Zips Drive In
715 E. Sherman Ave., Cd’A
It occurred to me recently that the old-time Coeur d’Alene tradition of wild teenagers cruising Sherman Avenue is officially a thing of the past. What happened? Maybe the kids found better ways to entertain themselves, or maybe the friendly policemen finally cracked down, but for many years the only thing to do in this town if you were seventeen and drunk on Hamms was to drive your hot car up and down the main drag, over and over again, all night. I’m not sure when this tradition died out exactly, but when I was in high school nearly twenty years ago, it was still going strong. Back then all the cool kids - a group I wasn’t actually part of - would pull their bitchin’ Camaros into the Zips Drive-In parking lot to turn around for yet another cruise down toward City Park. I was part of the even cooler kids group, sitting inside killing hours getting amped on Dr. Pepper and watching all the big hair go by.
It seems like it’s always been there, its splashy yellow and red paintjob brightening the corner of 8th and Sherman. In reality, it’s only been around since approximately the Reagan era, one of many locations that were part of Zips’ manifest destiny at the time. As their cups and to-go sacks proudly announce, the first Zips was opened in 1953 in Kennewick, Washington by one Mr. Zip Zuber. Yes, there really was a man named Zip, and his initial idea was to feed the scientists and other folks relocating to the Tri-Cities to work in the blossoming nuclear power industry. Zuber opened his next drive-in near Gonzaga in Spokane and eventually franchises began spreading like mustard all over Eastern Washington and North Idaho and today there are over two dozen of them scattered about.
I can’t imagine that the basic menu has changed very much since old Zippy served his first burger to the radioactive Hanford drones. Certainly the offerings at the Sherman Avenue location remain exactly the same as ever, and thank goodness for that little bit of consistency in our topsy-turvy world. The jewel in the Zips crown is their trademark burger, the Papa Joe. Its perfection is in it’s simplicity – beef patty, thin slice of ham, melty cheese,lettuce and “special sauce”. There is an unexpectedly nice textural synergy that occurs between the sauce and the lettuce shreds that makes the lettuce all hot, wilted and sort of gloppy. We’re not supposed to like our lettuce like this, but somehow we do. Kill yourself to death with an enormous Big Zipper and die happy. Or just punish yourself a little with a stacked Bacon Double Cheeseburger. If you’re extra lucky they’ll be running one of their non-menu specials and you’ll get to taste such experimental fare as the Hawaiian Burger with teriyaki, pineapple, and Swiss cheese or the Western Burger with BBQ sauce and a deep-fried onion ring.
In a masterstroke of polyunsaturated inspiration, Zips offers three separate potato options: crinkly fries, criss-cuts, and tater gems. Order a tub of any of these depraved creations, dip them in copious amounts of pearly pink fry sauce or some of that “world-famous” tartar sauce, and you’ll be ready for a nice, relaxing angioplasty in no time. If you’re going for the full-on cardiovascular demise, you’ll want to try the onion rings, which literally drip with decadent hot grease. They’re huge, too – I can’t figure out where they’re getting onions the size of a bowling ball. Also swimming in the hot oil spa are the best Halibut pieces and Chicken Strips in town.
They really know how to rock a mean deep fryer here, although it was an act of mercy when they discontinued the fried mushrooms - how many tongues were scorched with the hot mushroom water that would squirt out violently when you bit down on those cruel little bombs? If you still have a pulse after consuming your meal and you actually have room left in there, you might want to indulge in an old fashioned soft-serve chocolate/vanilla swirl cone or a homemade huckleberry shake. Look out waistline, here comes trouble.
Let’s get back to the tartar sauce for a minute. What is it about Zips’ tartar sauce that is so much more than mere mayo, relish, and onions? What is the secret special ingredient that makes ordinarily sane people go totally gaga and dip anything and everything they can grab into it? Folks, it’s the love. Like everything else here, it’s made fresh from scratch on a regular basis with thoughtfulness and elbow grease, which is more than you can say about the impersonal action at national fast food dumps.
I think this sense of down home pride shows in the service as well. These kids certainly aren’t making bank working here, and there’s no reason for them to display anything but disdain, but I can’t recall ever having a bad experience at the Sherman Avenue Zips counter. They actually smile and make eye contact, and the food never has a chance to sit and grow cold. I’ve seen some of the same faces working there for years, so they couldn’t be too unhappy, and it seems like they enjoy spreading the good vibes to their customers. Either that or they’re all brainwashed.
Post-Zips Disorder is that drug-like feeling of satisfaction and semi-uncomfortable bloat that overcomes you after a meal here. A few years ago, I came down with severe food poisoning from a Zips corn dog and spent three days between the bed and the bathroom, only able to eat blue popsicles. I got so sick I was actually hallucinating my own death. Did I hold it against Zips? Of course not, how could I? That would be like disowning Grandma because she accidentally made her best cookies with ex-lax instead of semi-sweet morsels. Zips is like a dear old friend, supporting me in countless times of need when I was too lazy to cook dinner or was just craving some greasy gut bomb debauchery. I’m very faithful to old pals, and it takes more than a near-death experience to make me stop coming around to visit.