West Lafayette, IN: Burgers Topped with College-Town Nostalgia at Triple XXX

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Triple XXX Family Restaurant

2 North Salisbury Street, West Lafayette, IN 47906 (map); 765-743-5373; triplexxxfamilyrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: College town landmark is an extraordinary burger shrine, even if the burgers themselves are ordinary
Want Fries with That? You might as well, but don't get too excited
Price: Choice Cuts, $1.85-$3.85; Prime Cuts, $6.85-$7.55

They say you can't go home again. But that was before interstates and GPS. Of course, it may be nothing like the place you used to know, but you can always go back for a visit. The trick is in managing expectations. Can you see it with fresh eyes and a new perspective, accepting it for it what it really is now, whatever that turns out to be? Or will you be disappointed simply because it no longer matches your mental freeze-frame?

I ventured back to the city where I was born and to the spot where, in all likelihood, I tasted my very first hamburger. The Triple XXX Family Restaurant hasn't changed much in the decades since, but I have. And while their burger no longer ranks on my personal list of all-time bests, it remains a sacred shrine well worth the trip down Memory Lane.

At Purdue University, the gaudy orange-and-black striped building has been a landmark since 1929. The Triple XXX (you say only one "X") was Indiana's first drive-in restaurant, the name coming from an old-time brand of root beer that they still brew in-house. And while car service ended ages ago, tradition remains on the menu today.

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On this Saturday morning, scores of undergrads, returning alums, and football fans huddled in the crisp October air under the old carhop overhang. It was gameday, and the crowds had started early at the Triple XXX. Fact is, the crowds never really leave; Triple XXX is open 24/7, except for a brief 10-hour reset on Sunday night/Monday morning. With just 48 barstools inside, there's almost always a queue for their famous breakfasts and even more famous burgers.

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Most of the signature burgers are named after Purdue football legends. The Boilermaker Pete is a third-pounder with double cheese and grilled onions (the other burgs are quarter-pounders); the Bernie Flowers All-Pro features Spanish onion, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. The one that gets the most publicity, though (like when Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives or ESPN comes to town), is the Duane Purvis All-American: melted cheese, LTO, pickles, and a slathering of creamy peanut butter on the bottom bun. I know, the purists are already formulating angry "peanut-butter-doesn't-belong-on-a-damn-burger" rants, but c'mon, college is all about doing things that Mom wouldn't approve of.

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Those "Prime Cuts" and the more basic "Choice Cuts" aren't called hamburgers at Triple XXX; they're "Chop Steaks." With a name like that, you know they take their meat seriously. It's 100 percent sirloin, hand-cut and ground right upstairs daily. Then it's fed through a machine that spits out soft hockey pucks of beef. When an order comes in, a puck gets dropped into a vat of flour, flattened on the counter, and slapped on the flat-top. The flour results in a pronounced char, and according to owner Greg Ehresman (who graciously invited me behind the counter for close-ups, despite being in the weeds), is simply "the way we've always done it." Yeah, there's that tradition thing again.

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Duane Purvis burger.

The Triple XXX and I have history. There I was, 14 months old, sitting on my dad's lap after a day of classes and before his third-shift job started. (This at least seems entirely plausible. My parents never officially documented Baby's First Burger; who knew I'd grow up to do this for a living?) But many years and many more burgers later, it now struck me as just solidly mediocre diner grub. The fries were thoroughly ordinary—fried to a golden crisp, but clearly right from a bag. My burger had a nice enough char, with a good melt on the cheese, but was also unremarkable. Not dry, but not juicy. Thin, more than anything. My Duane Purvis was in danger of being overwhelmed by the LTO trio, the tomato, in particular. The wickedly uneven slice left me with next to none on the left side of the burger, but a half-inch slab of it on the right. And while a quick swipe of Jif must've made for the ultimate novelty burger when Purvis played in the early '30s, I'm not sure I would have known it was there if I hadn't been the one who ordered it.

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So it wasn't the best burger I've ever eaten. Hell, it wasn't even the best peanut butter burger I've ever eaten. (The Vortex in Atlanta does it infinitely better with the Elvis.) But sometimes, it's not about the burger. Sometimes, it's as much about waiting an absurdly long time outside the ugliest building on earth to sit on a dilapidated barstool in a near-ramshackle diner, playing remember-when with old friends and chatting up new ones while you tuck into honest, basic grub that hasn't changed a whit in over 70 years. Sometimes, it's simply about going home again.