New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co., by Elena Bergeron
I get asked for recommendations when people visit my hometown of New Orleans. All good. There's a lot to be consumed, and when folks visit, high on their list of objectives is an "authentic" experience.
The thing about that is, regardless of what Treme would have you believe, many native New Orleanians wake up, go to work, pick up kids from daycare and grab something quick on their way home. So, what I don't tell them is that very frequently, I end up stopping at the drive-thru of a New Orleans and Hamburger & Seafood Co., which are inevitably on major roadways and have mostly clean, fast-casual dining rooms. They look like colorful Boston Markets.
This being New Orleans, though, the menu of "stuff you'd cook at home if you weren't so dang busy" is much more serviceable than fast food should be. The fried oyster po' boy isn't the best, but it's good enough for a Tuesday night in New Orleans, which makes it a dish I'd happily pay $25 for in New York.
You can get fried catfish platters in your choice of thin or thick filets, $5 crawfish queso and a "Cool Brees" cocktail, then go home and laugh at the accents on NCIS: New Orleans.
Cook-Out, by Spencer Hall
Cook-Out is the only restaurant where you can order a corndog to go with your sandwich.
That is my primary pitch to someone unconvinced of Cook-Out's essential greatness as a vision of realized human potential. Nowhere else considered breaking the century-old monopoly fried starches and non-nutritive vegetables held on side dishes. It took the state that was First in Flight to break that barrier, and they did it with battered pork tubes and fried, reconstituted chicken netherparts. They didn't just break that roadblock. They roared through it with the accelerator mashed to the floor.
My second pitch: Cook-Out costs nothing. A tray, their combo featuring the possibility of corndogs with your sandwich and the possible upgrade to a shake (or even a "fancy shake") starts at $4.25. I have eaten meals during which I was given money for eating there. This is only sentimentally real, and factors in none of the long-term effects of eating over a thousand calories in a sitting. But that's what it feels like, particularly if your bloated carcass gets to the bottom of the fresh watermelon shake you made a delicious mistake in ordering. There's nothing better than giving children cheap food for their terrible palates and knowing that you paid nothing to give them what they want.
My third: it's exactly as good as it should be. Get a bad meal at Chick-fil-A, and you feel the red-assed anger of someone who paid just slightly too much for fast food. Pay a premium for one of Hardee's deathburgers, and any disappointment is multiplied by the price you ponied up for it. Cook-Out promises little. The chicken sandwich will be okay, the fries reasonably hot and the onion rings will make no attempt at artisanality. It is exactly $4.25 worth of pretty okay food, delivered in punishing portions. Even if it's bad, you still got more than you paid for.
My fourth: Cheerwine floats, for those of us who like our diabetes to come in the door wearing a warning vest, 15 years too early.
Culver's, by Satchel Price
Culver's is the fast food chain that's always asked the hard questions. Questions like, "Does adding butter to a cheeseburger make it better?" and "Why doesn't anyone sell deep-fried cheese balls?"
The only people who don't think these are good ideas are people who haven't been on a road trip through Wisconsin. I want my fast food chain to aspire to be something greater, to believe that cheeseburgers and milkshakes can become even more delicious and unhealthy.
Butter up that bun! Add eggs to that custard! FRY UP THOSE CHEESE BALLS. You might think it's all a bit much, but, well, you'd be wrong. Culver's is the fast food of dreamers.
Braum's, by Ryan Van Bibber
Braum's makes delicious ice cream. I'm sure there's a more eloquent way to say that, but that's just wasting your time writing instead of eating. Unless you live within 300 miles of the Braum dairy farm, somewhere in Oklahoma, you probably haven't had it.
They make it themselves, using milk that comes from cows that haven't been pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, instead grazing aimlessly on the prairie's bounty.
By limiting locations to a 300-mile radius, the ice cream is fresh; it's frozen fast, which contributes to its flawless texture. Proximity also means a constant churn of new flavors.
It also happens to be reasonably priced. You can buy yourself and a friend a cone for a grand total of about $3. I firmly believe that good ice cream should be accessible to everyone.
White Castle, by Sam Eggleston
As a member of the White Castle Cravers Hall of Fame (Class of 2008!), I would be remiss not to mention those scrumptious little Sliders they make are the single greatest fast food achievement mankind has ever known.
Despite the menu being chock full of great items (Chicken Rings! Savory Grilled Chicken Slider!), you only need to focus on the original. Introduced in 1921, the Slider has remained amazing for more than nine decades. Steamed bun, two slices of pickle, extra grilled onions and a 2x2-inch steam-grilled 100 percent beef patty. That's all you need to know what amazing tastes like. Get yourself a Crave Case and thank me later.
Being sad at McDonald's, by Louis Bien
In college I was dumped by a girl I liked very much. She was very polite. I couldn't be mad. I left her apartment and moped home at about 11 at night.
I wasn't hungry, but McDonald's was just a few blocks from my house, and it seemed like a sad place for my sad self to go. As I walked home, rain began to pour. Stuck between shelter, I ran into a lot that had a few empty semi trucks and hopped onto a loading dock that was poorly covered. I began eating my quarter pounder and fries, sitting half out of the rain.
McDonald's pretensions of humanity end at its ad campaigns. The food and restaurants, conversely, are unpretentious. McDonald's kitchen is open. It's not hiding the fact that it's giving you scarfable food quickly at as little cost as possible to itself.
Once McDonald's gets what it wants, it leaves you the hell alone.
Shake Shack, by Jason Kirk
One fun thing about traveling America: trashing on beloved regional burger joints. Not even calling them bad, but calling them fine.
In-N-Out is fine. Whataburger is fine. I think Five Guys is great, but if you're not from where I'm from, you can come here and call it fine. It will hurt my feelings, but you have that power and should use it.
Shake Shack is not fine. Shake Shack is wonderful. The burger is a juicy delight each time, nothing stupid goes on it, and these crinkle fries are the world's best crinkle fries, fit to be pitted against any fry of any other shape. And you can drink cold peanut butter.
My friend, you can drink cold peanut butter.
Little Caesars (!?), by Kevin McCauley
Ask any group of people what the worst chain in America is, and someone will answer Little Caesars. Little Caesars serves literal garbage. They've also never promised you anything more than that.
Think about what they're selling you: a large pizza for $5. For $1.25 apiece, you and three friends can make your stomachs stop grumbling for four hours. You could accomplish the same by purchasing a bag of instant concrete, but it would be more expensive.
The fact that a restaurant has found a way to manufacture a brick of extremely dense chemicals and animal byproducts that resembles food, completely fills you up, and produces enough of a profit margin to pay rent on storefronts for such a minuscule price is nothing short of remarkable.
Other fast food outlets try to practice deception, but not Little Caesars. For that, they should be spared ridicule.
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