I’m a Rocket Man

Sometimes the thing you need the most is the thing you want the least. Or to put it in culinary terms, sometimes you think you’re in a caviar mood, but it’s popcorn shrimp that soothes your soul.

Flynn at Johnny Rockets

So was it yesterday, as I drove along Santa Monica Boulevard with three hungry kids clamoring in the back seat. It was Sunday, past lunch time, and some decisions had to be made.

I had a bit of a hangover. My wife suggested Mexican and I had a brilliant inspiration. My favorite Mexican restaurant, the sinfully delicious Lotería Grill, was supposed to be opening on the Third Street Promenade. Perhaps it was already open, I thought optimistically… So we braved the crowds and parked.

Every city has a Third Street Promenade. It’s the friendly, tastefully designed pedestrian place where tourists go to shop at The Gap and Williams-Sonoma and stare at fountains. There are usually carefully vetted street performers, lots of pigeons, and often a handful of runaways and homeless people attempting to ruin the mood with their gamy authenticity.

As I expected but didn’t want to accept, the Lotería Grill was still in an embryonic stage, sheltered behind imposing wall of plywood scaffolding. I offered up hopefully the fancy Pan-Asian place across the way as a feeble alternative. A couple sushi rolls and a Sapporo would do me a world of good. But my wife suggested Johnny Rockets.

“Yayyy!!! Johnny Rockets!!!” the kids sang out in unison. My shoulders sank and I nodded. I know when I’m beat.

Johnny Rockets is a faux 1950s diner — the first stop for every visiting French, German, Japanese and Russian on the Promenade. A tourist group of several cute young Chinese women leaving the restaurant stopped us to take pictures of Imogen, our 16-month-old daughter. “I guess if I was in China and saw a cute Chinese baby, I might take a picture of her,” I said to my wife.

Inside we took a seat in a red vinyl booth where my son began immediately pressing the buttons on the mini juke box. “Dad, look — Elvis Presley!! I’ve heard of him.” The waiters were all Mexican. We ran into some friends dining with their adopted Ethiopian daughter. “A true snapshot of America,” I thought to myself. The menu is exactly what you would expect — burgers, tuna melts, fries and shakes. Our waiter, Juan, brought crayons for the kids.

“Can I even get a drink here??” I grumbled as I sat pouting.

We ordered burgers. What else could we do? There was no queso fundido, no seared ahi tartare to be had. Looking on the bright side, I thought of my blog. This could be an opportunity for a postscript on my burger series. I got the “classic burger” and had them add blue cheese. Then I asked for a side of blue cheese dressing to dip my french fries into. Things were looking up! The kids were having fun, people were singing “Happy Birthday” at the next table, and I resigned myself to at least enjoying the time with my family.

Then my burger came, and it was a thing of beauty. Not frilly upscale beauty like you would expect ordering fois gras sliders for $25 a plate at a fancy joint in Manhattan, but American Graffiti beauty — like a lovingly painted hot rod or a classic Elvis Presley song. A sesame seed bun barely contained the irregular burger, piled with shredded iceberg lettuce and pale tomato and orangey dressing and crumbled blue cheese. Everything the tourist from Europe or Asia imagines when they close their eyes and think of America. And if you’ve never enjoyed your fries with blue cheese dressing — nor stopped at a roadhouse on an interstate highway for a chicken fried steak, nor made out in the back of a car to the Eagles — may I suggest Johnny Rockets for your next evening out? Bring the kids, it makes for better experience. If you don’t have kids, borrow some.

As we left, I watched my children pose for a photo with a guy in a big Disney Puss in Boots costume outside the movie theater and felt oddly satisfied. I was full with a fine classic burger from a real simulated American diner, navigating a sea of locals and tourists and immigrants, families and freaks, young and old, the wealthy and the down-and-out. A photograph in time of an America in motion.

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