Photos by Anne Fishbein
THE CARHOP IS DEFUNCT. THE LAST DRIVE-IN THEATER has been shuttered. The drive-in church in Garden Grove brought its act indoors long ago. As far as I know, drive-in shoe repair, drive-in psychics and drive-in art museums are as dead as the Hupmobile. Although in Los Angeles, as it has been pointed out a few million times too many, we tend to live in our automobiles, the drive-in culture seems to have withered like an unwatered plant.
But there is much to be said about the pleasures of long afternoons spent behind the wheel, of moving without stopping, of slinking through the metropolitan area like a shark equipped with a really good stereo system, pausing only for stoplights and lunch. Sometimes, as when you are lulling a baby to sleep with the gentle motion of the road, there are perfectly legitimate reasons for this. Sometimes you're in a hurry, or listening to Terry Gross, or luxuriating in air-conditioned comfort. And sometimes, you just don't want to leave the car. Spike’s, San Gabriel and Valley Blvd.
Drive-thru cuisine is generally a sorry proposition, a junkyard of unhappy Happy Meals, of unstellar Famous Stars, of charnel-house malteds and grisly lumps of gristle, of TV-slick cheeseburgers and other restaurants so terrifyingly off-brand that you fear for your intestinal fauna. The lowly drive-thru window, home of 10 billion Whoppers, is hardly ever associated with interesting cuisine. I long ago decided on Jack in the Box's fried jalapeño poppers as my basic unit of drive-thru consumption, clumsy nuggets of thick batter, glutinous cheese and limp scraps of jalapeño pepper that are surprisingly easy to eat even when twisting through a canyon at 50 miles an hour.
Still, everybody who drives in Los Angeles has her own drive-thru favorite or two, from the plump bacon-avocado burgers at Tops in Pasadena to the odd drive-thru espresso emporium on the Arroyo Parkway, the vegan sandwich-like concoctions at Orean the Health Express up on Lake Avenue to the juicy barbecued spareribs at Tasty Q down on Crenshaw, which aren't quite as fine as the barbecue you find at Woody's or Phillip's, but which you can order, pay for and devour from the comfort of your SUV. (I only get to Chicago one or two times a year, but I still mourn the drive-thru window at Tropic Island way down on 79th Street, where you could inhale the spiciest Jamaican-style jerk chicken you have ever tasted without so much as leaving your car.) Lucy’s, La Brea and Pico
As you power down toward the Santa Monica Freeway from Hollywood, you could cruise through the Mexican-American drive-thru institution Lucy's for carnitas tacos or chile verde burritos, enchilada platters or really crisp French fries that have picked up an intriguing, toasty sweetness from being fried in the same oil as tortilla chips. In Downey, Pepe's No. 2 (as far as I know, there is no Pepe's No. 1) is as renowned for its truly lousy burritos as it is for its spectacular taquitos, fat, meaty things, overstuffed even, with frizzled, blackened strings of beef hanging out at the ends, and a cool, chunky guacamole spiked with diced onions and tomato.
A journey to La Puente will get you to the Donut Hole, a drive-thru doughnut shop anchored by a giant hemi-doughnut at either end, a 1947 architectural triumph. From a couple of blocks away, the place looks like the chocolate-brown coils of a sea serpent wriggling its way toward Hacienda Heights; in the belly of the beast, it is more of a doughnut diorama, a living doughnut museum that includes Tiger Tail Twists and baroquely frosted French crullers. Langer’s curb service on Alvarado
And the best drive-thru food in Los Angeles? If you remember to call a couple of minutes in advance, somebody at Langer's Delicatessen (Seventh Street at Alvarado Street, downtown) will be standing outside for you with the finest pastrami sandwich in the nation, steaming hot, hand-carved to order if you specify it that way, and odiferous enough to fog up your windows in a flash. Who needs a drive-in when they can have Langer's?
Donut Hole, 15300 Amar Road, La Puente, (626) 968-2912. Langer's Delicatessen, 704 S. Alvarado St., Los Angeles, (213) 483-8050. Lucy's Drive-In, 1373 S. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 938-4337. Orean the Health Express, 817 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 794-0861. Pepe's No. 2, 9020 Telegraph Road, Downey, (562) 869-7045. Tasty Q Bar-B-Que, 2959 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 735-8325. Tops Drive-In, 1792 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, (626) 584-0244.