in kindergarten. By the time Fida was 12, she had matriculated to the responsibilities of the soda station, and the rest is history. Her parents turned the business over to her at the end of the 1998 season. Lois, age 79, “Still gives me a couple of hours a day,” said Fida.
With the assistance of a number of second- and third-generation employees, who return to the corner of Minnehaha and Birmingham, year after year, Fida is keeping a rapidly evaporating genre alive. Sure, there are a handful of other drive-ins in the metro area – Minnetonka Drive In, the Galaxy Drive In, Wagner’s Drive In and the Peppermint Twist come to mind – but the Dari-Ette is the only one operating within the city limits of either St. Paul or Minneapolis. I can’t imagine the East Side without it.
Lay of the land: Unlike many classic drive-ins, the Dari-ette features a modest indoor dining room, and for those who want to get out their automobiles, Fida maintains a few picnic tables out front (it should be noted that Fida runs a tight ship; the place is spotless). But the ideal Dari-ette experience involves taking in the whole ritual from the vantage point of your car: selecting a parking spot, ordering through the squawky speaker, getting your meal delivered via carhop and watching them cantilever a tray off your car door’s partially raised window.
The menu is peppered with one-of-a-kind touches. Kid meals arrive in a cute cardboard car. The kitchen’s spaghetti sauce is bottled and sold by the pint, quart and gallon. The soft-serve malts run the flavor gamut, from caramel to pineapple to marshmallow to my personal favorite, crème de menthe (well, a non-alcoholic knockoff, anyway).
The soda fountain nostalgically pours cherry Cokes, vanilla Cokes and cherry 7-Ups. The pizza burgers take me back to my high school cafeteria, in a good way. And how many drive-ins feature spaghetti, rigatoni, garlic toast and pasta e fagioli?
“We’re still here because we don’t change things,” Fida said. “I keep it as it is. People like that.”
Address book: 1440 Minnehaha Av. E., St. Paul, 651-776-3470. Open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.
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