Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Fast food is justly much maligned. It’s greasy, bland, and high in calories. But when you are traveling, it is sometimes the only option. On these occasions, I invoke Yellojkt’s Rule For Picking A Fast Food Chain:

When choosing between two nationally franchised chains, go to the one that has their closest branch furthest from your house.

For example, the nearest McDonalds is about a mile and a half from my house and the nearest Chick-Fil-A is about three miles from my house. Given a choice between those two, my rule says to eat at the Chick-Fil-A. Since the nearest chain to my house is a McDonalds, the McDonald’s Corollary is:

Never eat at a McDonald’s if you have another choice.

The best part of this rule is that on long distance trips, it allows me to sample some regional chains that I normally don’t get to eat at.

On the second day of our trip, after another unscheduled sidetrip to the Air Force Museum, my wife had a craving for spaghetti mac. We got directions to a Skyline Chili, so we could have the chain version of this regional specialty. Skyline Chili was actually not true fast-food since a waitress took orders and delivered food and payment was made upon leaving, diner style. Still, the architecture and prices screamed franchise. I had my chili with spaghetti “three-way” which doesn’t mean what you think it does. It came smothered in shredded cheddar cheese and was both delicious and filling.

Our other “must-do” fast food was In-N-Out, a California regional chain that has a near cult following. When we picked up our son in Palo Alto, we told him we were having lunch at the first In-N-Out we found. He groaned and rolled his eyes. It seems there was one just off the Stanford campus that he had been to a good half dozen times. We found one on I-5 north of Bakersfield at an exit that seemed to exist just to feed hungry travelers. The In-N-Out was packed with a line out the door. The retro red and white décor is meant to emulate an old time hamburger stand and the very simple limited menu mirrors that aesthetic. My son had learned how to order fries “animal style” which included onions and cheese and who knows what else.

Crossing West Texas is a lot of nothing and eating was a take it or leave it prospect. Fortunately we found a Sonic Drive-Thru in Fort Stockton. My son fell in love with Sonic in Oklahoma last year and there are none near us. Their gimmick twist on the burger place is that it is car service with no indoor dining. You order at a speaker under an awning and the food is brought to you. You even pay at a card swiper built into the speaker. Even though it was noon and the thermometer was flirting with three digits, we were very comfortable eating in the car as a light breeze blew through the rolled down windows.

Our final fast food indulgence was when we found a White Castle just off the highway in Nashville. White Castle has been on my son’s must-eat list since he saw “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” last year (and I hope that is the only craving he took away from that film). We were actually on our way to Rotier’s for dinner, but we stopped to let him have some cheeseburger slyders. Once there, I was intrigued enough to give the Chicken Rings (which strikes me as a very scary concept) a try. They were tasty with a heavy ranch flavor and meat which may have been a chicken at one time, but was now just stringy protein fiber.

So not counting a few stops at Starbucks, we managed to travel fifteen days and only ate fast food a few times. And when we did, they managed to be unique regional variations on America’s contribution to the world culinary experience, the homogenized processed fast food chain. I avoid fast food when I can, but if I’m ever near any of these chains again, I’m making a stop.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What fast food places do you actually like?


Anonymous said...

What kind of freaky In-N-Out is that? Tables? An indoor area? Wrong, that's just wrong. A proper In-N-Out has two drive-through lanes (literally, one should pass through the building between the kitchen and the storage room). Big light-up menu, order through a tinny speaker, pick up your food and look for a place to park and eat.

Like I said when you were planning the trip, I preferred Tommy's when I lived in SoCal. Of the big chains, I'd rather eat at BK or Carl's because they don't dump a lot of stuff I don't like on their burgers. Del Taco also made a nice change.

Now that I live in Germany, fast food is different. Mac adn BK are here, but they are very much a last resort. Fast food usually means either a brat and a bun (at fairs and open-air markets) or a döner (chipped meat in a wedge of flat bread with onions, lettuce, feta and the Turkish equivalent of tzatziki), but there aren't any actual chains for that sort of thing.

yellojkt said...

I wanted to eat at a Del Taco. They were my favorite when they were in Georgia in the 80s, but they pulled out of the market. I saw a few in Cali and Nevada, but didn't get a chance to eat at one.

Princess said...

I would love to live in america just to try all the different fast food joints. We dont have Taco Bell or White Castle or Skyline Chili, anything like that!
Here in australia we dont have much variety. We have KFC, Maccas, Hungry Jacks,Chicken Treat and Red Rooster. I think our Maccas taste like plastic, so i tend to go for Red Rooster (or Subway)

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I like Arby's because I somehow never tire of the Beef-n-Cheddar w/Arby's sauce. Whatever. I also like their Market Fresh sandwiches but they're too damn expensive.

My wife would tell you Jack in the Box is her favorite because for some reason she LOVES those skinny greasy flat tacos. Ain't it great how there's someone for everything out there?

Anonymous said...

You went through Texas and didn't stop at Whataburger? I have fond memories of that chain.

Elizabeth said...

I thought White Castle was just a Chicago thing? Huh, I guess not. I love love love Taco Bell unfortunately we don't have one here in Juneau, so I just have to dream.....

J.Po said...

If you absolutely, positively have to go fast food and staying hungry isn't an option, I try to look for a Wendy's -- particularly since none of the chains you mention (save for White Castle, which I thought was a NY/NJ thing) is here in the East. I'd rather take a few extra minutes and look for a Panera or Boston Market.

And my favorite rule of thumb when looking for something non-fast-food in an unfamiliar area: avoid restaurants in whose name is contained the route number where they're located. "Pier 17" sounds like an appetizing seafood place until you realize it's amid miles of strip malls and asphalt in Paramus, New Jersey.

Mooselet said...

Princess, don't they have O'Porto over there in WA? We've just gotten some of those up from Sydney and they have good chicken, much better than Red Rooster. Hungry Jacks (or Burger King) is good, but that's mostly pregnancy hormones making me say that. I try to avoid McDonalds (Maccas) except to go their McCafe and have a coffee, but since the Teen works there it's difficult. Subway is good, and there is a new place next door to our local Subway called Noodle Box that I'm wanting to try when it's not so crowded. I miss Wendy's, as the Wendy's here is an ice cream chain. I loved their Frosties and burgers.

2fs said...

I remember liking In'n'Out burgers pretty well when we visit our California friends. I used to have an obsessions with White Castle (and I should here register my objection to "slyder": they were always called "sliders," but at some point White Castle felt they had to copyright the term...and of course "slider" had passed into common speech; thus the purely commercial intentional misspelling version "slyder." Also: they don't need cheese - the cheese just obscures the onion burn). Culver's is a regional (Wisconsin-based) chain with pretty good burgers. Skyline Chili is unusual, in that its "Cincinnati-style" chili is loaded with warm spices like cloves...rather unusual for chili.

trusty getto said...

I'm embarrassed to admit that I love to run for the border. It's usually a 7-layer burrito or a chicken quesadilla, or both, but when eating fast food, I eat that more often than all the rest combined.

Trouble said...

Favorites: Sonic (they have the best fast food, ever); chik-fil-a.

Most memories: Taco Bell and White Castle (it's what we ate at 2 a.m. when we were drunk and high and had the muchies during college).

I quibble with Panera as a choice because to me fast food means it isn't healthy, and Panera is far too healthy (I love it though).