Last Sunday my older daughter corralled me into a grocery shopping trip in search of exotic ingredients for her "Big Fat Greek Dinner" that she is throwing this coming weekend. After completing our mission we had time on our hands and, because I don’t see a lot of her since she moved out, we decided to get something to eat. As we headed out of the parking lot Lucy said, "Ooh there’s The Choo-Choo. I haven’t been there since I was five years old. Canwegocanwegocanwego?" Like I say, I don’t see that much of her these days so how could I say no?
There may be more of these around the country, I don’t know. There were several of them in and around the Chicago area starting in the 40s and 50s, sticking around probably into the 80s. These days there are only a few left, one for sure down in the far south suburbs and maybe one other one bedsides ours in Des Plaines. The interesting thing about the Des Plaines store is that it is not far from the first Ray Kroc McDonald’s. According to the legend printed on the back of their menu, Ray payed them a visit and explained that his new venture would not provide too much competition as they had indoor seating and he did not.
The gimmick here is that families with kids would sit at a long counter and their food would be delivered to them via flat cars on a Lionel train that ran in a circle around the perimeter of the counter and through the kitchen. The place is set up like a classic diner with the counter running the length of the store with a row of booths along the front windows. Booth occupants were forced to suffer with normal waitress service. We sat at the counter (of course) and ordered up a couple of burgers. My memory was that The Choo-Choo’s food was pretty ordinary, otherwise why would it take me 20 years to make a return trip.
When the food arrived on the "4:15 out of Peoria", I was pleasantly surprised to find my memory was slipping. The burgers were cooked ala Steak and Shake/Culver’s/Winstead’s(for all you Kansas City fans), a lump of ground beef slapped on the griddle and then mashed down and expanded as it cooked. With nice ragged edges and a substantial thickness, this burger was fresher, bigger, and tastier than any of those places. It had a good top quality beef flavor, served with the usual toppings and a generous order of well prepared fries. At $5.50 it was a pretty good buy.
What with my trip to The Berghoff later in the week, this has been a nice time to reconnect with family and relive memories. If you’re ever in Des Plaines, The Choo-Choo gets a big thumbs up from Buddy.