America’s Second Best Fast Food Restaurants…

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Here’s another blog by girlfriend Sam (with some brutal editorial reshuffling by me)! Enjoy! – James

Regular readers and our friends and family will know that my boyfriend and I have a borderline obsession with food. We go to crazy lengths to seek out the best local dishes.

Sasebo burger

But on a six week, 8,062.5 mile road trip around the USA, you can’t always eat at the most authentic eateries. Sometimes circumstances dictate that dinner must come from the strip malls and chain diners and fast food joints lining almost every inch of America’s interstates and highways.

Sam's Sports Grill

America’s biggest chains like McDonalds and KFC can be found all over the world – but there’s a second tier of equally abundant diner franchises that cannot be found in Europe and make for an exotic culinary experience for Brits like us looking to grab a quick bite to eat by the roadside…

Arby's Church's Chicken Taco Bell

Here’s what we discovered at America’s less prestigious fast food outlets…

 

Denny’s

Denny's

 

The Vibe…

A delightful plasticky yellow and red interior gives the discerning patron an initial feeling of a slightly classier Maccy D’s. The overall ambience evokes the 1950s as envisaged in the early 1990s.

A greeter asks you to wait in the small waiting area. With queues this big, you know it’s gotta be good, right? But glance around the dining area and you’ll see that the delay in getting you to your table is simply due to the soul crushing inefficiency of Denny’s front of house staff.

In our case, there were five tables completely empty throughout our ten minute wait. We were eventually seated at one of them without explanation or apology.

 

If You Can’t Find A Denny’s, Look For…

Perkins, Shoney’s, Big Boy – anything that describes itself as an ‘All American Diner’.

 

The Taste…

I had the wheat pancakes with bacon and blueberries and my boyfriend had some kind of breakfast sandwich. Half of my order came out before the pancakes themselves, so I nibbled on rashers of bacon whilst waiting, lest they go cold.

Denny's Pancakes

The bacon was fine, a little dry – as were the pancakes. But why couldn’t I have my whole order of pancakes and toppings at the same time? All they’d needed to do was leave the bacon sitting under the heat lamp for a few more minutes. I was, and remain, bemused.

 

Was It Worth It?

Not really. It felt touristy and a bit greasy – not the All American breakfast experience we had been hoping for. We had to wait for a table, wait to get served, then wait a bit too long for the food and then wait an age for our bill. Mediocrity at its best.

Glum Sam

 

Go Here If…

The cool little independent café you were looking for turns out to be shut but you can’t be bothered to get back in the car. Desperation takes hold, Denny’s is the only other food outlet in sight, you’re starving and in dire need of aircon… Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Waffle House

Waffle House

 

The Vibe…

The Waffle House sign is simple but effective – matte black Arial font juxtaposed with a mustard yellow background. It cuts through all the other overly complicated signage on America’s roadsides nicely.

Inside Waffle House

On the inside, the restaurants are a little less glam and a little smaller than some of the others discussed in this blog, but they have cool little booths and bar stools at the counter. Brown meets beige meets off white. 1950’s fixtures and fittings meshed with 1970’s trucker chic.

 

If You Can’t Find Waffle House, Look For…

Huddle House – a chain we found in Arkansas that was practically the same except replace the yellow with red. Also IHOP or any place whose main sales pitch is that they serve breakfast 24/7.

 

The Taste…

My boyfriend told me I should prepare for an epicurean epiphany when I ordered a portion of hash browns. When he was a boy he travelled many thousands of miles across the USA, and Waffle House hash browns are his fondest memory. He’s been banging on about them since before we arrived in America, before we decided to go travelling around the world… in fact pretty much since our first date back in January 2011, now I think about it.

Waffle House hash browns

My hash browns were cold in the middle. Disappointing. Also, my steak and eggs arrived separately. Why do Americans insist on serving single meals on multiple plates!?

 

Was It Worth It?

Just to see the little smile on the boyfriend’s face. But otherwise, not really.

 

Go Here If…

You miss Little Chef and other substandard roadside fodder that not even Heston Blumenthal could save. Or it’s 2am and you want to chat to real life truckers.

 

Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel

 

The Vibe…

Old timey home-style cookin’. From the back it looks like a disused corrugated iron warehouse and from the front it looks like a disused corrugated iron warehouse with some rocking chairs outside.

Outside Cracker Barrel

Inside is like Little House On The Prairie turned up to 11. Twee beyond belief – all faux wood panelling and gingham. In the adjoining shop you can buy some of the ingredients of the food you’ve just eaten alongside all manner of gingham and faux wood panelled souvenirs and cookware.

Inside Cracker Barrel

 

Can’t Find Cracker Barrel? Look For…

Anywhere that serves grits. We found a very similar place called Farmhouse in Georgia that did great home cookin’, but I’m not sure if it was a chain.

 

The Taste…

Dumplin’s and chicken. Chicken Fried Chicken. Chicken Fried Steak. Any vegetables…? Well, there’s okra. Fried. Also sweet corn – slathered in butter. How about the baked sweet potato? Comes topped with brown sugar. A.m.a.z.i.n.g.

 

Was It Worth It?

Hell, yes. The food is delicious but that’s only half of the appeal. Creates the feeling that you’re in the Old West without the hassle of having to travel back in time, or west. Also, I got to sit in a rocking chair!

Boyfriend complained that the hash browns weren’t as good as Waffle House’s.

Sam on a rocking chair

 

Go Here If…

You want to pretend, just for an hour, you are in the Old West and not surrounded by shiny strip malls. You too can sit and while away the minutes in rocking chairs on the porch (yep, they are for sale too).

 

Sonic

Sonic

 

The Vibe…

Sonic seems to be pitching itself as the quintessential American drive in (as distinct from a drive thru). You sit in your car and order from your parking space; your food is then delivered to your car, and that’s where you eat it. So, the vibe is whatever the vibe of your car is.

Eating in the car at Sonic

During our visit we made the mistake of getting out of the car to use the toilets. It was a bleak experience. Strongly advise anyone reading this blog to avoid making this same mistake. *Shudder*

 

If You Can’t Find A Sonic, Look For…

It’s a burger joint so McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King… but don’t go inside, just order from the drive thru, sit in your car and eat in the car park.

 

The Taste…

It was the rubberiest chicken we’ve probably ever eaten in our entire lives… and we’ve been to Bolivia. Perhaps it was our fault for trying to be healthy by not ordering hamburgers, which seemed to make up 80% of the menu.

 

Was It Worth It?

On the day we went, my boyfriend and I were having an argument, so perhaps that experience tarnished our view of Sonic somewhat. Luckily, the food was so bad that it distracted us from our conflict. We found a meeting of minds in our dislike of Sonic.

Sonic menu

Also, servers on the other end of the intercom at Sonic do not seem to be trained in understanding English accents. Our conversation with them went like this…

Boyfriend: Can I get some tater tots to go with that too, please?

Server: Coke?

Boyfriend: No, tots.

Server: Coke?

Boyfriend: (in best American accent) Tay-durr tahhtsss!!!

Server: Oh, okay sir.

Boyfriend: And can I get two coffees?

Server: Coke…?

 

Go Here If…

Did you get up late? Does this mean you don’t have enough time to detour to that cute town and eat at that place you saw on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives? Then you deserve punishment for being a lazy road tripper. Eat at Sonic.

 

Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen

 

The Vibe…

You’ve heard of Dairy Queen, right? They’re forever mentioning it in American movies, but very rarely do they ever show you what one actually looks like.

I’d always pictured Dairy Queen to be like the quintessential movie 1950’s diner like something out of Grease or Back to the Future with giant ice creams and a jukebox, but the reality is much more mundane. No jukebox, just beige tables and plastic seat covers that you stick to in the heat.

But for us, that didn’t matter. We arrived in Custer, South Dakota, on the outskirts of Mt Rushmore at 9.45pm. We were starving and every restaurant in town had stopped serving. Except for Dairy Queen.

The skinny kid behind the counter had already turned off the fryers and the grill, but he took pity on our dishevelled state. He offered us a few left over chicken strips and half a carton of fries. I got the feeling that he had been planning to eat it himself before we arrived.

 

If You Can’t Find A Dairy Queen, Look For…

KFC, Saxby’s, Church’s Chicken, Chick Fil-A and other chicken specialists joints. Except DQ do desserts too so see also Steak and Shake.

 

The Taste…

It could have been our luxurious Super 8 motel setting where we chose to eat our food, or the fact that we were famished and had been snatched from the jaws of hunger by the kind soul behind the counter at Dairy Queen, but honestly, these were some of the best chicken tenders I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve become quite the connoisseur. The Buffalo sauce was spicy with a good kick. The fries (although cold) were crunchy with the right level of salt. From that moment on, we were sold on Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen meal

 

Was It Worth It?

Absolutely! The food was lukewarm but we got a discount. Bless.

 

Go Here If…

You end up in a one-horse town at 9.59pm at night and everything in sight except for DQ and Sonic has shut down. In fact, even if DQ is shut and Sonic is still open, go knock on DQ’s door and beg them for food. You’ll be impressed by the price and the customer service.

 

 

Hardee’s

Eating Hardees

 

The Vibe…

Another drive thru but superior in every way to our previous attempts. Hardee’s offers a range of beef burgers with outrageous toppings and American state names. The drive thru was speedy and efficient. The look and feel of the place was simple and classy in comparison to the other monstrosities hurting our eyes with their over the top signs and lights.

 

If You Can’t Find A Hardees, Look For…

In N Out Burger, Five Guys – superior burger joints that offer higher quality food than McDonalds at slightly higher prices.

 

The Taste…

I went for a Texas Burger which came topped with smoked brisket and extra crunchy onion rings. Of course. The burger was massive and I made a huge mess. A sign of success in my book. The fries were tasty and crunchy, a true rival to the best fries of all time – Burger King fries.

Hardees Texas Thickburger

 

Was It Worth It?

After a hard day’s drive all the way from Florida to Georgia, rewarding ourselves with a Hardee’s was the perfect treat. It was greasy, salty and tasty.

 

Go Here If…

You want to mix up your burger restaurant choices. You can do a lot worse than Hardee’s. See above if you don’t believe me.

 

Popeye’s

Popeye's

 

The Vibe…

Popeye’s touts itself as a Louisiana style kitchen with a mix of chicken and fish dishes. In reality, it is just the same inside as every other fast food restaurant – plastic seats, beige tables, staff who can’t understand our British accents… this time we were speaking face to face and not even through a drive thru microphone! And as is standard for the USA, a dizzying array of sides and condiments. We get seriously gypped in the UK on sides.

 

If You Can’t Find A Popeye’s, Look For…

Taco Bell, Pollo Tropical – anything with a vaguely ethnic or regional twist.

 

The Taste…

Went for the popcorn shrimp and Cajun fish basket with Cajun rice. The rice was a nice alternative to fries. The shrimp and fish tasted like shrimp and fish. The portion sizes were generous. What more could we ask? It was pretty good and a great way to end our chain dining adventure.

The food at Popeye's

 

Was It Worth It?

We were on the final stretch of our 8062.5 mile journey, bemoaning the fact that we had just crossed the Alabama/Florida state line. This was to be our last meal on the road. We ate so much fried food at Popeye’s that for the next 10 hours in the car we didn’t need to eat again. So, yes, it was worth $17.

 

Go Here If…

You are on a road trip in the USA and in a state where the food is inferior to Louisiana. By this I mean, every one of the other 49 states.

Universal Drive In Universal Drive In Universal Drive In

So there you have it – our very best and worst fast food experiences. Needless to say, also we had some truly great meals in the USA too, but somehow our tour of America’s second best fast food joints made for a richer experience.

Did we learn more about the American mentality through eating crap food in mediocre surroundings? Did it teach us about the culinary culture and eating habits of Americans? Nope. But we did put on a fair bit of weight.

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