Al’s French "Frys" redefine cheap.

One good reason to get out of NYC occasionally is the inevitable reminder of how one’s definition of “cheap” gets skewed here.  Witness, for example, Al’s French Frys [sic] in South Burlington, Vermont, for example, not far from the miniscule Burlington International Airport.  Al’s is so goddamn cheap that you’ll think you conked your head and woke up in 1984.

I have to admit, we were sucked in by the sign, though.  Monday afternoon was (after two days of skiing) my and my girlfriend’s chance to explore certain personal historical sites in and around Burlington – to my father’s great amusement, I seem to have inherited his compulsion to drive by any old residence of mine, regardless of whether I can remember it, and the house I spent the first two years of my life was our first stop.
Me: Unborn generations of future Kings are already groaning in the back seat…
Dad: Yep, but they’ll do it too!  Sorry you got that handed down.  Pretty funny though.
Yeah, funny.  That’s the word I was looking for, or maybe “tragic.”

Afterwards, though, we were cruising down Williston Road towards downtown Burlington, and Al’s sign (along with the vintage “Parkway Diner” sign a little further east) stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the new-ish Starbucks, Ground Round, and McDonald’s signs that populate the strip.  (If anyone can find a picture of the sign, please send a link along – we didn’t have a camera along and I can’t find one online.) We immediately fixated on Al’s as our lunch destination.  After driving downtown, with a stop at UVM and a quick gaze at the Lake Champlain waterfront and downtown Burlington, we returned to Al’s with high hopes.

We were certainly not disappointed – the black-and-white-tile-clad interior with red booths was every bit the kitsch palace I had imagined from the road, and hearing the Crystals singing “He’s A Rebel” over the restaurant’s PA made me happier than it probably should have.  The menu was surprisingly extensive – chicken, corn dogs, fish, pepper steak, and the dreaded “wrap” all found a place on Al’s menu.  Of course, we weren’t about to be caught dead with any of those things – I ordered a double cheeseburger, a pint of fries, and a medium diet Coke, and my girlfriend contented herself with a medium chocolate milkshake and several of my fries.

First, the namesake fries ($1.86 per pint) – seemingly cut from fresh potatoes, and with the skin left on, Al’s “frys” were awfully good.  They reminded me of my recent Eat-A-Burger fries, sans spice rub – just a good potato fried in good oil.   While I’m reluctant to anoint them one of the top fries I’ve ever had, due to their not being mind-blowingly excellent, we wished we had ordered another pint to go (a good sign, right?).  

Al’s double cheeseburger ($2.56) was a bit in the style of a fast food chain, but much better.  Be sure to check out the fry cook flipping the extra-thin patty (the griddle is at the front of the restaurant, next to the line).  When he’s finished, the guy in charge of toppings will ask you what you want on your burger.  Should you ask for everything, you’ll get ketchup, mustard, green relish, and chopped white onions – this isn’t a Blue 9-style lettuce and tomato palace by any means, though you could order them for an extra $0.50.  (Bacon, somehow cheaper, is available for $0.25.)  I might have skipped the onions and mustard next time, but the sloppy burger was excellent – a well-seasoned griddle is essential, particularly when the burger is so thin, and Al’s seems to have a good one.  Pizza burgers are also available, for the discerning masochist.

I shared my diet Coke ($1.40, with a good ratio of syrup to carbonated water) in return for some milkshake tastes – good thing, as the shake ($2.05) might have been the best thing we had.  Made from real vanilla ice cream and displaying the wonderful thick/thin inconsistency (that McDonald’s has spent millions trying to eradicate) as a result, the shake was given its flavor with chocolate syrup.  This process generally results in an extremely sweet shake, and this one was no different – absolutely delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to the savory-salty potatoes and meat.

Our bill ran to an outrageous $8.58, including tax – eat your heart out, Burger Joint.

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