Surely many of you in the Phoenix area are familiar with AJ's, the high-priced, high-end grocery chain run by the Basha clan, which also runs the widespread Basha's and the Hispanic-oriented Food City. If you can't find some obscure ingredient for a recipe, odds are you can find it at AJ's, and if you can't find it there, someone will track it down and special order it for you. (Speaking of which, I need to go try and throw the produce manager for a loop and see if they can get in some fresh mangosteen, I've heard it's a wonderful fruit.) The one down side to AJ's is that if it's something you can find at an ordinary grocery store, it will be overpriced at AJ's. If it's a ridiculously obscure item, you'll pay about what you were expecting; it's still overpriced, but at least this time you saw it coming.
The story today starts with a craving for a chicken burrito from Chipotle. I headed over to the location on Frank Lloyd Wright and Thompson Peak Parkway, and was driving around the parking lot when I was bowled over by the seductively fragrant smoke coming off of the patio grill at the AJ's next door. As soon as I found a parking spot in the extremely crowded lot (I think there were literally 2 spaces available when I got there- GO EARLY!), I made a beeline straight for the grill. Much like the grocery store itself, the menu was fairly straightforward, featuring burgers, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches, but with a couple of interesting surprises, including a grilled salmon sandwich and a Kobe beef burger. Being quite the carnivore, I could hardly resist ordering the Kobe burger, and since I enjoy the occasional gilded lily, I got it with bacon and cheese on top; both of these are extra options, but well worth it. The friendly hostess/cashier asked how I wanted it cooked, and I was pleasantly surprised when they said yes to a medium-rare order. For a little bit extra, you can turn the sandwich into a grand feast through the addition of any two of your choice of chips, baked beans, macaroni salad, or coleslaw. The chip selection was excellent, but I was in a different mood, so I went with the baked beans and macaroni salad.
A few minutes later, the burger was flipped from the grill onto a perfect hamburger roll, light enough to let the burger itself shine through but substantial enough to hold up to the burger's assault of juice and condiments. I took a bite, and was in pure burger heaven. The outside was nicely charred and crisp, protecting the juiciest, beefiest burger I have ever eaten. All of the condiments were fabulous, with green leaf lettuce, thick slices of red onion, and even thicker slices of gorgeously red tomatoes. The cheese (your choice of Cheddar, Swiss, or another one I don't remember offhand, maybe Provolone?) is top-notch, certainly not the plasticky stuff they put on there at the fast-food joint down the street, and the bacon... Oh, the bacon. If only everyone used bacon like this, smoky, meaty, and just barely crisp. Both of the side dishes were perfect; the beans were well seasoned and perfectly tender, with chunks of bacon floating throughout, the macaroni salad completely divine, loaded with herbs and al dente (for once!) pasta. The one let-down was the soda I had selected, the grape soda from Thomas Kemper. The flavor was pretty wimpy, but it was entertaining to watch as it was poured over ice. For some reason, the red coloring dropped out of the foam faster than the blue did. This created a groovy electric blue and indigo swirled foam on top of the drink, very entertaining to watch but at the same time a bit unsettling.
The lunch at AJ's certainly isn't everyday fast food fare; while everything is heavenly, the price tag is steep to say the least. After the burger, two sides, and bottle of soda, the check came out to just over twelve dollars. Is it worth it? Hell yes! Just not every day, unless I want to sell off the car to keep up with exorbitant tastes in lunch. Maybe I could find a place close enough to work and AJ's that I could walk...