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The Great PNW Burger Road Trip

The burger drive-in is an enduring piece of Americana we're all familiar with.

Even if you don't have one nearby, you've probably been to them on formative road trips or have favorite movies where they're featured prominently. Here are a few of our legendary Seattle NorthCountry burger stops, plus some activities you can add to the itinerary. Not that you need an excuse to jump in the car and go get a burger.

Alpen Drive-In 

36023 State Route 2, Sultan, WA 98294

Pairs well with: The Reptile Zoo, where you can see a two-headed turtle and take a terrifying selfie in front of the alligator enclosure.

Pulling up to the window at Alpen Drive-In without any prior knowledge of the menu, I had an easy time picking my burger when I spotted elk on the menu. I ordered it along with fried mushrooms, plus fries because reviewing a burger stop without trying the fries is journalistic malpractice. Using the same rationale, I also asked for a butterscotch shake.

Pulling around to the parking area, I was delighted to find 11 tables scattered throughout a shady seating area which matches the restaurant's Alpen theme. There's also a restroom next to the pick-up window, a welcome amenity after the long drive out.

The elk burger wasn't gamey like I'd hoped. Since it just tasted like a delicious beef burger, I recommend ordering beef instead and saving your money. Everything on the burger was impressive, especially the big pickle slices and sweet, crunchy onions. I didn't like my first few fries much, but found that the further I got into the bag, the more seasoned salt coated them. That delicious mix of spices reminded me of the legendary Big Boy burgers of my youth. The generous bag of fried mushrooms came with a sour cream-based ranch dip which was so much better than the containers of dressing you usually get. And the shake was a lovely and thoroughly sweet finale, perfect for fans of finer things like flan, salted caramel, and creme brule.


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King Charley's Drive-In

1301 30th St Snohomish, WA 98290

Pairs well with: Snohomish Aquatic Center. Did you hear? You don't need to wait 45 minutes after eating to swim, that myth was recently disproven.

The bold purple and goldenrod paint job at King Charley's is impossible to miss, and while the ordering process came with a side of confusing banter, everyone was friendly and fun. I just wish in all the back and forth that I'd noticed they have a fry sauce.

I had an easier time finishing my meal here because the servings of fries and mushrooms were smaller, or as some might say, more reasonable. The light color of the fries is deceptive, they're very crunchy and have a hefty shake of salt on them. The fried mushrooms are breaded instead of battered, which is a nice touch. I was impressed by the lovely color the grill left on the bun, and the whole thing is wrapped tightly so the flavors meld quickly.

The three closer tables are completely exposed, making them a great spot to sit in the sun and enjoy a shake. (I got pineapple, which made me wish I had a wider straw like bubble tea is served with.) If you need a little shade, follow the trail and find two more tables among the tall trees on the property. 

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Pilchuck Drive-In

205 Maple Ave, Snohomish, WA 98290

Pairs well with: shopping in downtown Snohomish! Explore five treasure-filled floors at Star Center Antique Mall or find contemporary furniture and decor at Lamb & Co., owned by Lyndsay Lamb and Leslie Davis of HGTV's Unsellable Houses.

The first thing you should know about Pilchuck Drive-In is that it's not a drive-in. It's a small restaurant with a drive-through, and when I went, the '50s-themed dining room was closed for remodeling. The shopping center parking lot isn't particularly inviting, but thankfully I found a shady spot on the street and the back of my van doubles as a mobile tasting room. 

Everything was wrapped with care; the fries and mushrooms came in trays within bags and my cheeseburger had a burger cup, the first I'd ever seen. Their fry sauce has chopped pickles, which is unexpected but delicious on their crunchy breaded mushrooms. I don't know how they make those skin-on fries, but wouldn't be surprised to learn they're cut fresh and double fried. 

Ordering a cheeseburger was a little bittersweet because they have pot roast sandwiches, one of my all-time favorites. I wasn't sad for long because it's a fantastic burger, another roadside champion with lettuce, tomato, perfect pickles and onions, plus a generous-but-not-sloppy amount of special sauce. Even if they'd overdone it, that burger cup would catch the mess. Ingenious.

One of the highlights of this entire burger tour was Pilchuck's cheesecake shake. So thick you need to wait a few minutes, it's not cloyingly sweet or rich like a big piece of cheesecake can be. They know exactly how much to add to a shake to create a dreamy dessert you'll be thinking about for days.


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